From Europe to Capitol Hill, proponents of stronger action to fight climate change are hopeful that Secretary of State nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will put global warming on the front burner at Foggy Bottom.
Connie Hedegaard, the European Union’s top climate change official, lauded the choice of Kerry as the nation’s top diplomat via Twitter.
Kerry, who is widely expected to win Senate confirmation, is a decades-long advocate of addressing global warming, and calls climate change a major security and foreign policy challenge.
But he’ll be arriving as barriers to progress on climate change loom large.
Global negotiations to craft a global climate deal are treading water at best, while bills to impose new restrictions on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions remain moribund in Congress, which doesn't help the nation's international leverage.
President Obama didn’t talk about climate change when touting Kerry’s resume at Friday’s White House announcement that the five-term Massachusetts Democrat is his choice to replace current Secretary Hillary Clinton.
Clinton, who is recuperating from a concussion, mentioned the topic in passing in a prepared statement emailed to reporters.
“We need a leader with John Kerry’s experience and talent at the helm of the State Department and USAID in the years ahead. There is much more to do on all of these crucial challenges, from Afghanistan to nonproliferation to climate change, and many others,” she said.
On Capitol Hill, several Democrats touted Kerry’s potential to elevate climate at State.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said Kerry understands the need to work closely with allies on the most pressing topics – including climate change.
“[One] of the most pressing challenges is to reverse potentially devastating climate change. Kerry understands need to tackle this threat head on,” the Oregon Democrat said on Twitter.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who might run for Kerry’s soon-to-open Senate seat, also talked up Kerry’s potential at State.
“I have absolute confidence that Secretary Kerry will be just as committed to action on climate change as Senator Kerry, and is the most knowledgeable, passionate person to break the international logjams on this existential threat,” Markey said.
Markey, a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, co-authored the sweeping climate bill that narrowly passed the House in 2009.
Kerry, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and, before he walked away from the effort, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tried to steer a modified version through the Senate in 2010. But the effort collapsed, despite months of negotiations with colleagues, industry groups and environmentalists, and the bill never reached the floor.
Kerry has also pushed legislation to boost the U.S. role in fostering low-carbon international development.
Now, advocates see several ways that Kerry can make progress on climate from Foggy Bottom.
They include work on bilateral green energy and climate partnerships that State has already reached with a number of countries.
The U.S., through the State Department, is a founding member of a multi-nation coalition launched in early 2012 to address so-called short-lived climate pollutants like methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons.
Perhaps Kerry’s biggest challenge, however, will be the difficult path ahead for United Nations talks that are aimed at creating a global climate pact in 2015. That agreement would go into effect in 2020.
It is proving hugely difficult to forge a deal that, unlike the Kyoto accords (which the U.S. never joined), creates binding emissions commitments for fast-developing, major emitters including China and India, as well as developed countries.
“Sen. Kerry will bring vital expertise and knowledge on the issue of climate change as we endeavor to work toward a meaningful, balanced international agreement in 2015,” said Eileen Claussen, the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
She was a top State Department environmental official in President Clinton’s administration.
Kerry is also heading to Foggy Bottom as the State Department is improbably playing a key role in a huge domestic climate and energy battle.
The department is reviewing TransCanada Corp.’s request for a cross-border permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Alberta’s massive tar sands projects to Gulf Coast refineries.
Business groups and Republicans are putting pressure on the Obama administration to back the project, while environmentalists and some Democrats are opposed.
State’s latest environmental review of the project is slated to surface in the near future, and the Obama administration plans to make a decision on the project as soon as early 2013.
“As Secretary, Senator Kerry will face numerous issues that are crucial to both the security of our nation and the future of our planet, including critical decisions on the Keystone XL pipeline and the international financing of dirty energy,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, who lauded Kerry’s “remarkable record as a longtime environmental champion and climate leader.”
Kerry, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been cautious in his public statements about Keystone XL.
In late 2011 he vowed to “leave no question unanswered including every possible economic and environmental consideration,” but he did not state a position on the project.
It's not clear how much sway Kerry might have over Keystone anyway (a matter which, in theory, could even be decided before he arrives).
President Obama has already indicated that he will be the decider on Keystone. Reuters reported Friday that Kerry is unlikely to influence the decision.
“We think that Obama has set the on Keystone and it is still poised for approval sometime next year,” Divya Reddy, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, told Reuters.
Environmentalists hope Kerry will be an ally in Obama administration decision-making beyond the formal purview of the State Department.
“Senator Kerry could certainly teach the President a thing or two about how to make a clear and compelling case for climate action. That starts with saying no to the Keystone XL pipeline and then continuing to use the powers of the presidency to regulate emissions and promote clean energy,” said Jamie Henn, co-founder of the climate advocacy group 350.org, which has been at the forefront of the Keystone fight.
For instance, green groups want the Environmental Protection Agency to set carbon emissions standards for existing power plants. The agency has already proposed rules for newly constructed plants.