The climate needs John Kerry to deliver. Was Egypt a major setback?


SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – The lights were literally going out at this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt as weary negotiators engaged in the final hours of heated, midnight bargaining. But one of the most powerful diplomats at the summit had to work the phones remotely, isolated in his hotel room after contracting covid-19.

This is hardly the first time that the United States’ special climate envoy, John F. Kerry, 78, has been put up for trying to exercise US environmental leadership. The former secretary of state is the face of the US government’s response to climate change, but his resume has mixed results. The world’s nations are far behind on the commitments they made under the Paris accords he helped broker in 2015, and activists and some national leaders say they are becoming dissatisfied with COP summits and America’s ability to fulfill its commitments.

Such is the dichotomy against Kerry. He is a rock star in climate diplomacy, but he is tied to the vagaries of US and global politics. This has left many wondering why the magic and influence it has can’t marshal a more effective response in the capitals of the world, including their own capitals.

“He is a force in negotiations, and he is respected,” said Rémy Rioux, chief executive of the French Development Agency and an expert in international institutions. At the same time, Rioux said, “people see what the United States is doing to Ukraine, with thousands of dollars supporting them. … Why is there no consensus in the United States about doing something similar for the climate?”

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Kerry has heard questions like this before. In 2010, then-Sen. Kerry and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) failed to cobble together a climate bill, even after the House approved legislation that would limit carbon pollution nationwide. Recently, he and President Biden have been unable to convince Congress to approve climate finance assistance for developing countries, although the president has promised to deliver $11.4 billion by 2024. And it will get more difficult any effort to marshal additional support for climate action in Washington. starting in January, when Republicans take control of the House.

At this year’s summit in Egypt, known as COP27, developing countries expressed their frustration that the United States was not matching its rhetoric with action. They made it clear that the COP — Conference of the Parties — must approve a “loss and damage” fund to compensate vulnerable countries for damages caused by climate change.

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Ultimately, the 200 nations at the summit did so, and Kerry helped counter past US resistance to such funding. The Egyptian summit was in danger of collapsing soon. The US delegation was praised for helping to deliver it.

“I don’t remember a time when the United States was at the forefront of proposing a big idea of ​​mobilizing funding for developing countries,” said Nigel Purvis, chief executive of Climate Consultants and a former senior US climate negotiator. “It’s great to see.”

But the summit ended without Kerry and European Union officials getting approval for two of their top priorities. The United States had sought language to accelerate global cuts in greenhouse gas emissions – specifically phasing out all fossil fuels – but those terms never made it into the final agreement.

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Typically, rich countries would not give in to something they once opposed – compensation for climate-threatened nations – without getting something they wanted, such as stronger emissions cuts. But the United States risked not getting much money back, and he gave little explanation.

Kerry’s chief deputy left the plenary session before the end of the last session and asked reporters questions. The official US statement on the final COP27 agreement came out about six hours after the summit formally concluded, and Kerry’s office declined an interview request.

In the 2,020 word statement, Kerry did not mention any failure or omission from COP27. He has joined many Western leaders in downplaying the lack of bolder climate action they have publicly called for. Instead, Kerry offered a long list of the US delegation’s achievements and praised the summit for making incremental progress to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

“In the all-too-real world of climate science, that math matters when you focus on fractional faces: every tenth of averted warming means less drought, less flooding, less sea-level rise, more less extreme weather,” he said in the statement. “It means lives saved and losses avoided.”

Although Kerry is older than many of his other government colleagues, his seniority and versatility make him valuable to the White House – so much so that Biden nominated him as one of his first appointments. Kerry’s long history in public life, as a soldier, as an activist, as a presidential candidate, a statesman and even a socialist, gives him the edge in a job that requires regular world travel and constant diplomacy. To succeed, Kerry must connect with youth protesters and banking chief executives, Chinese bureaucrats and Emirati heikhs.

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In back-to-back public speeches here Tuesday morning, presenters at the Egypt pavilion used speeches befitting his long career. they he introduced the former US senator as “his excellency,” and a coalition of countries and non-profits backed by the United Nations listed him as the Honorable John Kerry. His staff calls him secretary, from his time as secretary of state during the Obama administration.

Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, have spoken publicly about their friendly relationship. And they exchanged emails even when formal negotiations were suspended. At the past two climate summits in Scotland and Egypt, Xie made a surprise appearance with Kerry, last week stunning a capacity crowd by joining the COP27 event on methane emissions.

“You may be wondering why China’s climate envoy is meeting the global methane pledge,” Xie said, according to an interpreter, after being introduced by Kerry. “My very good friend, Secretary Kerry, told me about the conference this morning.”

But even with such gestures, the world’s two biggest emitters have yet to reach a wider agreement to reduce their greenhouse gases.

Last week, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed at the G-20 summit to work together on climate progress. But Xie did not commit China to a global methane pledge during the news conference he attended at Kerry’s request, and he did not announce any new climate policies.

In his statement on Sunday, Kerry’s only apparent regret was about China, although he said talks between the two countries will continue.

“I’m glad we had a climate discussion with China here in Sharm el-Sheikh, after the meeting of President Biden and President Xi in Bali,” Kerry said. “Because of the amount of time we had for our negotiations, unfortunately we were only able to make limited progress here in Sharm.”

Kerry is in a political quandary, said many of his former staff members and diplomatic allies, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Congress and the US electorate are reluctant to support the kind of US international aid that would help it build strong allies abroad. And the international audience can be hard to please too, Kerry’s allies said.

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In his statement, Kerry visited the US government’s international aid and fundraising with partners to help Indonesia with $10 billion and $250 million for Egypt for clean energy development.

The funding is seen as part of a pragmatic US strategy to direct limited money to key developing countries – but it comes with a clear downside: Other countries feel they don’t get the same special treatment, said Laurence Tubiana, a French economist and architect of Paris agreement, said in an interview.

A lack of trust between large parts of the developing world and the United States played a major role in the summit’s tepid outcome, several negotiators here said. Although the United States ultimately refused to create a fund designated to compensate countries damaged by the effects of climate change, it failed to build solidarity with the developing world to gain support for further reductions in emissions. . The reason: Many countries feel under siege by Washington’s failure to deliver on climate aid promises.

That friction was central to the divide between the rich and the poor countries that dominated COP27, a much more active summit than Glasgow. Kerry’s bout with covid-19 has not helped the United States ease those tensions.

Kerry, who turns 79 next month, could have avoided this challenging terrain by stepping down as special climate envoy, and some EU leaders and others were surprised that he stuck around. But close allies said that despite the regular exercise, Kerry’s reason is lively.

He has not said whether he will leave the administration anytime soon, although two people who spoke on condition of anonymity said he could honestly consider that option and could easily find work in the sector. private.

Kerry is not driven by opportunity like many political leaders, Tubiana said. He works to use political power to solve problems he cares about, and he has seen climate change best global problem for many years, she said.

“If you’re really convinced that it’s a global conflict we have to face it – and it’s absolutely certain … you don’t care so much if you succeed … you’re fighting,” Tubiana said . “He’s really committed and he doesn’t care. If this isn’t a glorious COP, it doesn’t matter. He has to do it.”

Mufson reported from DC


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