John Kerry brings gravitas, muscle to climate diplomacy

By Jean Chemnick | 11/24/2020 06:43 AM EST

President-elect Joe Biden named John Kerry as his climate envoy yesterday. They're seen campaigning in Iowa last year.

President-elect Joe Biden named John Kerry as his climate envoy yesterday. They're seen campaigning in Iowa last year. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/Newscom

Former Secretary of State John Kerry would become the highest-ranking U.S. official ever to have a portfolio exclusively devoted to climate change when he joins President-elect Joe Biden’s White House next year.

The new title for Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee who represented Massachusetts in the Senate for 28 years: special presidential envoy on climate change.

While Biden’s transition team offered few specifics about Kerry’s role yesterday, he’ll be the first climate official ever with a seat on the National Security Council. And "presidential" in his title suggests Kerry will report directly to Biden, while "envoy" marks him as a senior diplomat.


White House climate leads under President Obama — former Clinton EPA Administrator Carol Browner and counselor to the president John Podesta — had a hand in molding domestic and international policies. Kerry’s role would be focused internationally. Kerry’s stature and close relationship to Biden, with whom he served with for decades in the Senate, ensures he would represent the U.S. climate agenda in the highest diplomatic circles, including meetings with foreign leaders.

His appointment also affirms Biden’s commitment to climate change as a foreign policy issue, despite focusing on domestic aspects of his plan on the campaign trail.

"America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is," Kerry said on Twitter yesterday.

The Biden transition team yesterday telegraphed that a domestic climate official with a similarly high profile would be announced in the coming weeks. And incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain hinted as much in a Twitter post of his own yesterday.

"Stay tuned!!" he tweeted in response to a post by the Sunrise Movement’s Varshini Prakash, who said she was keeping her "eyes peeled for a domestic equivalent" to Kerry.

"If you look at the stature and reputation of the former secretary of State, you can imagine that whoever is going to lead the domestic agenda will have to be able to match that to the extent it’s possible," said Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment at the Center for American Progress and an alumna of the Obama White House. "They clearly will need to be partners, given that the domestic agenda and the international agenda are so closely aligned when it comes to climate change."

Kerry’s résumé on climate change is long and deep, spanning both his time in Foggy Bottom and on Capitol Hill.

In the Senate, he was a lead sponsor of the highest-profile carbon cap-and-trade bill of the Obama era, although it never came to the floor for a vote. And as secretary of State he helped land the Paris climate agreement.

Kerry is now expected to help the U.S. navigate back into the climate accord. He’ll also help shape the United States’ Paris pledge for 2030, which must demonstrate renewed commitment to global climate cooperation after President Trump’s withdrawal from the compact.

Kerry’s post may be Cabinet-level, but it is not subject to Senate confirmation.

While a few progressive climate advocates expressed concern about Biden tapping Kerry, noting his support for market-based approaches to limiting carbon, others applauded the appointment. Prakash, who worked with Kerry on the Biden-Bernie Sanders climate task force earlier this year, said on Twitter that he "really does care about stopping climate change."

"That’s something we can work with," she said.

Top foreign policy priority

Nathaniel Keohane, a former Obama White House official who is now senior vice president of climate for the Environmental Defense Fund, said Kerry’s post sends an important signal about Biden being serious about tackling climate change.

"We — not just the climate community, but the world — have been looking for a sign as to whether the incoming Biden administration will make climate change central to foreign policy in the way that clearly President-elect Biden has said he will on domestic policy," he said. "This gives a resoundingly clear answer of ‘yes.’"

Goldfuss said: "John Kerry can pick up the phone and talk to people that he worked with not but five years ago on the most [important] climate agreement in global history. The relationships continue, and the reputation to speak on behalf of the president in those conversations is huge.

"Secretary Kerry has had a long relationship with President Biden and will be able to carry the message of how high a priority climate is for him on the international agenda," she added.

Jake Schmidt, managing director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program, said he’d expect Kerry to use his White House perch to convene officials from across the federal government — not just the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, but also the Commerce Department, EPA, the Energy Department and other agencies — to emphasize how climate change is considered in international programs and policy.

"This is a sign to me that they get that climate change has emerged as a top foreign policy priority, and that has to be accomplished through all arms of the U.S. government, not just the usual suspects," Schmidt said, adding that Kerry’s experience running the State Department would ensure that climate considerations would not be siloed at a few of the department’s offices.

The NSC chair will also give Kerry a platform to help ensure that climate change is integrated into national security issues. Prior to the election, the idea of creating a new deputy national security adviser position was floated with the same aim. Kerry is an elevated version of the same role.

Said Schmidt, "You don’t make a former secretary of State a deputy."

Reporter Scott Waldman contributed.