Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) can expect little opposition today when his Senate colleagues vote on his confirmation to be the United States' top diplomat.
But from the time he enters 2201 C St. NW as secretary of State, the career-long proponent of action on climate change will face very high expectations from environmentalists and others who hope his ascension will make a significant difference on issues they care about, ranging from the international climate talks to the Keystone XL oil pipeline permit.
In anticipation of today's vote, the group 350 Action Fund distributed a list last week of Kerry's statements highlighting the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Foreign Relations Committee chairman said last August, for example, that climate change rivals the situation in Syria in importance because "it affects life itself on the planet."
But while Kerry discussed climate change briefly during his confirmation hearing last week, he spent much more time on issues of international conflict like Syria. And it is equally likely that they might take precedence after he is confirmed.
"He's not going to be the climate secretary," said Michael Livermore, executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, in a recent interview.
Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, predicted that Kerry would feel the pressure of high expectations from environmentalists when he enters his new post.
"He's going to be under intense scrutiny here, because he was the strongest climate champion when he was in the Senate," Light said. "That certainly creates an expectation on him that he's going to have to manage in some way."
But while Kerry will have a broad slate of issues competing for his attention at State, Livermore said that the five-term senator understands climate change better than any of his predecessors and that this is likely to raise the profile of the issue no matter what else is demanding his attention. Kerry would be an active participant not only in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process but would also consider climate change as part of bilateral, multilateral and aid agreements.
"It will be in his briefing book; it will be something that he focuses on," Livermore said. "It might be sort of subtle influence."
Light said that Kerry might be more engaged in the UNFCCC process than outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been. Clinton attended only the high-profile conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009 during her time at State, whereas Kerry has traveled to numerous rounds of talks as a senator, he noted.
Light echoed Livermore's hope that Kerry might bring his concern about climate change to new areas of diplomacy.
"I just expect that he will be seeing this opportunity that he now has over the next four years to continue and potentially get a bigger win than he got in the Senate," he said. "Now he's got an opportunity to make an imprint on the world conversation and not just the national conversation."
But despite Kerry's record on climate change, Light said the fundamentals of U.S. involvement in international climate change negotiations have not changed, and U.S. ratification of a climate treaty remains a heavy lift.
Kerry, who sponsored a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade bill in 2010 that did not attract enough support to clear the Senate, would likely have the same luck selling his former colleagues on a treaty, Light said.
"That's where the environmental community needs to be frankly supportive and charitable," he said.
Even before Kerry's strategy on international climate talks takes shape, the State Department is likely to sign off on a new environmental impact statement for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Frank Maisano, who handles energy issues for the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm, said the newly minted secretary of State would be unlikely to have much influence over that process. "I think the cake is pretty much baked," he said.
Maisano predicted that the crude oil pipeline will be approved in part because the Obama White House and the agency have started to work more closely since the election, as the industry grapples with a second Obama term and the administration looks for ways to continue the economic recovery.
It would be difficult for the State Department to deny TransCanada its permit now after months of laying the groundwork for it, Maisano said.
"Maybe [Kerry] could reverse course, but it doesn't seem to me that he'll be able to," he said.
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