John Kerry Will Become Special Presidential Envoy for Climate

December 3. By Michael Sales. After four years of an administration that has been in absolute denial of the scientific facts regarding climate change, the United States is poised to enter a new era of climate activism, led by two elders, one of whom has been engaged in climate work since at least 1992. That was the year John Kerry joined then-Senator Al Gore as part of the U.S. delegation to the first Rio Earth Summit, where the framework of United Nations climate talks was formed.

Kerry first drew public attention as a decorated Vietnam veteran who became an anti-war activist, whose impassioned speech to the U.S. Senate against that war as spokesperson for the Vietnam Vets Against the War is well remembered by many who lived through that period. He served as a prosecutor and as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, and he was a United States senator from Massachusetts from 1985 to 2013. He was the Democratic nominee for President of the United States in the 2004 election, which he lost to George W. Bush.

He served as Secretary of State in the Obama administration from 2013-2017. In that role, he signed the Paris Climate Accord, where his speech emphasizing the moral imperative to act and to create binding commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions for the welfare of future generations won praise, even from those who disagreed with it.

Kerry will become President-elect Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. He also will be a member of the United States National Security Council (NSC). This appointment marks the first time that the NSC will have an official dedicated to climate change issues and to addressing the climate crisis as one affecting national security.

In the course of his Presidential run, Kerry spoke and wrote extensively on environmentalism and climate change. His comments about environmental justice are likely to be indicative of the stance he’ll be taking as Biden’s special climate envoy:

While all Americans are at risk of suffering the ill-effects of air pollution–and all pollution–not all are suffering equally. In the US, poor and minority Americans have a much greater chance of becoming ill from environmental toxins because they have a greater chance of living near a polluting industry than do white, wealthier Americans.

A 2005 investigation found that people of color were 79% more likely than whites to reside in communities where pollution posed the highest health risks. In the most polluted areas, 1 of every 6 people lived in poverty.

The practice of local governments encouraging the placement of noxious industries in poor neighborhoods goes back to the early part of the 20th century, where minority communities were zoned as “industrial” while white communities were zoned “residential.” The trend continues today. Poor and ethnic communities are often assumed to be politically powerless and, therefore, are targeted when it comes time to locate a new power plant or toxic dump.

Source: This Moment On Earth, by John & Teresa Kerry, p. 59-60, Jan 1, 2007.

Kerry’s environmental and climate records have also faced criticism. For example, Darna Noor in Gizmodo wrote:

Kerry supported the spread of American fossil fuel drilling technologies. He backed a project known as the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative, run by then-Vice President Biden, which aimed to help Caribbean nations expand their drilling capacities. And in the State Department, Kerry oversaw the Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program, a project designed to export American fracking techniques to other countries, including Canada, Argentina, and China.

Notwithstanding this and other concerns, there is great enthusiasm for the Kerry appointment by many commentators. Kerry is seen as having a deep understanding of the science of climate change, a grasp of the economic costs and benefits of moving to clean energy and a close working relationship with dozens of leaders in the field and influential decision-makers across the globe. 

Paul Boehner, managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute who served at the State Department under Kerry, put Kerry’s opportunity and challenge this way: “His job is to basically execute a pivot from 30 years of negotiations to a decade of aggressive action.”

We’re rooting for you, John, and we hope that you are up to the job. It sure is a big one!