Kerry must show the US is back Special envoy faces tough challenges in restoring America’s climate credibility, writes Rebecca Peters
In their first week, the Biden-Harris administration sent a clear message to Americans and estranged global allies by appointing John Kerry, the former secretary of state, as the first special presidential envoy on climate change. In , Kerry served as a key architect of the Paris Agreement on climate change, a diplomatic breakthrough that seemed to herald an era of unprecedented cooperation between the largest carbon emitters – the United States and China.
The watchword of the new administration is ‘America is back’. Considering that international expectations of the US return to multilateralism may be at odds with bitterly divided domestic views on climate action, the question is: back to what?
Under the Trump administration, the US retreated from major international commitments and domestic leadership on climate change. In a first step to dismantle US environmental and climate policy six months into his presidency, Trump announced that America would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. On his first day in office, Biden rejoined it.
Now, expectations are high in the run-up to the April Earth Day Summit, an event to be hosted by Biden that marks America’s formal return to global climate talks. How Kerry manages a fragmented landscape at home and abroad as he undertakes an expansive mandate f rom the new administration will shape the future of global climate action.
Breaking domestic gridlock Domestic political tension casts doubt on America’s ability to follow through on climate action. Such scepticism is justifiable. Despite assertions of returning to leadership, past experience shows the US has little credibility on the issue. America’s poor record on climate action long preceded Trump. George WBush withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in , and Congress has not considered serious climate legislation since it failed to pass carbon pricing in .
Reinstating national environmental protections that were rolled back under Trump is a starting point. But without Congressional support, federal legislation to decarbonize energy, t ransport, infrastructure and agriculture will not pass. At the state and local level, where opportunities for carbon reduction do not require Congressional approval, the fossil fuel industry, including coal interests, often block action.
Opinions on US prospects for climate progress are divided. Optimists, viewing local action as close to meeting Paris targets without waiting for federal action, point to sustained efforts from cities, states and businesses to meet the targets of reducing carbon emissions to net zero.
On closer inspection, this optimism ignores the nuts and bolts of domestic policy change. While surveys show broad support among voters across the political spectrum for climate action, the devil is in the detail.
For example, ‘pre-emption’ legislation – under which state or federal government can overrule local authorities – prevents the restriction of new gas infrastructure as part of net zero initiatives. The Arizona legislature blocked the city of Flagstaff’s plan to promote electrification, ostensibly on the grounds that it harmed consumers and would lead to higher prices.
Time-worn ideological rifts about individual choice versus the urgency of collective action will not be resolved during the Biden-Harris administration.
To ensure that international US climate commitments are not empty promises, a ‘team of rivals’ approach may be in order. The bipartisan Senate and House Climate Solutions Caucus already demonstrates that neither party holds monolithic views on climate policy. Rather, states need support to move away from a fossil fuel economy.
A Republican party split, underscored by young conservatives supportive of initiatives including carbon dividends, presents an opportunity to develop policy to encourage local net zero plans while persuading laggards to devise a timeframe to align with local realities.
Passionate opposition to federal intervention is only one of the challenges that Kerry and the administration face while paving the road to the COP climate change summit to be held in Glasgow in November. Building international confidence in American climate credibility, reassessing transatlantic relationships and navigating perilous waters with China will feature prominently.
International climate cooperation faces the dual challenges of building trust and repositioning transatlantic relationships after the departure of Britain from the European Union. Establishing trust goes beyond contributions to the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility. Climate policy is as much about