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As Climate Envoy, Kerry To Seek 'Ambition' With 'Humility'

Former Secretary of State, John Kerry poses on Martha's Vineyard in Vineyard Haven, Mass., on Sept. 18, 2020.
Former Secretary of State, John Kerry poses on Martha's Vineyard in Vineyard Haven, Mass., on Sept. 18, 2020.

John Kerry is looking to resume climate diplomacy that was disrupted under President Trump.

The former secretary of state is one of several Obama administration officials appointed by President-elect Biden. Their goals include restoring what had been seen as the normal functions of the U.S. government when they were last in it.

The mission is especially clear in Kerry's case. In 2015, he signed a global climate accord as his granddaughter sat on his lap to suggest its importance to future generations. President Trump withdrew from the agreement. President-elect Biden wants Kerry to bring the U.S. back in.

The 76-year-old Vietnam veteran, former senator and diplomat will serve as Biden's climate envoy. On Wednesday, Kerry conducted his first two interviews since accepting the post, including one with NPR.

Kerry said rejoining the Paris accord is just the first step. He expects to spend much of 2021 working toward an already scheduled climate summit in November.

"We have to raise the ambition of every nation in the world in order to get this job done, and our task — my task specifically-- will be to help negotiate that," he said.

Kerry also spoke of approaching the job with "humility," because the U.S withdrew from the agreement once before.

"It's simple for the United States to rejoin, but it's not so simple for the United States to regain its credibility," he said.

One of his challenges will be to convince other governments the U.S. will abide by its commitments. Two Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, have now negotiated climate accords, only to have two Republicans, George W. Bush and Trump, withdraw from them.

And Kerry argued that the marketplace is on the side of clean energy. "Real business people," he said, "understand that there's money to be made" in a transition to renewable fuels.


Interview Highlights

You hope to negotiate new, stronger agreements. Won't other countries wonder if the U.S. will just drop out at the next change of administration?

That question will certainly be raised but I think there's a very clear answer to it. First of all I believe that Donald Trump is an aberration. ... What is clear is that the marketplace itself, globally, is moving in this direction. Just today there's an announcement by a company that's promising to be net neutral in carbon production by 2040. The day before, I spoke with an airlines president and he talked about what his airline is going to be doing – spontaneously, automatically. Real business people, real leaders within the business world understand that this is an imperative. They also understand that there's money to be made in producing the products. Anybody who has the breakthrough on battery storage is going to have the key to the future.

Can you collaborate with China on climate issues even as the United States competes with China on other issues?

They were a partner on climate as we competed with them at other things during the Obama administration. We've been there, done that. But if we don't work as a primary extraordinary effort on climate, we're all cooked.

Right now there are major challenges with respect to some of the things that China is doing. China banks are still funding coal-fired power production, new plants in various countries that are touched by the One Belt, One Road program. So we have to talk to China about that. But we have to do it in a way that doesn't force people into a corner to hunker down and head towards conflict.

What are the conversations you're having with energy companies?

I'm reaching out to them because I want to hear from them right now. We have to wait till January 20th before we engage substantively promoting any policy. But I'm listening to what their needs are on how they view the world so I can begin to understand better what the possibilities may be once the president is sworn in on January 20.

Do you feel you can make progress given the unique challenges in this country, where a minority of climate deniers can stop a lot of what you would see as progress?

I believe the way we make progress is by delivering, by showing people very specifically what the benefits are, what the facts are, and by building a consensus. I mean, that is the process of a democracy. It's been made harder in these last years because of denialism that has been exacerbated purposefully by entities and by politicians. But I do believe the marketplace actually has the ability to be a very powerful force for good and for things to happen and politicians can kind of get in the way and provide some road bumps but they're not going to stop what's happening now.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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