On Wednesday, March 31, the former senator, Democratic presidential nominee and secretary of state flew to the Middle East for four days of diplomacy on energy transformation. On Monday, April 5, he headed from the United Arab Emirates to India for four days of consultations there. That Friday, he hopped to Bangladesh for six hours of meetings before returning to Delhi that night to catch a 14-hour flight home.
Landing in Newark at 4:15 a.m., that Saturday, Kerry opened his laptop in a waiting lounge and began phoning counterparts back in Asia. After reaching Washington at 9:45, he headed home for a shower and change of clothes before arriving at the White House to brief national security colleagues at noon.
Kerry is 77 years old.
“He’s going full speed,” says Daniel Feldman, Kerry’s chief of staff in his role as President Joe Biden‘s envoy on climate issues. “It’s something he feels passionately about. He is single-minded … on a mission.”
Kerry spent the last few days back on the road, in China and South Korea, in a frenetic countdown before getting the first major gauge of his performance this week. On Thursday, Biden has invited 40 world leaders to an Earth Day virtual summit intended to reinvigorate US leadership on an issue former President Donald Trump disdained.
‘This is not someone you give talking points to’
Kerry brings decades of preparation to his role. He attended the 1992 summit in Rio de Janeiro that effectively kicked off political efforts to diminish the warming of the earth’s atmosphere as a result of carbon emissions. (He connected there with Teresa Heinz, who he had previously met at an Earth Day rally, and they married three years later.)
As former President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Kerry helped forge the 2016 Paris agreement that Trump exited and Biden has now rejoined. That has brought Kerry back into negotiations with familiar international counterparts.
Persistence has been the through-line of his public career since he first drew headlines a half-century ago as a decorated Vietnam veteran turned anti-war protester. Two decades after that, Kerry returned to Vietnam with his late Senate colleague John McCain to help pave the way to normalization of US-Vietnam relations.
Kerry came within 60,000 votes in Ohio of winning the presidency in 2004 against Republican incumbent George W. Bush. After that bitter disappointment, the State Department became his executive consolation prize in a second Obama term dominated by foreign policy initiatives.
His ties to the current administration run broad and deep. Kerry and Biden served together for 24 years in the Senate. When Biden became Obama’s vice president, Kerry succeeded him as Foreign Relations Committee chairman.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was Iowa press secretary for his 2004 presidential campaign, and later his State Department spokeswoman. Current Secretary of State Antony Blinken was his Obama-era deputy. In talks with diplomatic counterparts, advisers say he defers to Blinken by avoiding links between climate commitments and US concessions on other issues.
“I don’t think you could find a more perfect individual for the job,” says Heather Zichal, who served on Kerry’s Senate staff before becoming “climate czar” in the Obama White House. “This is not someone you give talking points to. He understands where the levers are.”
Big ambitions and challenges ahead
Biden plans to announce more ambitious US climate goals in conjunction with this week’s summit. Policy experts expect a pledge to cut carbon emissions around 50% from 2005 levels by 2030 — a near doubling of the original US target. More than 300 business leaders last week embraced reductions of that scale in a public letter.
Whether Kerry can persuade other nations the US will achieve it is another question. By renouncing the Paris agreement and scuttling key Obama climate regulations, Trump underscored the precarious nature of American political resolve in a starkly polarized era.
And as Kerry knows too well, even presidents committed to climate action struggle in Congress against fears of economic fallout. In Obama’s first term, Kerry tried to craft a Senate bill creating a “cap-and-trade” system of limiting carbon emissions. He failed.
Adjusting to previous setbacks, Biden has eschewed either capping or taxing carbon emissions as a means of harnessing market forces. Instead, the new President has asked Congress for massive spending on clean energy initiatives to tackle climate change and create high-paying jobs at the same time.
“He’s transformed an argument about constraint to an argument about opportunity,” says John Podesta, another top climate adviser to Obama. Using presidential authority, Biden has also directed agencies to take steps against climate change across the executive branch.
The global outlook Kerry confronts, just over six months before a global climate summit in Glasgow, is as uncertain as the fate of Biden’s proposals on Capitol Hill. While the likes of Britain and the European Union have embraced aggressive new emissions-reduction targets, fast-growing behemoths China and India have not. In a joint statement over the weekend following Kerry’s visit to Shanghai, China joined the US in endorsing cooperation on “enhanced climate actions.”
Advanced economies have lagged in delivering promised financial aid to help developing countries shift to clean energy. Extreme weather events dramatize the urgency of climate experts’ calls to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.
“COVID-19 resulted in a 7% drop in global emissions in 2020 because all economies shut down,” Renee Cho of Columbia University’s Earth Institute wrote recently. “To keep warming below 1.5 degrees, we would have to keep cutting emissions by an additional 7% every year for the next decade.”
Kerry, in what is likely his final government role, won’t concede it can’t be done.
“You have to have a little bit of optimism in this business,” he told CNN’s Jim Sciutto last week, “or you can’t get up” every day.