Sen. John Kerry will bring his passion for climate change with him to the State Department if President Obama taps him to replace departing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton early in his next term, and the Massachusetts Democrat's presence could help inject needed life into the United States' role in international climate discussions, experts say.
The senator and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice have been mentioned most often for the job, though nominating either would pose some challenges for the White House (ClimateWire, Nov. 27). Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, has also been floated as a possible Defense secretary in Obama's second term.
Kerry heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been involved in both domestic and international climate policy going back to the 1980s and '90s, sponsoring legislation at home to cut greenhouse gases while frequenting U.N. climate change conferences.
At times, he has been the only senator and highest-ranking U.S. official to attend the talks, noted Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. In those years, the Massachusetts senator took on the task of reassuring a skeptical world that the United States would eventually act on climate change.
Light remembered Kerry's appearance in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007, nearly seven years into the George W. Bush administration, during which he promised the global community that the United States would be able to take a more proactive role after the 2008 presidential election because both Obama and 2008 GOP nominee John McCain believed in climate change.
"We're going to be ready to join you" was the message, Light said.
Besides leading the Senate effort in the last Congress to pass comprehensive carbon cap-and-trade legislation, Kerry also proposed legislation in 2009 that would have boosted U.S. support for adaptation, low-carbon energy and emissions estimates in developing countries. Neither bill was enacted, but Kerry's office said that his international climate bill influenced Clinton's pledges of climate aid, which she made at the climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, later that year.
Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Kerry's long experience with international climate negotiations would give him a head start on that part of his complex portfolio, if he became secretary of State.
"He knows the players; he knows the dynamics," Meyer said. "He would hit the ground running on this issue and would operate at a very high level, and would give it a fair amount of priority."
While the State Department must respond to a broad range of issues and potential threats to the United States, Meyer said that Kerry would be more acutely aware than most potential secretaries that climate change is also a national security threat and would incorporate the issue into the other State efforts.
For example, he said, a Secretary of State Kerry would use his office to push China to join the United States in taking a leadership role on long-term climate change mitigation, raising the issue as part of other bilateral discussions with the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter.
"He would understand the relationship this has to our economic relationship and trade relationship with China," Meyer said.
After a visit by the senator to China in 2009, the Foreign Relations Committee released a report on possible areas where the United States and China might collaborate on climate change and energy projects, like co-sponsoring laboratories for low-carbon technology research and development. It also examined the climate change policies and vulnerabilities of both countries.
The issue is also of great importance to U.S. allies in Europe, which is preparing to take part in a second emissions-reduction commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol even as other participants have said they will sit it out.
"I think he would be able to navigate that relationship," Meyer said.
Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation and an undersecretary of State for global affairs under former President Bill Clinton, said he would expect Kerry to make climate change response his flagship issue at State, looking for ways to advance it as Hillary Rodham Clinton has women's rights.
"Every successful secretary of State has picked something out that is his or her banner issue," said Wirth, a former Senate colleague of Kerry's from Colorado.
"I would suspect he would [choose] climate, and he would be by far the heaviest voice in the Cabinet for it," he said, "and would be an amazingly powerful -- and, by the way, needed -- advocate."
Wirth himself was involved in negotiations that led to the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement on climate change that included binding emissions targets. The United States ultimately did not ratify the agreement.
Wirth has been sharply critical of the Obama administration's level of commitment on climate change, saying last year that its leadership on the issue "doesn't exist" (ClimateWire, Dec. 23, 2011).
The administration's stance on climate has disappointed many in the international community, who had hoped to see the U.S. negotiating position change dramatically under Obama. But the United States has said it will not accept any new treaty on emissions that does not assign the same kind of legal obligations to all major emitters.
Wirth also noted that before the election, the administration was reluctant to mention climate change. "So it wasn't on the agenda," he said.
But as secretary of State, Kerry might be able to use his influence as "the first among equals" on Obama's Cabinet to elevate the issue, Wirth said.
But he said that did not mean pushing for a treaty in the near future that includes binding emissions targets. That would not be possible as long as wealthy and poor countries continue to produce greenhouse gases at such different rates.
"To get to a long-term climate agreement, we're going to have to put a lot of building blocks in place," he said.
Instead of looking for absolute emissions reduction targets, Wirth proposed finding multilateral agreement on building codes, fuel efficiency for vehicles, renewable energy standards and other sector-specific actions that might be more politically within reach for countries, including the United States.
Wirth said Kerry would be an able advocate for that approach.
"I can hear him saying, 'I want this done,'" he said.
'Unfinished business between them'
Whatever their hopes are for a Kerry-led State Department, international policy experts emphasize that many offices must have a hand in crafting the administration's policies, which ultimately belong to the president.
Here, Kerry's relationship with Obama might prove to be an asset, they said.
"I would hope that if he was secretary of State, Senator Kerry would be a strong voice with the president and with the White House for a more ambitious U.S. posture in the negotiations," said Meyer, adding that U.S. emissions and financing commitments must be strengthened.
CAP's Light noted that in 2009 and 2010 Kerry communicated closely with the White House about his efforts to write and pass carbon cap-and-trade legislation.
"To what extent is this unfinished business between them, I don't know," Light said.
Light said that Kerry may view the State Department as the natural extension of those efforts because any response to climate change must ultimately be global if it is to be effective.
"This would be his last great opportunity to make an impact on the issue, and I think he would take it very seriously," he said.
But David Waskow, international climate policy director for Oxfam America, said that it is up to the president to raise the issue's profile.
"If the president and the administration take really clear steps to reaffirm the ways in which they are going to act on climate change, that's the real barometer of what the administration can do as a whole, including the secretary of State and the State Department," Waskow said.
During a post-election news conference two weeks ago, Obama called for a renewed public conversation on climate change, and Waskow said he hoped Obama would begin using his presidential bully pulpit to explain the importance of reducing emissions and helping poorer nations adapt to climate change (E&ENews PM, Nov. 14). A secretary of State could be part of that conversation, he said.
Waskow noted that Rice has also spoken frequently about the role climate change is expected to play in fueling international conflict. He said he hoped to see the president request at least as much funding for international climate aid in his fiscal 2014 budget request to be released early next year as he did for fiscal 2013.
Kerry's appointment to either the State or Defense post might pave the way for Republicans to recapture his Senate seat if Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) wins a special election to replace him. Brown lost his own bid for re-election on Nov. 7. He was elected in a January 2010 special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D).
But Kerry's time in the Senate also gives him a number of advantages over other possible State nominees, including the promise of a swift and easy confirmation -- while Rice faces a much more precarious road, if Republican threats are to be believed. He would also have the ear of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill who appropriate money for the State Department's activities.
And if the U.N. process produces a treaty by 2015 to control emissions, to take effect by 2020, as is called for under last year's Durban Platform, it would be up to the Senate to ratify it.
"If you don't have the Senate behind you, as we found out during the Kyoto process, the credibility of the U.S. administration is really diminished in the international process," Meyer said. "People don't think they're speaking for the U.S. government as a whole if they don't have a base of support in the Senate."