The climate needs John Kerry to deliver. Was Egypt a major setback?


SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – The lights literally went out at this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt as weary negotiators engaged in the final hours of midnight bargaining. But one of the most powerful diplomats at the summit had to work remotely, isolated in his hotel room after contracting covid-19.

This is hardly the first time US special climate envoy John F. Kerry, 78, has tripped up in trying to exert US environmental leadership. The former secretary of state is the face of the US government’s response to climate change, but his resume is mixed. The nations of the world are far behind in the promises they made in the Paris agreement he helped broker. in 2015, and activists and some national leaders said they became disillusioned with the COP summit. and America’s ability to keep its promises.

Such is the dichotomy Kerry faces. He is a rock star in climate diplomacy, but he is tied to the vagaries of US and global politics. That led many to wonder why his charm and influence could not marshal a more effective response in world capitals, including his own.

“He is a force in negotiations, and he is respected,” said Rémy Rioux, chief executive of the French Development Agency and an expert on international institutions. At the same time, Rioux added, “people see what the United States is doing for Ukraine, with the support of tens of billions of dollars. … Is there no consensus in the United States to do the same for the climate?”

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Kerry has heard such questions before. In 2010, then-Sen. Kerry and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) failed to patch together the climate bill, even after the House approved legislation that would cap national carbon pollution. More recently, he and President Biden have not been able to persuade Congress to approve climate financial assistance to developing countries, although the president has promised to deliver $ 11.4 billion by 2024. And all efforts to marshal greater support for climate action in Washington will be harder. starting in January, when the Republicans took control of the House.

At this year’s summit in Egypt, known as COP27, developing countries expressed frustration that the United States is not matching rhetoric with action. They explained that the COP – the Conference of the Parties – should approve a “loss and damage” fund to compensate vulnerable countries for the damage caused by climate change.

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The 200 countries at the summit eventually did so, and Kerry helped reverse the United States’ resistance to such financing. The summit of Egypt risked failure without breakthrough moments. The US delegation was praised for helping deliver it.

“I can’t remember a time when the United States was at the forefront of proposing a big idea to mobilize funds for developing countries,” said Nigel Purvis, chief executive of Climate Advisers and a former senior US climate negotiator. “It’s great to see.”

But the summit ended without Kerry and European Union officials getting approval on two top priorities. The United States has sought language to accelerate global cuts to greenhouse gas emissions – specifically the phase-down of all fossil fuels – but those terms have never made it into a final agreement.

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Usually, wealthy countries won’t concede to something they once fought for – compensation for climate-damaged countries – without getting what they want, like stronger emissions cuts. But the United States compromised without getting much more, and that provides some explanation.

Kerry’s top deputies left the plenary before the end of the final session and waved off journalists asking questions. The official US statement on the final COP27 agreement came out about six hours after the formal conclusion of the summit, and Kerry’s office declined an interview request.

In a 2,020-word statement, Kerry addressed any failures or shortcomings of COP27. He joined many Western leaders in downplaying the lack of bolder climate action they have publicly demanded. Instead, Kerry offered a long list of the US delegation’s achievements and praised the summit for making additional progress to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

“In the very real world of climate science, that math is important when you focus on different fractions: every tenth degree of warming avoided means less drought, less flooding, less sea level rise, less extreme weather,” he said in the statement. “It means lives are saved and losses are avoided.”

Although Kerry is older than many of his other administration partners, his seniority and versatility make him valuable to the White House – so much so that Biden named him as one of his first appointments. Kerry’s long history in public life, as a soldier, activist, presidential candidate, statesman and even socialite, gives him a leg up in a job that requires frequent travel around the world and constant diplomacy. To succeed, Kerry must connect with young protesters and banking executives, Chinese bureaucrats and Emirati sheikhs.

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In a public speech here Tuesday morning, the presenter at the Egyptian pavilion used honorifics befitting his long career. they introduced the former US senator as his “excellence,” and a UN-backed coalition of states and nonprofits listed him as the honorable John Kerry. His staff called him secretary, from when he was secretary of state during the Obama administration.

Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, have spoken publicly about their cordial relationship. And they exchanged emails even when formal negotiations were suspended. At the past two climate summits in Scotland and Egypt, Xie made surprise appearances with Kerry, last week impressing capacity crowds by attending the COP27 event on methane emissions.

“You might wonder why China’s climate envoy could attend the global methane pledge,” Xie said, according to an interpreter, after Kerry introduced him. “Very good friend, Secretary Kerry told me about the conference this morning.”

But even with such a gesture, the world’s two biggest emitters still need to make a broader agreement to reduce their greenhouse gases.

Last week, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed at the G-20 summit to work together on climate change. But Xie did not commit China to a global methane pledge during a news conference attended by Kerry, and he did not announce a new climate policy.

In his statement Sunday, Kerry’s only explicit regret was about China, although he said talks between the two countries would continue.

“I’m glad we’re having climate discussions with China here in Sharm el-Sheikh, after President Biden and President Xi in Bali,” Kerry said. “Due to the compressed time for our negotiations, unfortunately we can only make limited progress in Sharm.”

Kerry is at a difficult point politically, said several of his former staff members and diplomatic allies, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue. Congress and US voters are reluctant to support the kind of US international aid that would help it build strong allies abroad. And international audiences can be hard to please, Kerry allies say.

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In his statement, Kerry revealed the US government’s international assistance and fundraising with partners to help Indonesia with $10 billion and Egypt $250 million for clean energy development.

The funding is seen as part of a pragmatic US strategy to direct limited money to key developing countries – but it has a clear downside: Other countries feel miffed that they don’t get the same special treatment, said Laurence Tubiana, a French economist. and the architect of the Paris Agreement, said in an interview.

A lack of trust between large parts of the developing world and the United States played a big role in the summit’s tepid outcome, some negotiators here said. When the United States finally gave up on creating a fund designated to compensate countries damaged by the effects of climate change, it failed to generate solidarity with the developing world to gain support for further emission reductions. The reason: Many countries feel rejected by Washington’s failure to deliver on climate aid promises.

That friction is central to the divide between rich and poor countries that dominates COP27, a more acrimonious summit than Glasgow. Kerry’s fight with covid-19 did not help the United States to relieve such tension.

Kerry, who will be 79 next month, could have avoided this challenging terrain by stepping down as special climate envoy, and some EU leaders and others were surprised he stuck it out. But close allies say Kerry finds the cause refreshing, despite the frequent acrimony.

He has not said whether he will resign from the administration anytime soon, although two people who spoke on condition of anonymity to be honest​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ have said he may consider that option and could easily find a job in the private sector.

Kerry is not driven by opportunity like many political leaders, Tubiana said. He works to use political power to solve problems he cares about, and he has seen climate change as top global problem for decades, he added.

“If you really believe it’s a global conflict we have to face – and he strongly believes it … you don’t really care if you succeed … you fight,” Tubiana said. “He’s really committed and doesn’t care. If this isn’t a noble COP, he doesn’t care. He has to do it.”

Mufson reported from DC


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