The Good News Is That John Kerry Believes In Climate Change

On Monday, the Biden transition team named former Secretary of State John Kerry to be the President-elect’s climate envoy. Kerry will also be on the National Security Council, making it the the first time any sort of climate position has sat on that body.

Kerry has been involved for years in climate change efforts, as Lieutenant Governor in Massachusetts, a Senator, and then Secretary of State under Obama. He led U.S. negotiations for the Paris Accords, an experience that will be important as the role will be primarily international according to Axios, and because the United States accounts for only 15 percent of global emissions. He’s also crafted his own climate change agenda called the  World War Zero coalition, which the New York Times introduced in 2019 as “a new bipartisan coalition of world leaders, military brass and Hollywood celebrities to push for public action to combat climate change.” 

Kerry clearly believes climate change is a serious threat right now and into the future—that is the good news. The bad news is that he appears to deeply believe in market-led solutions that have failed already, and he thinks we should turn nature into assets that investors can properly value on the market.

Take World War Zero. In an interview with Emily Atkin in her climate newsletter HEATED, Kerry said the main goal is to convince people that climate change should be a priority. It’s a big-tent project, bringing on people like former Ohio GOP Governor John Kasich, a fracking warrior, who told the Times he “believed in finding a consensus” but “If I’ve got to sign up to be an anti-fracker, count me out.” Kerry also said there was “too much polarization” and “too much ideology” getting in the way of “collectively demanding accountability.” His group, then, would be a chance for people to have “climate conversations” in a bid to “activate and mobilize people” in 2020.

And yet, as Atkin wrote the day after that interview, there’s reason to be skeptical of the campaign. For starters, Republicans have consistently sabotaged any attempt at climate legislation. Another reason might be that Kerry’s group would be “undermining groups to their left like Sunrise Movement, 350.org, and Extinction Rebellion,” Atkin wrote. These groups have successfully mobilized people; a sit-in led by the Sunrise Movement helped push the Green New Deal into the spotlight and shift the terms of the climate change debate in this country, for example. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s because these are also criticisms leveled at Biden. Not only does Biden forcefully distance himself from the Green New Deal whenever possible (even though parts of his plan borrow from it), he has appointed one of the biggest recipients of the fossil fuel industry’s money as a “liaison with the business community and climate change activists.” Biden has also refused to commit to a ban on fracking, just the opposite, although he has said he will ban new oil and gas leases on federal land. 

Kerry’s conservative climate streak—taking one step forward with flashes of activism then another back by tempering it with accommodations for climate denialists—was on display during the negotiation of the Paris Accords. While the EU and other signatories insisted that the Paris Accords be an “international treaty” with legally binding measures to cut emissions, Kerry told the Financial Times in an interview that the agreement was “definitely not going to be a treaty.” EU officials also added that the Obama administration was “eager” for the agreement, but “not one containing new, legally binding measures.”

Part of Kerry’s resistance was understandable, if seen through the lens of political pragmatism: the Senate is responsible for ratifying all treaties and would require two-thirds approval in a hostile GOP-controlled Senate if found to be a treaty. Still, the EU’s climate commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete and France’s foreign minister Lauren Fabius insisted in separate interviews that the agreement must be legally binding to be effective. 

In the end, a core part of the agreement—each nation’s emissions goals—were non-binding. Instead, Kerry called for a “legally binding transparency system” for the sake of the private sector. This resulted in pledges that are insufficient to avoid the two degree Celsius of warming that the International Panel on Climate Change deemed “catastrophic” and are woefully inadequate to stop 1.5 degrees of Celsius warming. For years, island nations have called mitigation plans ignoring this threshold a “benign genocide”  and in 2018, the IPCC published a “Doomsday Report” that revealed we’d need to cut emissions to 45 percent of 2010 levels by 2030 to avoid 1.5 degrees of warming.

It has been clear for decades that the market on its own will not do anything positive for the climate; that’s why we have environmental laws that are binding. Though a market for carbon emissions has existed for years, for example, emissions continue to rise and companies have figured out how to game the system for profit.  Kerry consistently defers to the private sector and “the market,” which is concerning given the crisis we are facing and the decisive action needed to meet it. 

Kerry, for example, hailed the Accords for “sending the marketplace an extraordinary signal” which “helps the private sector to move capital into that, knowing there’s a future that is committed to this sustainable path.” After the agreement was signed, Kerry even went so far as to call it  “the most extraordinary market opportunity in the history of mankind.” 

Just days ago, Kerry penned an op-ed in The Hill titled “How to better tackle climate change” that further laid out his commitment to the marketplace in fighting climate change. He says, for example, that  carbon pricing can deter investment in extraction, production, and consumption by “[allowing] citizens, innovators, and companies to make independent decisions that drive their emissions reductions.” This desire to bring in the market is a constant for Kerry, who repeats later in the op-ed that “Paris sent a message to the market” and echoed his 2015 comments that this could be the “greatest manufacturing opportunity that the world has ever known.” 

Kerry also mentions approvingly some ideas from the “investment community,” specifically a report by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and the Nature Conservancy that propose turning nature into an asset class to fund conservation efforts. He points to a World Bank report that said carbon needed to be priced “at least $100 over the next decade”  as evidence that we need to create “a new asset class that can act as a hedge against portfolio vulnerability in the face of climate change.”

The report Kerry points to is an interesting one. It warns that we’re spending $824 billion less than we need to on conservation and argues that “the full value of costs of using, or destroying, natural systems are poorly understood” precisely because they are not properly financialized. These ongoing efforts and experiments are, as UCLA assistant professor of geography Kelly Kay put it, a “corporate hostile takeover” that will yield returns for shareholders, rents for firms, and potentially even more disastrous asset bubbles for the rest of us. 

This attempt to introduce nature to market logic is a particularly old one, as economist Doug Henwood laid out in 1995. “Most ecological economists would agree that the price system today doesn’t do a very good job of incorporating environmental costs,” Henwood wrote then. “Market advocates believe the key is to define a new set of property rights, to define assets—claims to natural resources like clean air or the ozone layer—that then can be priced and traded. More radical green economists prefer to talk about ecological resources as common property, objecting to the commodification of nature.” One of the loudest proponents of this idea at the time was Graciela Chichilnsky, then a professor at Columbia University who would go on to work heavily on the Kyoto Protocols and help create today’s carbon markets. 

When it comes to private sector partnerships, there is scant evidence we can trust the same corporations that lied to us for decades at every turn to preserve profits to lead the way on climate change, however. In a report by Malcolm Harris for the New York Magazine, Harris went to a private planning meeting where the oil giant Shell tried to brainstorm how to profit from climate activism. 

“Shell’s concern, deeper than its fossil-fuel identity and more urgent than the climate crisis, is Shell,” Harris writes. “In order to survive and keep the bottom line growing, I am convinced the company will do whatever needs to be done, whether that’s networking solar panels, systematic human-rights violations, or both. Maybe it’ll even make some incidental progress along the way, depending on where the subsidies are, but there’s no comprehensive vision for a livable future here, no ethical imagination, no morality to speak of.”

Barring a victory in both Senate seats—and likely, even with that outcome—Biden will, like Obama, have to act unilaterally through executive action to be effective. Beyond that, his plan, which was celebrated by some climate advocates, will likely be limited to reversing Trump’s reversals of Obama’s policies and more coalition building with denialists.

As Ben Adler writes for the American Prospect, a Democratic president-elect has options available: Biden could strengthen and expand the Clean Power Plan—an EPA regulation limiting carbon emissions from power plants—or revoke federal leases for coal mining (41 percent of US coal mined on federal leases), and curtail the nearly 25 percent of carbon emissions coming from fossil fuel extracted on public lands.

As the President-elect’s key climate person, Kerry seems to believe in the kind of ineffectual bipartisanship and market-led approach that has already failed us. It’s easy to imagine that even these baby steps will find little support among the denialists in World War Zero or Congresspeople who support fossil fuel extraction, and Kerry will continue to chase their approval with compromise. 

So while it is great that Trump has been ousted, great that the United States will not spend another four years trying to hasten ecological collapse, and great that Biden has a climate change agenda and envoy that are serious, there are sharp limits to expect and it is still unclear what exactly Kerry will do. If Kerry simply negotiates international agreements with more ambitious goals, great. If he advocates for more private sector partnerships and to financialize nature, that would be even worse than a return to the Obama status quo.