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Fast Thinking

November 24, 2020

FAST THINKING: John Kerry, America’s first climate czar

By Atlantic Council


It’s one thing to say you take the threat of climate change seriously. It’s another to create a new cabinet-level post for a “climate envoy,” give it to John Kerry, and save him a seat on your National Security Council. That’s the plan Joe Biden laid out this week. What difference will it make?


  • Kathy Baughman McLeod (@KBMcLeodFLA): Senior vice president and director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center

Three ways to read this

Randy thinks Biden is sending a few messages with this move:

  • The first comes with Kerry’s stature–not just as a former presidential candidate and secretary of state, but also as the man who helped lead US negotiations for the Paris Climate Accord. “Biden is indicating that climate change will be a top-tier issue for his administration,” he says.
  • “Second, by making John Kerry a member of the National Security Council, Biden is recognizing that climate change and US climate leadership are key national security issues,” Randy adds.
  • “And third, by picking a global statesman for the position, Biden is acknowledging that domestic action is not sufficient and that meeting our climate goals requires international coordination and effort.”

Here’s how Randy reads between the lines of those messages: “The US has a shot at reasserting global climate leadership that has been lost over the past four years—and, more importantly, the world has a shot at keeping global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.”

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Kerry has a history here

  • You might be recognizing a theme by now with Biden appointments: the need to reestablish US leadership. “[Kerry’s] long-standing relationships are critical to rebuilding faith that the US will meet its climate commitments once President-elect Biden rejoins the Paris Agreement,” Maggie says. “Kerry’s reputation on climate gives him the credibility to call on other countries to increase climate ambition and lead efforts such as convening a climate world summit, even after years of American retreat under President Trump.”
  • Crucially, she adds, “Kerry has a history of working with China—the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter—and, during a time when US-China relations are at a low, finding common ground is a national priority with global consequences.”

Taking climate seriously as a national-security threat

  • Kathy zeroes in on the importance of giving Kerry, in his role as climate czar, a seat at the national security table. “It’s a recognition of the extent of the threat of climate change and its global implications,” she tells us. “It’s also a message to other countries, especially those bearing the brunt of the damage, that we understand. That we’re more sophisticated than we look. It’s an instant signal.”
  • Kerry’s past as a diplomat, Kathy says, gives him insight into the scale of the problem. “He has seen what climate change is doing around the world,” she says. He can describe US climate work in terms of both mitigation and adaptation, and can speak to how climate change disproportionately harms the most vulnerable. Kerry, she advises, should use his new platform “to protect those who did the least to cause the problem and are the ones left holding the bag.”

Further reading

Related Experts: Randolph Bell and Margaret Jackson

Image: REUTERS/Susana Vera