Q. & A.
John Kerry on the Unfathomable Stakes of the Next U.N. Climate-Change Conference
Ahead of a major summit, the first special Presidential envoy for climate discusses the diplomatic tightrope he faces post-Trump, and the best outcome he can hope to achieve.
By David Remnick
August 3, 2021
John Kerry said that, in order to address climate change, the U.S. must undergo “the biggest economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution.”​Photograph from SOPA / Alamy
Content
As wildfires, floods, and extraordinary storms ravage parts of the globe this summer, as glaciers cleave and collapse and the Siberian permafrost softens and releases methane into the atmosphere, it is becoming increasingly evident that John Kerry, the first special Presidential envoy for climate, holds the most consequential job in the Biden Administration after Joe Biden himself.
Kerry is seventy-seven and, not long ago, seemed headed for a cushy retirement after a long career in government. He first gained public notice as a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War who became a spokesman for the antiwar movement. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1985 to 2013––a stretch interrupted by a narrow loss of the Presidency, to George W. Bush, in 2004. He was Secretary of State during the Obama Administration, following Hillary Clinton at the Department. In that office, Kerry was routinely faulted for a kind of quixotic insistence on pursuing lost causes. He failed in his attempt to broker any meaningful agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but he played a pivotal role in concluding a nuclear agreement with Iran––an agreement that Donald Trump upended upon reaching the White House.
In his new role, Kerry faces an even more complicated and essential diplomatic challenge. From October 31st to November 12th, he will lead a U.S. delegation to Glasgow, where the United Nations will host, in diplo-speak, cop26, a long-awaited multilateral climate-change conference. Kerry is confronted not only with the undeniable evidence of an ever-intensifying global climate crisis but with an enormous set of political challenges. The U.S. delegation will arrive in Glasgow with its prestige radically diminished by Trump, who abandoned U.S. support of international efforts to fight climate change. Kerry is also faced with the delicate task of trying to convince China to restrain carbon emissions even as the U.S. rightly criticizes the country for its ruthless treatment of the Uyghurs.
I spoke with Kerry last week by Zoom for The New Yorker Radio Hour. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Secretary Kerry, you were just in Europe to drum up support for climate action in advance of talks in Glasgow. You’ve said that these talks are the last chance to keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius. What is the world’s sense of urgency on this? Because here we are, in a summer of what seem to be apocalyptic conditions already.
Well, they are apocalyptic. It’s more serious than it’s ever been, at a time that it seems as if some key nations are just unwilling to do their part, to bite the bullet and step up. Let me put that in perspective: at the summit that President Biden hosted last April, we had about forty nations. We had the twenty largest economies, which happen to be among the largest emitters of CO2. About fifty-five per cent of global G.D.P., out of that meeting, committed to try to hold the Earth’s temperature to 1.5 degrees. And forty-five per cent, therefore, did not, and that includes China, Russia, India, South Africa, Brazil, a host of countries. We have to move those countries. If we don’t get them to buy into faster reductions from 2020 to 2030, [the goal of] 1.5 degrees is dead. You won’t be able to achieve it. I do view this personally, after a thirty-year journey on this issue. I view this as the last, best hope for the world to get serious and make the decisions necessary to be able to try to reduce and hold the 1.5 [increase], and even 1.5, imagine what happens at 1.5 if you already see what happens at 1.2. You would think not.
Describe for me what it’s like to talk to the Chinese on these issues. What is the dynamic? What is their rationale, as you understand it?
China, for instance, is a contradiction. China has deployed more renewables than any other country in the world. But China has used an extraordinary amount of fossil fuel to get where it is in its economy. China’s rationale is that they are doing a great deal, more than most developing [countries]. They consider themselves a developing country still, and they [posit] that a developing country has a right, at this point, to be able to develop more. Our counter obviously is: we want you to develop, we’re fine with you developing, but you don’t have to develop dirty. You don’t have to develop by putting more coal-fired power plants online, and that’s what’s been happening in the last few years. China, regrettably, has continued to build coal-fired power plants, and to fund them in other countries around the world.
To make the politics even more vexed, the U.S. has accused the Chinese government of genocide against the Uyghurs. How can you accuse someone of genocide—however grounded in reality, without doubt—and yet, at the same time, get them to coöperate with you on a political, technological, and ecological problem of such huge scale and importance?
Well, obviously it’s difficult. It takes discipline to do it, but both President Biden and President Xi agreed in their initial conversations and in public statements that the climate crisis is so serious that they would separate it, that this would be a track on which, hopefully, we can compartmentalize and make progress. Historically, big nations with great power have been able to do that. Gorbachev and Reagan, in Reykjavik, decided we would stop pointing fifty thousand warheads at each other and move to reduce those numbers way down, to about fifteen hundred. It happened despite the fact that Reagan believed the Soviet Union was “the evil empire.” So, in terms of international affairs and diplomacy, we on my team are taking both leaders at face value that this is a separate issue. It doesn’t mean that every arm of the government is going to stop saying something about Uyghurs or human rights, but it does mean that we have the ability to separate things and work where our common interests require us to work.
How costly was the behavior of the Trump Administration regarding climate?
The damage that President Trump wreaked worldwide is not limited to climate. But on climate he did a whopper of a job of putting America’s credibility in a terrible place, destroying it fundamentally. I hear from country after country: How do we know we can count on America? How do we know that another President is not going to come along, someone like Trump, who does the same thing again? My answer is very simple, that I don’t believe any one politician can come along in the future and turn this tide, because all around the planet the private sector is moving rapidly to do what governments aren’t doing. There’s a major undertaking by banks, by asset managers, by corporations who are considering environmental, social, and governance criteria in their boardrooms, and who have made commitments to sustainable development goals. There are trillions of dollars now moving to invest in alternative, renewable energy, whether it’s solar or hydro. There’s just a phenomenal amount of economic activity being generated. I don’t think any politician would want to turn it around, frankly, but, also, I don’t think they could.
One of the main difficulties, and there are so many, is that the climate demands sacrifice of everyone to avert catastrophe. Yet we are told we can save the planet and grow the economy at the same time. Transitioning to renewables is going to cost trillions of dollars and upend huge industries. We’re likely to have to eat less meat, use more public transportation. All of this is necessary. To what degree are you and Joe Biden and your foreign counterparts really levelling with everybody?
We’re being completely direct and totally transparent. I don’t agree with you that this is sacrifice. I do not believe people will have to necessarily eat differently. Agriculture will change. There’s a lot of research and work being done now on the diet of cattle, for instance. There’s a thing called asparagopsis—I believe that’s the right name—which is a seaweed that, apparently, in its early trials, has reduced if not eliminated flatulence from cattle. I’m confident that there will be huge research done that will change some of these things. All of the economic analyses show that there are millions of jobs to be created.
In the United States, we need to build a legitimate [electrical] grid. We can go to the moon, we can direct a Rover on Mars from Earth, we can invent vaccines, but we can’t send a simple electron from California to New York? In building that smart grid, you will put electricians and plumbers and pipefitters and steelworkers and heavy-equipment operators and countless disciplines to work. There’s so many exciting parts of this. Cars will be electric. They won’t have an internal-combustion engine, but you’re still going to have workers, the United Auto Workers, producing those cars. I just think we’re looking at a remarkable transformation. This will be the biggest economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution, literally.
Secretary Kerry, if I go to Fox News or anywhere in the right-wing media or social media, I see a lot of these efforts mocked. If I turn to the Senate, you look at the first of the Biden Administration’s big infrastructure bills––it was supposed to contain all sorts of climate measures, and that got gutted when Senate Republicans opposed it. How would you sell bold climate policy to Republicans?
There are more and more Republicans, I think, who are really now beginning to take this more seriously and who are trying to figure out what actions they are prepared to support. Even in the House of Representatives, there has been some movement. Mother Nature is messaging pretty forcibly right now, temperatures are going up, the storms are getting more intense, the fires are bigger and more expansive and more frequent. Increasingly, leaders are taking note of this. For instance, President Putin was very clear: they have a real challenge in the northern part of Russia and Siberia. The tundra and the permafrost are thawing. They have cities there that are becoming unstable. They’re deeply concerned about the methane that is being released after forty thousand years of containment in the earth. Mother Nature is kind of screaming at people, Hey, guys, you’ve got a problem.
Mother Nature is screaming at them, but in Russia, for example, you have an economy that’s based almost entirely, or to a huge measure, on the oil industry.
Correct. They are an extractive economy, and we’ve talked very directly about that with Russia, but they have an ability now because they produce gas. Russia has an option of quickly closing coal plants that are more than forty years old, not working that effectively, and not needed, in favor of transitioning to gas for the moment. I emphasize “for the moment” because gas is still a fossil fuel, and gas is mostly methane, so it leaks and also produces CO2. It’s not, in our judgment, anything near a long-term solution, unless somebody discovers one-hundred-percent abatement.
You’re going from one meeting to the next, one country to the next, laying the groundwork for what we hope will be a successful climate negotiation in November. What would be the best possible outcome in Glasgow, and what are the forces mitigating against it?
The best outcome in Glasgow would be that the twenty major economies are all in agreement that they’re going to make the best cuts they can, according to the science, between 2020 and 2030. We want people to lay out plans for how they will get to net zero by 2050. And, finally, the key will be to have cemented in, through the finance structure, the hundred billion dollars, the Green Climate Fund, that there will be money there to make this a just transition for people in parts of the world where they’re taking the brunt of what is happening because of the developed world, and they can’t afford to make the transition themselves and do what they need to contribute.
The frustration here is that we can meet this challenge. We have the ability to be able to minimize the danger and help countries to adapt and build resilience, but there’s no debate anymore about science. Anybody who is reading, listening, learning, knows this is happening now, and it’s human beings who are adding the greatest amount of fuel to the fire.
David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992. He is the author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.”
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