International Climate Policy and John Kerry’s New Role in President Biden’s Administration

Days after President Joe Biden was elected in November, former Secretary of State John Kerry was announced to be the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. Kerry will be the first to hold this position in a presidential cabinet, making history as the Biden administration promises to take extensive actions against the climate crisis. A few of their targets include transitioning to a carbon-free power sector, adopting climate-smart agricultural practices, and establishing a National Climate Task Force. On his first day as president, Biden followed through on one highly anticipated promise: rejoining the Paris Agreement. Moving forward, John Kerry’s role could prove to be instrumental to the future of national and international cooperation in mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis.

After former President Trump announced his plans to officially withdraw from the Paris accord in November 2019, environmentalists and advocates, in addition to many politicians and citizens, recognized the nature of withdrawal as a significant setback. Communities worried for the future of America’s role in global efforts to coordinate progressive solutions. With a new, more progressive administration and the presence of long-time environmental advocate John Kerry, the future of climate diplomacy looks brighter. There is an apparent need to act decisively and humbly in order to repair the regressive nature of Trump’s climate policy, and foreign policy in general. 

Kerry specifically has the potential to leverage his role as an experienced and credible diplomat in order to push the U.S. and other high-emitting countries  towards more ambitious climate targets. In taking a holistic approach, and hopefully giving due consideration to both the economic and justice lenses of environmental policy, the newly-appointed climate envoy will be key in shaping legislative outcomes. In order to effectively transition to a renewable energy economy, Kerry says America has to “shift our focus to stakeholders.” As legislators weigh stakeholder priorities, it becomes increasingly important to center BIPOC, low-income, and fossil-fuel dependent communities to ensure a just transition

What is the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement was originally conceived to replace the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 treaty intended to limit greenhouse gas emissions. While the Kyoto Protocol was a significant development at the time, it was found to be ineffective in part because the U.S. — as a major emitter — did not ratify the treaty and therefore was not required to comply with its emissions provisions. In recognizing these shortcomings, the Paris Agreement is a renewal of commitment in the international community’s efforts to combat the climate crisis. In 2016, the Paris Agreement officially went into effect for over 100 countries, including the United States. After a three month-long withdrawal under the Trump Administration, the United States once again became an official party to the agreement on February 19, 2021. 

As a member of the Paris climate accord, the U.S. reaffirms its intentions to limit pollution and harmful emissions in order to prevent global warming from reaching 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. After formally recommitting to the accord, the Biden administration must set the United States’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). NDC goals, which are created by the individual countries signed onto the agreement, act as emissions reduction targets and are crucial to setting the trajectory for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with Paris Agreement objectives. While the Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty, NDCs are commitments rather than legal obligations. As the the second-highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, the United States will be pivotal in negotiating how international goals are reached. Leaders throughout the world were highly disappointed when former President Trump decided to withdraw U.S. membership, but the urgency expressed in President Biden’s swift rejoining signals a renewed dedication to prioritizing the climate crisis. 

The Need to Aim Higher

On February 26, 2021, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) released a synthesis report which raised concerns regarding the state of national climate action plans. While the Paris Agreement attempts to keep countries on track to limit warming, the current progress of NDCs is not enough to reach emissions reduction targets. Climate Envoy John Kerry has been vocal in saying that not only are the current goals of the Paris Agreement inadequate, but members of the agreement are not doing their part in reaching outlined goals. Due to the nature of the agreement, countries are not penalized for missing critical climate goals, partially explaining the shortfalls in meeting emissions reductions targets. Kerry has expressed his support in implementing carbon pricing as an actionable and feasible means of mitigating otherwise worsening events relating to warming, including sea level rise and superstorms. In doing this, limits and prices on carbon emissions reduce downstream costs, but could place costs on consumers in overburdened communities.        

While rejoining the Paris Agreement is a significant step towards committing to emissions reductions, Kerry is right in saying that it is not enough. The goals of the agreement are rather broad, only acting as a framework to limit warming rather than setting tangible standards of emissions reductions. In setting ambitious NDCs, the U.S. will have enhanced goals, but in order to truly reach carbon neutrality, international agreements will require more than general promises. In addition to other upcoming negotiations, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November  2021 will indicate the extent to which countries are willing to commit to decarbonization. As the climate crisis worsens, the international community will look to influential figures like John Kerry to navigate the responsibilities of major emitters to reduce pollution in a way that protects vulnerable populations while ensuring an economically and socially viable future.

Warming As a Security Issue

As international climate policy adapts to the evolving crisis, countries must begin to anticipate the future needs of regions impacted by warming. These needs are dependent on how current and future agreements play out in ameliorating environmental harm. While communities across the world already face the realities of extreme heat, flooding, drought, crop failure, and air pollution, the climate crisis becomes an increasingly prevalent issue of human security. Cross-border climate impacts will raise security issues due to shared risks amongst interconnected populations and markets in North Africa, India, and the European Union, among other regions. Livelihoods become insecure as natural disasters and unforeseen increases in temperature force people to leave their homes in search of safer environments. Furthermore, the United Nations has yet to fully address the status and international protections of climate refugees, raising the question of how a universal approach to addressing climate-induced displacement could take place. 

Beyond the legal rights of displaced peoples, the adverse impacts of climate change are likely to fuel violent conflict and potentially warfare. Civil wars are likely to arise due to turbulence surrounding heat, drought, and agriculture as results of the climate crisis. The presence of organized crime also expands with the growing threat of the climate crisis, as illegal deforestation activity in areas like the Amazon amplify the existing vulnerability of carbon sinks. While the international community attempts to create amicable and low-impact policy solutions, the realities of displacement and violence create the need for human security to be at the forefront of climate conversations. 

Although they may seem distant, climate-related security issues are already present in the United States. Coastal cities like Norfolk, Virginia are experiencing intense flooding. High temperatures and drought have made California and surrounding states susceptible to massive forest fires. As cities and rural areas alike come to terms with increased frequency of extreme weather events driven by climate change, internally displaced people will be in need of protection and resettlement. The future of government action is unknown in addressing overcrowding, barriers to access, and resource allocation in terms of sufficient air conditioning and reliable sources of food for areas suffering from nearly unbearable heat. 

Looking Ahead

The United States rejoining the Paris Agreement is an important but largely symbolic step towards international cooperation. Within the coming weeks, President Biden will have to set NDCs for the U.S. with an anticipated commitment to reduce emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. In setting ambitious targets, the administration will have to proactively focus on reducing emissions from large polluters, particularly within the power and transportation sectors. Setting NDCs alone is not sufficient as the U.S. must follow through on commitments in order to truly make progress and reach national and international clean energy goals.  

The scale of the climate crisis requires equitable, immediate, and widespread measures along with global willingness to coordinate implementation. Decision makers will have to create solutions by considering the social and economic costs of carbon, enforcing oncoming regulations to hold historically high-level emitters responsible, and utilizing principles of environmental justice to recenter underserved and overburdened communities. For the security of humanity and preservation of the climate as we know it, all policy, from local to international, must be rooted in action.  

Featured Image: Photo of John Kerry by Ralph Alswang via Flickr