John Kerry has been many things as America’s special presidential envoy for climate change.
Now, at age 80, he plans to step down after three years as the nation’s top climate diplomat, a role he both seemed to relish and helped transform.
His successor will be hard-pressed to replicate his versatility, though experts say Kerry’s tenure provides a helpful blueprint on what kind of leader is needed to fill that role given the challenges ahead.
Kerry brought star power at a time when the United States needed to rebuild trust after years of climate denialism under former President Donald Trump. He came carrying knowledge from decades of climate advocacy in the Senate and State Department, and he had clout with both diplomats and executives that helped Kerry open doors and usher in reforms and new pledges.
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His ties with industry also drew scrutiny, and Kerry was often the face of U.S. resistance to a system for climate damages America feared would make it legally liable for compensation given its position as the biggest climate polluter in history.
Kerry leaves big shoes to fill, but he’s also done enough to ensure that the person who replaces him will be mostly focused on implementing what he helped put in place, experts say.
In the short term, that work likely will fall to his deputies, Rick Duke and Sue Biniaz, who may step in as caretakers of the role of climate envoy until after U.S. elections in November. Whether one of them — or someone else — fills the job over the longer term depends on who wins the White House.
The future of the role itself is uncertain. It could revert back to special envoy status, which under a new rule that took effect in 2022 requires Senate confirmation. And like the presidency, the Senate also is up for grabs in November’s elections.
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But the most immediate question is who could step in to replace him. Here are three types of leaders President Joe Biden could tap as America’s next top climate diplomat.
The power broker
Biden reconfigured the role of climate envoy for Kerry.
His appointment came directly from the White House and provided him with a coveted seat on the National Security Council. Along with that prestige, Kerry brought gravitas to the post having served as secretary of State during the Obama administration.
“It’s very hard to think of many others in the U.S. who have been engaged in the climate process as long as Kerry has,” said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute.
Al Gore, the former vice president turned climate champion, might be one. But Gore would be a prime target for Republicans, some of whom have already gone after Kerry for cooperating with China and accused him of colluding with “leftist” environmental groups. And Gore was hardly diplomatic in his assessment of last year’s COP28 negotiations.
There also isn’t quite the same need for such outsize influence.
“You’ve got working groups set up, you’ve got a bilateral task force, you’ve got interagency efforts. So there’s a bit more of a machine around it than there was” when the Biden administration came in, said Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director of international climate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“But it is nice to have a very senior person in that role to kind of open doors that may be a bit harder for someone without that background,” he added.
Star power helped persuade other countries to up their ambition and brought more of the private sector into the discussion about climate finance, say longtime climate advocates. But it also comes with risks, since countries typically don’t like being told what to do, and observers often have fixed opinions about what high-profile personalities stand for and can therefore achieve.
Someone who knows the system could help execute many of the initiatives Kerry helped bring to fruition. That includes a global agreement reached at COP28 to transition away from fossil fuels and speed the growth of clean energy.
Before the role of special envoy was created during the Obama administration, undersecretaries from the State Department typically represented the U.S. in international climate negotiations.
The further restructuring of that position under Biden elevated Kerry — and didn’t subject him to Senate confirmation. But it also created silos in the administration’s approach to climate change, making it difficult to integrate climate into foreign policy or national security discussions.
“In a way, Kerry’s departure is a loss for us at a time where we have to now make good on the promise to transition away from fossil fuels and put in place the right elements to show that we are serious about that commitment we made at COP28,” said Frances Colón, senior director for international climate policy at the Center for American Progress.
“At the same time, it opens up the opportunity for [the National Security Council], upper levels of the State Department to have to take on that challenge and integrate it — as it should be — into national security priorities.”
Biniaz, a Kerry deputy and architect of many agreements reached during his tenure, has the legal background, attention to detail and understanding of U.S.-China relations to carry Kerry’s work forward. She’s also worked to center American interests.
Duke, another Kerry deputy, brings a background in diplomacy and understanding of U.S. political dynamics at home and internationally. He helped craft a pledge to get countries to cut their emissions of methane, a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas.
The next climate envoy will be charged with implementing U.S. commitments under the Paris Agreement and establishing a new set of U.S. climate targets. They’ll also be handed the unenviable task of persuading Congress to pony up more money for international climate finance and maintaining ties with China.
The job will rest less on the intricacies of the negotiations, said Schmidt, and more on how to leverage some of the domestic investments under Biden’s climate law to have an impact internationally.
Colón added: “I think at this stage what we need is somebody with deep networks, deep understanding of the theory of change, of how we get to the transition away from fossil fuels.”
That could be someone like David Turk, deputy secretary at the Department of Energy, former official at the International Energy Agency and deputy climate envoy during President Barack Obama’s second term.
Given that the big goal of this year’s climate talks will be setting a new target for international climate aid, it could also be someone from the Treasury Department or even the private sector.
One possibility: Alexia Latortue, assistant secretary for international trade and development at Treasury. She has a background in international development and finance and has been involved with a plan by the G7 to assist coal-reliant, middle-income countries in retiring coal plants early in favor of renewable energy.
“It will be important going forward, [for] whoever is in this role, to recognize now that we have this agreement to transition away from fossil fuels that was secured in Dubai, that that’s going to take finance … so it has to be a priority,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It is about a change in mindset of the administration as well and recognizing that the climate crisis is not just about carbon emissions. It is about equity.”
The lack of attention on climate finance over multiple administrations created distrust and concerns with credibility that continued during Kerry’s tenure, Cleetus added.
Much of that falls to Congress, which approves the budget for international climate efforts, but it’s up to Kerry’s successor not to treat those issues as second-tier concerns since it “just adds to the perception that the United States doesn’t truly recognize that the climate crisis is a deeply inequitable crisis,” she said.
Just as there are few all-stars to step in for Kerry, there is not a wide pool of people with the experience, connections and trust of the president that Kerry had, said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at climate think tank E3G.
One option could be John Podesta, a longtime political operative who served as counselor to Obama. But he’s currently charged with implementing Biden’s signature climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and may not be all that keen on the international travel the job calls for.
“I think the one thing we do know is whoever comes into that position — unless it was someone like a John Podesta — is not likely to have the level and duration of relationships with China that Kerry had,” Meyer said.
Kerry and his counterpart Xie Zhenhua — who has just stepped down after a long tenure — were in some ways ahead of their governments. But they were still unable to isolate climate change from broader friction in the bilateral relationship.
That dynamic is unlikely to change, Meyer said. But there is work to be done with someone with the right set of skills.
Another name in the operator vein is Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington state who ran on a presidential ticket in 2020 that put fighting climate change as a top priority. He’s not seeking a fourth term in Washington — freeing him up to take on a new challenge.
And then, of course, there’s the question of what’s next for Kerry and how involved he stays in the climate fight post-November.
“I could imagine him staying engaged and trying to move corporate sector money and investment into this space,” Meyer said. “I doubt he’s going to go sit on a beach somewhere and not do anything on climate.”