As President Joe Biden's Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry will play perhaps the most critical role internationally in managing a planetary crisis.
To succeed, he'll need to repair the diplomatic damage done by former President Donald Trump while steering through clashing interests at home: a defiant private sector on the one hand and strident climate activists on the other.
Kerry has the background for the job. Thirty years ago, he attended the first major United Nations conference on climate change in Rio de Janeiro and witnessed the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1996. He led precedent-setting though ultimately failed climate legislation in the Senate in 2010. He was the first secretary of state to visit Antarctica and in 2015 signed the Paris climate agreement on behalf of the U.S.
He has come out swinging as climate czar, blasting Trump for his "reckless behavior," vowing to commit $2 billion to help developing nations pay for the effects of climate change, and espousing a 1.5 degree Celsius limit on warming.
I sat down with him in Washington recently before he was sworn in to find out how he plans to accomplish his goals and what else he has on his agenda. Here's a lightly edited transcript of our exchange.
Amanda Little: Biden has pumped up his climate plan after early criticism from the left that it was too cautious. How will you balance the demands of progressives with the more moderate climate agenda of the Biden administration?
John Kerry: President Biden asked me to chair his task force together with (New York Representative) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to bring people together to find common ground. Sen. [Bernie] Sanders and his supporters have made great contributions to the conversation. They're pushing because they understand the urgency, and I share that sense of urgency 100 percent. President Biden has a much stronger program as a consequence of everybody's input from all corners. There's no room for BS anymore--from anyone in the debate.
AL: Yet progressive climate activists have said that "climate delay-al" is the new climate denial and that 2050 is too far off; we need to get to net zero by 2030.
JK: They want it done quickly. We all do. We need a 2030 goal, a 2035 and a 2040 goal. We need impatience and we also need realism. As of today, we have no way of providing power for certain essential services when making such a rapid transition.
But scientists are telling us that if we do net zero by 2050 or hopefully 2040, 2045--if we push for that, we're going to see Moore's law come into play: a sudden exponential rapidity with which change is coming at you.
AL: There will be some amount of pain. Certain industries will suffer, some lifestyles will change as we shift away from fossil fuels. What will that pain look like and how can you ease it?
JK: If we do it properly, I don't believe there has to be pain. I don't accept that. I think this could be a very smooth, normal economic transition and we can ease any negativity for people by making sure that we're there to help them transition.
Larry Fink of BlackRock was right when he said [to private sector leaders] we can't just be corporate entities in a nation that cares about shareholders. We have to shift our focus to stakeholders.
AL: What signals, such as carbon pricing, do we need to put into the economy to speed the move away from fossil fuels?
JK: Obviously I've been a longtime advocate of putting a price on carbon. That's what Lindsey Graham and I were trying to do in the Senate in 2009 and 2010. I credit the activists who have pushed to say any pricing would have to be progressive so it doesn't dump the costs on low-
income workers and families. I also credit the voices from the private sector who are elevating climate as a priority in boardrooms, in general.
AL: Is carbon pricing politically feasible?
JK: I can't tell you today what's ultimately politically feasible. The debate has shifted before, and I think it may change this year in the right direction--or going forward from Glasgow [site of Nov. 1 United Nations Climate Change Conference]. There are Republicans, including former Secretaries of States George Shultz and Jim Baker, who support carbon pricing, but I haven't seen that translate to Congress yet.
We have to think about the unmeasured costs of inaction. In a way, we have a negative price on carbon today because the actual price of carbon is never really paid for in the purchase of the product, it's paid for downstream. We've never done a fair accounting of what the real costs are, but it's safe to say we've gotten to the point where it's cheaper to invest in preventing or minimizing damage than cleaning it up.
A few years ago, after [Hurricanes] Irma, Maria and Harvey, the cleanup was $265 billion. Wouldn't it have been smarter to have reduced odds that you're going to have that kind of storm? And the costs of treating kids for environmentally induced asthma, largely from coal plant emissions: We spend $55 billion a year to hospitalize and care for those kids.
AL: That's true in agriculture. Wildfires have caused billions of dollars of damage to vineyards and livestock producers. Superstorms have wiped out billions in corn and soy crops.
JK: Farmers are getting hit hard. Crop cycles are changing. Massive flooding has wiped out crops. Wiped out farmers. We've had record numbers of bankruptcies. But farming is also one of the ways in which we can save ourselves from the climate crisis. Managing methane from cattle and pigs through their diet. Regenerative agriculture is an enormously big opportunity--to farm differently, tilling the land in a way that consumes carbon dioxide and is actually more productive than conventional agriculture.
AL: It can be more productive long-term, but there are near-term costs to shifting from conventional to regenerative agriculture, which is why only a small fraction of American farmers are actually doing it.
JK: We need government incentives, maybe in the form of tax credits. But the private sector also needs to begin making these practices profitable and demonstrating the productivity advantages. All food needs to be climate-smart. Keep in mind, though, that agriculture is about 10 percent of total GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions versus 27 percent for transportation, 27 percent for power production. Big difference.
AL: If you incorporate the emissions associated with food distribution, agriculture is more like 20 percent. Do we need to move toward more decentralized and resilient local and regional food networks?
JK: We do, while keeping a central focus on transforming the energy sector.
AL: Jobs in solar and wind energy already outnumber those in coal and natural gas in most U.S. states. Is the private sector in renewables already prevailing over fossil fuels?
JK: Not yet. We're currently still on a terrible course where business as usual today is heading toward disaster. We have to phase out coal many times faster than we have been; ramp up renewable energy many times faster; transition to electric vehicles many times faster.
AL: How hard will it be to repair the diplomatic damage on climate?
JK: Trump led an assault on science without understanding that when you mess with global ecosystems, you're messing with forces that literally have the ability to do what nuclear weapons and cyber warfare can do, which is destroy nations.
I'm approaching our allies with humility, as is President Biden, because we're embarrassed and we're angry about what happened these last four years. But most leaders understand that Joe Biden has assembled a team of bona fides and we are deadly serious about getting this job done.
Everything now is leading to Cop 26 in Glasgow. We have nine months to put together an effort that recoups lost time and lays out a road map for getting to net zero globally by 2050.
AL: Yet Biden could be a one-term president succeeded by someone who wants to reverse his efforts. How do you get the domestic buy-in to lock in place your progress on climate so that it persists beyond 2024?
JK: We're going to undertake major initiatives across our economy and across the global economy. There will be so much economic investment made by people up and down the economic food chain that no future president can reverse it.
AL: How exactly will you put that economic juggernaut in motion?
JK: Literally trillions of dollars globally are being invested in hydrogen, in electric vehicles, in carbon capture, in battery storage, in zero emission plants, in new forms of energy--some we don't even know about today. Any president who comes in at whatever period it is, four years, eight years from now, is going to see an economy transformed. We're on the cusp of something so big and powerful that it's going to eclipse any government individually.
AL: President Biden has advocated for whole-of-government approach to climate solutions. What does this mean to you?
JK: Almost every dollar spent by government has a climate association or consequence. We will try to provide an example to the world of a government strategy in which we look at every decision we make to see if there's a climate impact.
The breadth and scope is extraordinary. It's a total rethink.