Biden Names John Kerry As Special Climate Envoy, With Seat on National Security Council

Posted by Brad Johnson Mon, 23 Nov 2020 21:08:00 GMT

President-elect Joe Biden has named former senator and Secretary of State John Kerry as his special envoy for climate, sitting on the National Security Council. Throughout his long career of public service, Kerry has been an ardent environmentalist who seeks to find common ground through diplomacy. His approach has found greater success on the international stage than with American conservatives, despite repeated attempts.

As a Massachusetts senator, Kerry worked desperately to salvage climate legislation when it was abandoned by the Obama White House following the Tea Party uprising of 2009. Lacking a unified Democratic caucus, Kerry tried without success to find Republican votes for climate legislation by working with former running mate Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

As Obama’s second Secretary of State, John Kerry’s diplomatic leadership was key to the successful Paris agreement, which marked a dramatic turnaround from the 2009 debacle of the Copenhagen climate talks. His support for killing the Canada-to-US Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline – in response to powerful pressure from climate activists – was also a change in direction from Kerry’s predecessor Hillary Clinton, who fast-tracked the permit process for the project. Like Clinton, however, Secretary of State Kerry was bullish on fracking as a means of energy diplomacy, despite its threat to the climate.

Kerry’s diplomatic approach has borne less fruit at home. Republicans such as Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump mocked Secretary Kerry for calling global warming “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction,” presaging the burn-it-all-down Trump presidency.

During the Trump years, Kerry founded a new organization called World War Zero, still attempting to find Republicans to get on board with climate action. Although Kerry’s organization supposedly intends to build a broad coalition of climate activists, World War Zero’s Republican participants include climate-science skeptic John Kasich, who mocks youth climate activists and vilifies the Green New Deal.

In his role Kerry will face several challenges unresolved by previous administrations. To date, immigration, trade, peace, and climate policy have been treated as wholly distinct milieus by government and advocates alike. Remarkably, even energy and climate diplomacy have largely operated on parallel tracks, with clashing agendas.

A critical test will be whether Kerry has say over international trade agreements which have always trumped climate negotiations. The so-called free-trade agenda has rendered international climate deals moot.

Similarly, it remains to be seen if Kerry will be an effective spokesman for the global South as it is ravaged by fossil-fueled storms and floods and drought, destabilizing governments and fueling the global migration crisis.

The military euphemism is that climate pollution is a “threat multiplier” – in other words, global conflict is now defined by the devastation to human civilization that results from the industrial destabilization of a habitable climate.

In response to this rising destabilization, right-wing movements around the globe have seized on the politics of militarized nativism and environmental exploitation, described approvingly by white-nationalist ecologist Garrett Hardin as “lifeboat ethics” in 1974.

One hopes that Kerry’s position on the National Security Council could mean the US military may shift away from its longtime role as the armed protection for the global oil industry. Kerry is highly interested in the military’s role during the Anthropocene. With his World War Zero campaign, Kerry has brought together a long list of military brass and former Defense Department officials.

Unfortunately, the primary narrative for climate policy within military circles is one of responding to the rising threats of climate destruction, with little to no engagement in ending climate pollution.

Of course, Kerry can’t guide international climate policy on his own. The makeup of Biden’s team will determine what is possible.

Rahm Emanuel, the neoliberal who was instrumental in killing White House support for climate legislation as Obama’s chief of staff, is being considered for U.S. Trade Representative. His selection would be a devastating setback.

Biden campaign advisor Heather Zichal, who has become notorious for joining the fracked-gas industry after leaving the Obama White House, came to prominence as the top Kerry climate policy staffer on his presidential campaign and in his Senate office. Zichal has been mentioned as a possible high-level staffer in the Biden White House despite broad opposition from climate activists.

Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, began his career studying fossil-fuel geopolitics. He wrote his dissertation in the 1980s on the Siberian pipeline crisis, in which the Reagan administration imposed far-reaching sanctions on oil-sector technology sharing in an attempt to block the pipeline’s construction. Blinken criticized the sanctions effort. His career since has been interventionist and pro-fossil-fuel development.

Surmounting the challenges of being Biden’s international climate czar will be a life-defining test for the 76-year-old statesman.