Meanwhile, the European Union, which has a record of regulating industries to wring carbon out of its economy, is weighing the creation of a carbon border tax that would penalize imports of some carbon-intensive products from countries that don’t have their own strong climate policies. That measure is intended to protect the bloc’s industries that fear addressing climate change will impose costs that make them less competitive, but is likely to stir up trade tensions with trading partners, like the U.S.
For Kerry, who sits at the nexus of Biden’s deep bench of climate experts, it’s never been more critical to achieve the goal of staving off the surging sea levels, devastating droughts and wildfires, and brutal storms that a changing climate is bringing.
Six years after he led the diplomatic effort that cemented the landmark Paris climate deal, he’ll try to cajole the often recalcitrant governments of China and India to step in line with the effort to phase out fossil fuels. And he’ll have to do that as many in the United States — including skeptical members of his own party — are wary of turning off the spigot that has made the country the biggest oil and gas producer in the world.
The son of a foreign service officer and social activist, Kerry has often cast his causes in moral terms, from his 1971 testimony against the Vietnam War in front of a Senate committee to his calls this year to heighten the the urgency of reducing greenhouse gases. The goal of those efforts is to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — warming that scientists predict would bake in sea-level rises that would render several island nations uninhabitable in the coming decades and threaten millions of people.
As it stands now, the world is on track to see a 2.7 degrees Celsius increase by the end of this century which would raise seas, make entire regions unbearably hot and spark even more disastrous flooding, wildfires and droughts.
“How many politicians,” Kerry asked in an interview earlier this year, “how many scientists, how many people have stood up and said, ‘This is existential for us on this planet’? Existential. That means life and death. And the question is, are we behaving as if it is? And the answer is no.”
Kerry’s job officially is as Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, and he answers only to the president — with whom he’s in frequent contact — and his former subordinate Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state.
He’s also in regular touch with officials atop the Treasury Department — the crucial agency for creating financial networks to slow fossil fuel financing, guarding the economy from climate shocks, and delivering the promised billions of dollars to developing nations.
And he regularly confers with members of the Senate, where he served for 28 years representing his home state of Massachusetts.
So why, at 77, does he still do it? According to people who know Kerry, it’s primarily passion for the topic. He was at the first United Nations climate conference in Rio de Janeiro during the George H.W. Bush administration, where Kerry met his wife, Teresa Heinz.
It’s also a sense of righting the ship after Trump abandoned the global effort and withdrew from the Paris pact, even if the U.S. was out of the deal for only a few months before Biden took office and rejoined the rest of the world.
And, as Kerry frequently recounts, it’s about the granddaughter who sat on his lap as he signed the Paris climate agreement.
None of those things surprise the people who worked for him, who say he has expressed no plans to stop the work, regardless of whether the Glasgow gathering ends in success or failure.
“I have heard nothing whatsoever to suggest that he is going anywhere,” said Todd Stern, who led climate negotiations for the Obama administration and worked under Kerry when he was secretary of State. “He is a deeply committed guy.”
“My expectation is that he continues,” Stern added. “I have no reason to think that is not the case.”
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