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John Kerry’s climate legacy: ‘Not a job, but a conviction’

Experts look back on Kerry’s remarkable career so far as he leaves his role as US special presidential envoy for climate
<p>John Kerry at the 2023 UN climate summit in Dubai. A well-placed source told China Dialogue that Kerry does not see himself as “retiring”, but going to continue to work on climate action through other means. (Image: Alamy)</p> <p><iframe id="cr-iframe" style="height: 100%; width: 100%; position: fixed; top: 0px; right: 0px; z-index: 2147483647; background-color: #ffffff; display: none;" frameborder="none"></iframe></p>

John Kerry at the 2023 UN climate summit in Dubai. A well-placed source told China Dialogue that Kerry does not see himself as “retiring”, but going to continue to work on climate action through other means. (Image: Alamy)

John Kerry’s political career has spanned geographies and the world’s most challenging issues. But to none did he accord as much importance as the climate crisis.   

“Climate change is deeply personal to me,” Kerry told the 2016 UN climate summit in Marrakesh, days after Donald Trump’s election, describing inaction as “a moral failure”.

Over the last three years, the 80-year-old former presidential hopeful, secretary of state, and democratic senator has served as the US’s top climate official – bringing extraordinary gravitas to the role. His tireless efforts to ensure climate cooperation between the US and China, the world’s two largest emitters, have defined his recent contribution to halting dangerous global warming.   

Those who know him say his dedication to preventing runaway climate change is total. “Working on climate is not a job for him. It is a conviction,” said Christiana Figueres, former UN climate change head (2010-2016).

After more than 30 years at the centre of both domestic and international climate efforts, the longstanding cheerleader for carbon-cutting action will step down by the spring as the US special presidential envoy for climate. A well-placed source said that the Joe Biden administration is unlikely to announce a new special envoy before the US presidential election in November.

According to Axios, Kerry now plans to help Biden regain the presidency and thwart Donald Trump from returning to the White House in one of the most consequential election for the world’s climate this decade. If elected, Trump, who pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, has vowed to gut Biden’s landmark climate law.

I spoke to a dozen former UN and US officials and climate experts about Kerry’s climate legacy. They described him as “a force of nature” whose unflinching commitment to the climate cause led him on relentless travels to seek solutions among the world’s decision-makers – a role he has struggled to let go of.

Early years

John Forbes Kerry was born in 1943, in Colorado, US, the son of a foreign service officer and a social activist, and descendant of the wealthy Forbes family.

He received an elite education, at a boarding school in Switzerland, the selective St Paul’s School in New Hampshire, and Yale University. There was little down time. In his 2018 memoir Every Day is Extra, Kerry writes that he sailed and mountain climbed, wrestled and played football, baseball and lacrosse. He learned to fly.

Kerry defined the issues he came to champion on moral grounds. After graduating, he enlisted in the US Naval Reserve and served for four months in the Vietnam War during which he was wounded. He became a vocal critic of the war and testified against it in front of a Senate committee in 1971.

On 22 April 1970, aged 26, Kerry was among 20 million people to take to the streets as part of the first Earth Day mobilisation across the US. He later recalled the event as “an eye-opening immersion into the power of grassroots action”.

After working as a prosecutor in Massachusetts, he began his political career as lieutenant governor of the state in 1982. Two years later, he was elected senator of Massachusetts, a job he kept for 28 years.

Black and white photograph of politicians smiling posing for a photo
Michael Dukakis and John Kerry pose with their wives at a party celebrating their election to governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1982 (Image: Peter Southwick / Alamy)

The senator

Kerry quickly became one of the Senate’s leading voices on climate action.

His understanding of the inner workings of Capitol Hill became critical to his quest to engage the US in global climate efforts. “He has generally understood the need to take US leadership and leverage it globally,” said Pete Ogden, a former climate official at the White House and the State Department.

On a hot day in June 1988, as a severe drought gripped the US, Kerry listened to climate scientist James Hansen explain to a Senate committee how human-induced greenhouse gases were overheating the planet.

He later described being struck by Hansen’s testimony, calling it “a critical demarcation point” in galvanising climate action. The event deepened his own engagement. 

He really wanted to understand the substance to a level that was not typical for a senator
Nigel Purvis, former US climate negotiator

In 1992, Kerry travelled with a Senate delegation to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, he met his second wife Teresa Heinz, heiress to the Heinz company fortune, who was among NGO representatives attached to the delegation.

Jonathan Pershing, a former US climate envoy and lead negotiator, then a science advisor in the State Department, briefed the delegation ahead of their travel.  

Kerry stood out for “always being actively engaged,” said Pershing. “He was interested in the breadth of the issues.”

“He really wanted to understand the substance to a level that was not typical for a senator,” agreed Nigel Purvis, a former US climate negotiator and CEO of Climate Advisers, who remembers Kerry at the 1998 climate talks in Buenos Aires. “He got it,” he said.  

Climate battle in Congress

By the late 1990s, the US encountered its first big test to reconcile domestic politics with global expectations to act on climate change. In Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, countries agreed on a deal mandating wealthy nations to set legally binding emissions cuts.

But a Senate resolution closed the door to the US ratifying the accord unless developing countries were also asked to curb emissions. The move was a blow to emerging economies, including China, whose economic boom of the 1990s had led to American concerns of economic rivalry.

With support from both Republican and Democrat lawmakers, the resolution was approved with no-one voting against. Kerry backed it.

After the failure of the US to participate in the Kyoto deal, and losing to George W Bush in the 2004 presidential election, Kerry put his energy into passing major climate legislation through Congress.

In 2009, Kerry replaced Joe Biden – picked by Barack Obama as vice president – as chair of the influential Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The US’s inability to deliver strong domestic climate action was crippling its credibility on the international scene.

His biggest effort came as a lead sponsor of a cap and trade bill that would have made power plants and manufacturers pay for their pollution.

At the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, both the US and China were under pressure to commit to deep emission cuts. Kerry said Congress would pass carbon-cutting legislation if countries forged a deal that included transparent monitoring of each other’s emission cuts – ensuring the US could check on China’s climate progress and vice versa.

John Kerry speaks at a panel
John Kerry at the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen (Image: Zeng Yi / Alamy)

“Kerry worked very hard, with different hats on, to make sure that we would be getting a climate agreement that would be palatable for the US to sign,” said Yvo de Boer, former head of UN Climate Change (2006-2010).

But as the talks in Copenhagen collapsed, and with opposition from both sides on Capitol Hill, the climate bill was abandoned.

A global climate treaty

As the White House turned its international efforts to the design of a new global climate treaty, Kerry was appointed secretary of state under Obama’s second administration.

Kerry elevated climate change as a key pillar of American foreign policy, instructing “all bureaus” of the State Department to focus on the issue. Pro markets, he argued that the transition from dirty to clean energy was “one of the greatest economic opportunities in history”.

“Not one to be bound by protocol,” Kerry was “willing to engage with whoever [was] necessary” to advance the agenda, said former official Ogden.

China topped the list. “China is soon going to have double the emissions of America, so we’ve got to get these folks as part of a unified effort,” Kerry told the Senate

As 2014 dawned, Todd Stern, then US climate envoy, received a call from Kerry. He was interested in discussing the US’s next big climate diplomacy move, said Stern.

He would never go on a trip without climate being a central part of the conversation
Jonathan Pershing, former US climate envoy

Obama was due to visit Beijing that November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Stern’s team proposed to work on a US–China climate deal ahead of the meeting. A green light from the White House began nine months of secret talks between Washington and Beijing. The concluding US–China agreement paved the way to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Stern and China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua negotiated the details. Stern said: “Kerry set the whole thing in motion. [He] was always looking for the next big thing to do that could shift the ball forward. And that was really impressive.”

As secretary of state, Kerry travelled extensively, raising the climate issue in bilateral and multilateral meetings. “He would never go on a trip without climate being a central part of the conversation,” said Pershing.

He was found in negotiation sessions when he was by far the most senior diplomat in the room. In Paris, “I repeatedly saw John come into the negotiations at three o’clock in the morning, when any secretary of state would be asleep and relying on their team,” remembers Figueres.

His personal commitment to the Paris Agreement was captured when he signed the accord on behalf of the US at the UN headquarters in New York with his two-year-old granddaughter on his lap.

John Kerry signs a document with a child on his lap
John Kerry holds his granddaughter as he signs the Paris Agreement in 2016 at UN headquarters in New York (Image: Mary Altaffer / Alamy)

Waiting in the wings

With Trump in the White House, Kerry launched World War Zero, a coalition that works to make climate change a top public priority and reach net zero emissions by 2050. He worked with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Yale University and held private sessions with officials overseas.

He returned to political life in January 2021 to serve as the first US special presidential envoy for climate – an elevated, tailor-made cabinet position with a seat on the National Security Council. 

Keen to leverage his experience at a time when US climate credibility was at rock bottom, Kerry, one of Biden’s “closest friends”, asked for the role, two sources said.

Biden promised that Kerry would “have a seat at every table around the world”. And he mostly did.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Kerry obtained dispensation to continue to travel and met with heads of state, including India’s Narendra Modi. “He is completely singularly focused,” said Alan Yu, a former Kerry adviser now at the Center for American Progress.  

As one of the wealthiest members of the Biden administration, Kerry’s lifestyle came under scrutiny. The family’s private jet, sold in 2021, led to accusations of hypocrisy. The same year, Kerry liquidated millions of dollars’ worth of stocks in energy-related firms, including some in oil and gas.

Yet, the climate czar surrounded himself with a tight team to advance on key issues, cementing a reputation for sometimes acting as a lone wolf and failing to take the whole of government with him. At times, his personal zeal complicated relations with the rest of the administration.

Several sources told of tensions between Kerry and the White House, especially on finance, where Biden has struggled to appropriate the $11.4bn in climate finance he committed by 2024, after losing control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans.

Unable to commit to large climate aid, Kerry turned his attention to mobilising private sector investments for the transition. He expanded the First Movers Coalition, which aims to commercialise clean technologies for heavy-emitting sectors through advance purchase commitments from companies, and launched the Energy Transition Accelerator for companies to offset their emissions by financing the shift away from coal in developing countries.

Together with the EU, Kerry spearheaded global efforts to cut methane emissions – identifying reductions in the oil and gas sector as a low-hanging fruit. As discussions on the future of fossil fuels heated up, he took a bet on backing the UAE’s oil chief Sultan Al-Jaber running the COP28 UN climate talks in Dubai – a reflection of his belief that the oil and gas industry have a role to play in solving the crisis they have contributed to creating.

In Dubai, countries agreed to contribute to “transitioning away from fossil fuels in the energy systems”. This was a first in an international climate agreement but fell short of sending the clear fossil fuel phase-out signal demanded by more than 100 countries.  

Kerry’s razor focus on cutting emissions took precedence over more targeted efforts to support vulnerable nations on the climate frontlines. But under Kerry and in spite of years of opposition, the US agreed to establish a loss and damage fund for climate victims in developing countries to recover and rebuild from climate disasters. Yet the road to climate justice will be long. Climate campaigners described the meagre US$17.5 million the US committed to the new fund a sign of “indifference to the plight of the developing world”.

A Kerry–Xie ‘bromance’

Kerry has been a leading voice in US politics in favour of engaging with China on climate, both to strengthen cooperation and to pressure the world’s top emitter to take more ambitious action, especially on reducing coal use.

A central tenet of Kerry’s diplomacy was to silo climate action from the trade and geopolitical tensions between Washington and Beijing, with mixed results.

The strong personal relationship Kerry maintained with his Chinese counterpart climate envoy Xie Zhenhua – which endured through the headwinds of US–China relations – was core to that strategy.

John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua shake hands
John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua meet for a news conference at last year’s UN climate summit in Dubai (Image: Rafiq Maqbool / Alamy)

The two men have repeatedly described each other as “friends”. At the COP27 talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Xie told a press conference this bond went back 25 years to when Kerry was still a senator.

“It’s more than just a professional thing,” said Pershing, who served as Kerry’s deputy in 2021-2022. Pershing recalled dinners “full of laughter” as the two diplomats exchanged through translators. The humour didn’t get in the way of tough talks on raising each other’s ambition, he added.

For Rachel Kyte, visiting professor of practice at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, the “trusted relationship” between Xie and Kerry was “simply fundamental to diplomacy”. The fact it did stood out is “an indictment of the lack of robust and muscular diplomacy on climate” in other aspects of US foreign policy, she said.

Kerry and Xie kept informal channels of communication open even when efforts to prevent the worsening of US–China relations came to a screeching halt. When the signs of a thaw appeared, the duo’s relationship meant “the engine could be turned on straight away,” said Stern.

In the last three years, Kerry and Xie struck climate deals twice, in November of 2021 and of 2023, identifying methane emissions cuts as a critical area for joint work and setting up a working group for enhancing cooperation this decade.

The latest agreement reached in the Californian resort of Sunnylands days before the start of COP28 put wind in the sails of climate negotiations. The two nations will now need to chart a new path for cooperation outside the envoys longstanding relationship.

Xie, who was brought out of retirement shortly after Kerry’s appointment to the envoy role, stepped down after COP28 due to health reasons. He was replaced by Liu Zhenmin.  

For Liu Yuanling, of the Institute of America Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Kerry “has played an important role in the US–China cooperation on climate action.” 

Maintaining this communication channel goes much beyond personal relations but is critical to broader Sino–US relations and global climate action, she said.

“If it is not Kerry, somebody else will do his job and [carry on what] he has been doing.” 

A well-placed source said that Kerry does not see himself as “retiring”, but going to continue to work on climate action through other means.

This story was originally published on China Dialogue.