John Kerry heads for the exit

By Sara Schonhardt | 03/04/2024 06:23 AM EST

“Now we need real, forward action,” the outgoing U.S. climate envoy told E&E News in a one-on-one interview.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry speaks during a Dec. 13 news conference at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Rafiq Maqbool/AP

In the next 48 hours, John Kerry will be out of government for one of the few times in his career.

On Wednesday, the 80-year-old climate envoy will leave office to take his fight against global warming to a different arena — one where he believes he can be more effective by working to marshal private sector money for climate efforts in a year when politics threaten to complicate America’s ability to meet its climate commitments.

“It’s time to go do the next step of this, which is accelerate the transition” to clean energy, Kerry said in a recent interview from Foggy Bottom. “Whatever we can do to accelerate the transition is the only way we win this battle.”


The move comes more than three years after President Joe Biden appointed Kerry as America’s top climate diplomat. The former secretary of State began with a skeleton crew, and he had to rapidly convince the world America still cared about addressing climate change.

His work centered on pushing governments to take more action. That meant showcasing Biden’s ideas for moving further and faster and — in Kerry’s own words — trying to “stem the hemorrhaging” after former President Donald Trump slashed government aid to international climate efforts and pulled the United States out of the landmark Paris Agreement that Kerry helped negotiate.

It’s a position the U.S. could find itself in again next year if Trump — the Republican presidential front-runner — takes back the White House in November.

“Now we need real, forward action,” Kerry said. “This issue is very much on the table in this election.”

The longtime senator and one-time presidential candidate has spent much of the past three years jetting around the world to advance global action on climate change. It’s a mission that sometimes clashed with decisions from the White House to approve oil and gas developments or moves by Congress to whittle down the budget for global climate finance.

Now, as Kerry prepares to leave his post, he’s taking a moment to reflect on the past and look to the future. He spoke with E&E News as part of a series of one-on-one interviews to be released before his official exit Wednesday.

He highlighted deals with China to crack down on methane, a potent pollutant, and an expansion of next year’s global climate targets to cover economywide emissions. He also credits his work for helping land a deal on a new fund for victims of climate disasters — a move the U.S. had resisted for decades, including under Kerry’s watch.

“Now it has to be funded properly as we go forward, and I think hopefully, that’ll happen and I’ll advocate for it,” he said.

Kerry insists he’s not retiring, just taking his efforts outside government.

He does so months after COP28 global climate talks in the United Arab Emirates — a summit where nearly 200 nations agreed to transition away from oil, natural gas and coal, the main drivers of global warming. And he’s turning the page during an election year when America’s ability to live up to its climate pledges could be decided at the voting booth.

“Everything that I’m going to do will be trying to help message around the world,” Kerry said. “We are at the decisive moment about what we’re going to do about climate.”

The rise in global temperatures in 2023 exceeded the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold for more than half the year, adding to the urgency.

“If you can’t take that as a message,” he said, “God forbid that you’re near any decisionmaking of any kind whatsoever on something as critical as this.”

The road ahead

What his next step looks like isn’t entirely clear.

He points to initiatives he helped shepherd at the State Department that he hopes to continue supporting — a carbon crediting program in partnership with major philanthropies and a coalition of major corporations looking for ways to cut industrial emissions.

“Once I’m out and done, I’m going to sit down very quickly with the people I know and trust, and figure out what’s the best way for us to try to get the larger countries to move faster — because they’re the biggest polluters — and the other guys to move effectively,” he said.

He also says he’ll continue to stand up for Biden and his package of climate laws as he runs for reelection, though Kerry won’t officially be working for the campaign.

Kerry does believe he can have more impact out of government, particularly during an election year when he sees little happening in Congress — and when meeting the pledges made at COP28 will hinge on finding trillions of dollars to radically transform rich and poor countries alike.

He hasn’t hidden his frustration about how difficult it’s been to get government money allocated to international climate efforts, publicly pinning the blame on congressional Republicans who have tried to stymie the Biden administration’s pledge to boost international climate finance to more than $11 billion annually by 2024. Last year it reached $9.5 billion, according to the State Department.

He also voiced his opposition to moves by the U.S. Export-Import Bank to continue financing oil and gas projects overseas despite Biden’s commitment to end such funding before 2023.

“I think people are going to have to think through that policy,” Kerry said. Asked whether it was an agency unwilling to change even at the behest of the president, he said it’s a question that “needs to be answered.”

He’s not ruling out options for his next venture but says what he’s looking for is a way to move change faster.

Other efforts he’s championed have faced setbacks and struggled to take off. That includes the so-called Just Energy Transition Partnerships with South Africa, Vietnam and Indonesia.

They sought to deliver billions of dollars in investments committed by a handful of wealthy countries to help fossil fuel-reliant developing economies shift from coal and natural gas to clean energy. But Kerry says they haven’t worked as anticipated.

“I never was excited about the formalization of this thing as a JETP,” he said. “I think that we needed to be more individualized, and that’s pretty labor-intensive.”

Doing what’s undone

Kerry’s exit will leave a hole in the world of climate diplomacy. And the fact that Biden didn’t name a direct replacement speaks to new efforts by Congress to limit presidential appointments that don’t require Senate confirmation

White House adviser John Podesta, who currently oversees the implementation of the massive climate law known as the Inflation Reduction Act, will take on Kerry’s international climate portfolio — though Kerry’s team will remain at State — and Kerry has welcomed the blending of the two roles.

His departure comes two years later than originally intended, said Kerry, who only planned on serving for a year.

“And then I realized that we had too many things that were undone that we had to get done,” he said.

At climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in 2022, he said “huge energy” got diverted into getting nations to agree to back the new fund for victims of climate disasters — something known as loss and damage in U.N. terms. That took away from progress on other issues, such as getting countries to agree to more action on cutting their climate pollution.

When the United Arab Emirates was to selected to host COP28 climate negotiations last year and tapped a leading oil executive to helm them, Kerry saw another opportunity to stay around to defend the UAE.

“I felt having worked with them I knew them, and I thought I could count that they were being serious, and they weren’t going to play a game. And they were serious, and they didn’t play a game. And I think we’re all better off for that,” he said.

He calls the outcome of those talks a “major breakthrough” that delivered a framework for keeping rising temperatures in check. Critics say it also includes carve-outs that could extend the life of natural gas or push countries to gamble on technologies that haven’t yet been commercialized at scale.

Among the actions countries agreed to: shifting away from fossil fuels starting this decade and rapidly scaling up renewable energy.

“This is not something where you can escape the meaning of the words,” Kerry said.

Failing to act on those pledges could encourage “cynicism and dropout-ism and huge disappointment around the world,” Kerry noted last week at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Acting on those pledges, however, means having the money to do so.

Kerry points to a host of measures that are needed: low-cost loans and debt relief; new financial instruments to reduce investments risks, such as guarantees; and a bigger role for development banks, philanthropies and the private sector.

And it’s there where Kerry sees the potential.

“It only happens if you have the private sector come to the table with the trillions,” he said. “But you’ve got to have some people out there who are starting to push making those agreements so less-developed countries can develop.”