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Kerry faces big job on climate, US credibility
Former Secretary of State John Kerry faces a major undertaking in regaining U.S. credibility on climate issues as President-elect Joe Biden’s special envoy on climate.
Kerry will take a newly formed position on the National Security Council and will be America’s face abroad as the U.S. rejoins the Paris Climate Accord on Day 1 of the new administration.
But even those who say Biden couldn’t have chosen a better lead on climate say it will be difficult for the U.S. to overcome its deficit on climate action — both in its reputation and on emissions.
It’s a task even Kerry has acknowledged will be difficult.
“Yes, it’s simple for the United States to rejoin,” the Paris Accord, he told NPR this week.
“But it’s not so simple for the United States to regain its credibility,” he added. “And I think we have to approach this challenge with some humility and with a very significant effort by the United States to show that we are serious.”
Countries reconvene Saturday to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement, and while other nations roll out their new, ambitious emissions targets, the U.S. will once again be absent.
That fits the pattern set over the last four years as the Trump administration has sat on the sidelines while finalizing rollback after rollback of the nation’s environmental regulations.
Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat and one of the chief architects of the Paris agreement, said she was “totally delighted” Kerry was appointed to the role but said the Biden team will have to make good on its promises.
“The U.S. will have to do its homework at home first — at home, first — in order to regain credibility. Yes, the Biden administration has put out their plans, but we’re going to have to see the plans being enacted, we’re going to have to see the rollbacks of the rollbacks, we’re going to have to see, as he’s already spoken about, climate change being inserted into every single department,” she said.
Biden has pledged to get the U.S. on track to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, starting with the electric sector by 2035, while making massive investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles.
It’s a tough goal to reach made even tougher by the likely need for a divided Congress to shepherd some of the work.
Kelley Kizzier, a former EU climate negotiator who now leads international efforts at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the U.S. will have to take a number of actions that “require more than the stroke of a presidential pen if we’re going to have credibility.”
“It’s a plan that requires cooperation with Congress, and I know that’s a heavy lift, but we need to start immediately. The world needs to know the U.S. is not getting a free pass on climate,” Kizzier said.
But even as the U.S. settles its affairs at home, part of the problem is the rest of the world has chugged along.
Countries are increasingly setting goals to reach carbon neutrality by mid-century, with Saturday serving as a chance for countries to unveil their new 2030 NDC’s, short for the nationally determined contributions each country must set on their own.
“Rejoining Paris is good but a return to the status quo from five years ago? The rest of the world has moved on,” said Sarah Millar, a climate advisor who previously worked for the United Kingdom government and in the European Parliament in Brussels.
The U.S. was already at risk of not meeting its 2015 goal under the agreement, and, even as progress on meeting it has stalled, the U.S. will now be expected to set a more advanced target.
The United Kingdom, for example, now plans to reduce its emissions 68 percent by 2030.
“Even if Biden is genuine — and I think he is — if he can’t do it domestically then it’s just words. … He may have the best intentions in the world but if you can’t pass anything to do it, how much better off are we than we were the last four years?” Millar said.
Millar suggests beyond setting a more ambitious goal, the U.S. could grease the wheels of diplomacy — and repair its reputation — by stepping up its climate financing to help developing nations meet their Paris goals.
The Paris agreement sets a goal of rounding up $100 billion globally by this year; the U.S. contributed $1 billion under the Obama administration, but no further funds were committed under Trump.
“The U.S. stepping up international climate finance would show the rest of the world that it is serious and trying to make amends for the last four years of being absent,” Millar said.
Part of the reason the U.S. exit from the deal led to such a credibility gap lies in the history of how the deal came together. The U.S. is the reason that each country “will” rather than “shall” set new, more ambitious targets in the future, a slight word change sensitive to the U.S. struggle to get congressional buy-in.
“In the final hours of Paris almost exactly five years ago, all the other counties in the world scrambled to change the wording of agreement to accommodate the United States, and they did that because U.S. participation was crucial and then the U.S. left anyway,” Kizzier said.
Still, if there’s anyone that could help repair the U.S. reputation, many say Kerry is the right man for the job.
“John Kerry is undoubtedly one of the political leaders in the United States who knows the most about climate. He has spent his entire life on this issue,” Figueres said. “This man understands it in his gut, and he is completely committed to a world that addresses climate change.”
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