Climate czar John Kerry resigns amid growing fears of Trump’s return

A key figure in environmental diplomacy, the veteran politician steps away from the forefront of the fight against global warming

John Kerry

It was already nighttime in Glasgow. And, of course, it was raining. The 2021 COP28 climate summit, which was held in the Scottish city with a year’s delay due to the pandemic, was entering its final stretch. On November 10, a surprising announcement was made: the U.S. and China jointly pledged to step up the battle against climate change by reducing methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas often neglected in global warming battles. Leading this pact were two familiar figures: John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate, and Xie Zhenhua, head of the Chinese delegation at the summit. The two climate czars are pivotal characters in understanding global climate diplomacy in recent decades.

The most striking part of that joint statement was the timing, coming amidst heightened tensions between the two superpowers over Taiwan and following several public barbs from the leaders of both countries. It was a surprising moment of calm and reason, once again orchestrated by John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, who have long acted as a sort of hotline between the two nations.

In the next scene of this story, it’s warmer and the skies are clear over Dubai, where the annual COP28 summit was held in December 2023. The atmosphere is relaxed at Kerry’s 80th birthday party organized by Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, the Minister of Industry for the United Arab Emirates and the climate conference president. People who dealt with him directly during the two-week summit would later say, “He’s on his way out.” And in fact, Kerry announced his plans in January and stepped down from his position on March 6. In January, his climate dance partner, Xie Zhenhua, did the same. “We’re really good friends,” Kerry summed up at his March 6 press conference with foreign journalists. “We’ll see if we can stick together as emeriti and do some productive work,” added the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 (Kerry lost to George W. Bush). Kerry plans to stay engaged in the battle against climate change, though more in a support role.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry chats with China's chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland; November 13, 2021.YVES HERMAN (Reuters)

In the third scene, Kerry is seated with his granddaughter Isabelle on his lap, signing his name in a large book. It’s April 22, 2016, and he is signing the U.S. accession to the Paris Agreement at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Kerry, who was the Secretary of State in the Obama administration at the time, had played a crucial role months earlier, alongside his Chinese counterpart, in finalizing the 2015 Paris Agreement. This agreement continues to guide international efforts against climate change today.

Donald Trump’s victory in late 2016 marked a significant shift in American foreign policy, particularly on environmental matters. The Republican, now eyeing a return to the White House, withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. Following Joe Biden’s win in late 2020, Kerry returned as the special envoy for climate and the U.S. reengaged in the global fight against climate change.

“As a climate envoy, John Kerry has played a crucial role in reinstating the U.S. as a global partner in climate matters,” said Alice Hill, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Since attending the first U.N. Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, he’s been influential in combating climate change. For more than three decades, he’s been dedicated to safeguarding our planet for future generations,” said Hill, an advisor to President Obama.

Kerry’s departure coincided with Trump’s strong win on Super Tuesday, boosting his bid to reclaim the White House despite his tumultuous presidency and Biden’s victory that ousted him in 2020. Environmentalists and concerned politicians are on edge again. “A Trump presidency will grind U.S. climate action to a halt and likely trigger an exit from the Paris Agreement,” warned Hill. “His reluctance to protect the climate and commit to our allies damages U.S. credibility and endangers our planet.”

John Kerry
Secretary of State John Kerry holds his granddaughter while signing the Paris Agreement at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.ANDREW GOMBERT

If elected, Trump plans to issue executive orders boosting oil, gas, and coal production, approving new energy projects. This includes reviving natural gas export permits, reversing Biden’s electric vehicle (EV) subsidies, and exiting the Paris Agreement. Long-term, he aims to cut environmental regulations and potentially amend Biden’s climate law contained in the Inflation Reduction Act. Some of his energy and environmental advisors are pushing Trump to return federally owned lands, like national forests, to the states. The Republican agenda hints at a shift toward fossil fuels during a second Trump term, with fewer environmental regulations that conservatives say harm job growth. His advisors include several former high-ranking officials from his first term such as Larry Kudlow, who was the director of the National Economic Council, and Rick Perry, former Secretary of Energy, in addition to oil magnate Harold Hamm. Energy comes up frequently in Trump’s rambling campaign appearances. He rails against Biden’s energy policies and rallies his supporters with that classic Republican slogan from the 2008 campaign, “Drill, baby, drill.”

A recent study by the British climate website Carbon Brief quantifies the impact that Trump’s victory would have on the global fight against climate change. According to Carbon Brief, the U.S. (the second-largest global emitter of greenhouse gases currently and the top historical emitter) is projected to miss its climate goals for this decade. By reversing key environmental actions under the Biden administration, U.S. emissions in 2030 would only be 28% lower than in 2005, below the Democrats’ target of a 50-52% reduction as pledged by Biden and Kerry.

But the Democrats are in the White House for now. John Podesta, a 75-year-old seasoned politician, has succeeded Kerry as Biden’s special climate envoy. His new Chinese counterpart, diplomat Liu Zhenmin is also a well-known climate change figure. The new envoys and Kerry have already met a few times to ensure a smooth transition, aiming to uphold collaboration between the nations. “I still believe that our collective efforts in climate initiatives have global and local benefits,” said Kerry in his farewell statement. “But sustained collaboration is crucial in tackling the climate crisis.”

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