A Newgen Magazine

John Kerry Thinks We’re at a Critical Moment on Climate

We’re used to thinking of Joe Biden—first elected to the Senate in 1972—as the personification of a career public servant. But John Kerry can match him. Kerry, who was awarded three Purple Hearts, among other honors, for his service as a Swift-boat commander, first testified to the Senate in 1971, in his role as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?” he memorably asked the assembled members of the Foreign Relations Committee. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

It took him a dozen more years to be elected to the Senate from Massachusetts, but he eventually became the chair of that same Foreign Relations Committee, and then the Democratic Presidential nominee, in 2004, and then Hillary Clinton’s successor as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. Among other accomplishments in that role, he signed the landmark Paris climate accord for the United States, in 2016, which stipulated a global effort aimed at limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. When Biden became President in 2021, he named Kerry the first Presidential climate envoy, and charged him with helping to coördinate global action on the climate crisis, which has included negotiating arrangements with countries such as Vietnam to speed their transition from coal, working to secure pledges from much of the world to work on plugging methane leaks, and coördinating research on reducing emissions from agriculture.

He’s been perhaps most closely involved in negotiations with the Chinese government, in particular with his longtime interlocutor Xie Zhenhua, who retired in December at the age of seventy-four. One of Xie’s last encounters with Kerry came last December at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai, where Xie’s eight-year-old grandson presented Kerry with a card for his eightieth birthday. Now Kerry, too, is leaving his post—eager, he says, to escape the constraints of the Hatch Act, which prevents federal employees from political engagement.

“I am stepping down to put focus on implementing what we accomplished in Dubai, which will require J.B. getting re-elected but also the deployment of massive clean energy and vast sums of investment to win this fight. I intend to work globally to push the private sector,” he wrote me, as we were setting up the exit interview that follows, which was conducted a couple of weeks before he left his office, and which has been edited and condensed. We began, of course, by talking about the weather. I noted that Vermont, where I live, was coming through the warmest winter in its recorded history.

KERRY: I was just talking to some folks about that. Now the ponds don’t freeze. There’s no black ice. There’s very little snow. We’ve got seven hundred days in Boston without more than [four] inches of the stuff.

That leads obviously into the first important question. You’ve been doing this a very long time. You were there when the Paris accords were signed, and every year since, except for the depths of COVID, the world has produced more greenhouse gases, the temperature keeps going up. Is there reason to think that that momentum is about to break? Or has this been a kind of exercise in futility?

I don’t think it’s an exercise in futility. But neither is it an exercise of victory or near-victory at the moment, though we have made progress. When I took over the job, on January 20th of 2021, we were headed to [a global temperature increase of] four degrees [Celsius]. Nothing very much was happening. The United States—we’d pulled out, under Donald Trump, from the Paris agreement. We had no money in the budget. And I didn’t have an office. We met at a hotel on January 20th of 2021.

I had a core group of people around me, and we decided to keep 1.5 alive. And we sat there and said, you know, that has to be the guiding north star. Why? Because, in 2018, the best scientists in the world [at the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] who have been following this so closely told us, “You guys have twelve years within which to implement the key issues, and, by the way, 1.5 is not a throwaway, aspirational thing from Paris. 1.5 is real. You got to try to achieve that.”

So I think we’ve made frankly remarkable progress, beginning with the summit that President Biden hosted [in 2021]. President Xi was there, President Putin was there, and Prime Minister Modi. Twenty major emitting [parties] of the world, who are equal to about eighty per cent of all emissions, and they all agreed to raise their ambition. And, lo and behold, in Glasgow [where the COP26 global climate talks were held, in 2021], they did raise ambition, for the most part.

And we put on the table—in furtherance of the President’s instructions to restore America’s credibility—we created the methane pledge. We created the shipping challenge, which brought the major shippers of the world to the table, to begin to decarbonize the ships, and indeed now, as of a week or two ago, the major shipping companies are building massive numbers of new ships, and they calculate they will have a turnover in the fleet, being decarbonized within the next twenty years. And I look at the agriculture initiatives that we put together, with the U.A.E. and the E.U., which have focussed on regenerative agriculture and on fertilizers. I think that awareness is significantly enhanced. There was a big food-production component to COP28. We created a loss-of-damage fund. It’s going to have to raise money, obviously, but it’s there and it wasn’t before.

So, at some point in the next few years, these lines that have been going up as long as you and I are both alive should start going down as a result of all of this?

I think that that is wishful thinking unless we implement what we said we would implement. Here’s the bottom line: in Dubai, a hundred and ninety-five countries—in the most difficult diplomacy of all, where one country can say no and you’re screwed—we got people to sign off on an operative paragraph that goes way beyond Paris. [It says,] to wit, that we must transition “away from fossil fuels . . . in a just, orderly, equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade”—a phrase that isn’t paid much attention to but I think is key—“accelerating action in this critical decade so as to achieve net zero by 2050,” which means you’ve got to have a plan. And, finally, “in keeping with the science,” and according to the science means 1.5 degrees. It’s up to us. We have created a framework which could allow us to win. But, at the pace we are moving today, we’re not going to. We’re not on track. We’re heading into two and a half degrees of warming. The oil and gas companies are making record profits, and not enough of that goes back into this effort.

So we’re at a really critical moment. And the reason that I’ve decided to step away from this position is not because the job is done. It’s because I believe if we don’t deploy the funding and finance, it doesn’t happen. We have to bring all kinds of technologies to scale. We have to do it rapidly. We have to fund the Global South for development purposes and fairness and moral reasons and so forth. And I feel I can put more effort into that.