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U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry is giving up the job title — but not the fight

John Kerry says "we can win this fight" against climate change.
Sean Gallup
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Getty Images
John Kerry says "we can win this fight" against climate change.

John Kerry has been a U.S. senator, a presidential candidate and a secretary of state, all after receiving three Purple Hearts for his military service in Vietnam. Now, at the age of 80, he is stepping down from what's likely his last full time job in government: the president's special envoy for climate.

Joe Biden created the position for his old friend right after taking office three years ago. And since then, Kerry has been all over the world trying to rally governments and corporations to curb the worst impacts of climate change.

All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro spoke with Kerry about his tenure in the Biden administration, how another Donald Trump presidency could impact the fight against climate change, and how he remains hopeful.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

Ari Shapiro: Could you begin by just choosing one number, a specific, narrow figure that you think represents some of the broader accomplishments of your time as a climate envoy?

John Kerry: I think the one number is 1.5 degrees Celsius, which has now become the north star of the world for trying to deal with the climate crisis. In 2018, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], told us point blank, we have 12 years within which to make and implement the critical decisions to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. And in order to do that, you have to try to get as close as you can to 1.5.

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NPR

Shapiro: And yet right now the world is on track to warm the planet by twice that many degrees by the end of the century. And last year, like many recently, was the hottest in recorded history. Global emissions keep going up. It would seem that although you have worked so hard to keep the potential for 1.5 within reach, the reality is far from that.

Kerry: Well, it's not far from that. I mean, point blank: we are heading towards about 2.5 degrees right now. But we know – given what we achieved in Glasgow and Sharm el-Sheikh, and now most recently the UAE consensus – if we implemented all the initiatives and all of the targets that were set by those various meetings, we could actually hold the earth's temperature to about 1.7 degrees. When I took this job on, we were headed towards four degrees. And now we're heading towards 2.5.

Shapiro: I want to follow up on something you said, which is that things look really good if we keep the promises we've made – if countries stick to their pledges. Dubai was by you and your team considered a great success because for the first time, the world agreed that we need to move away from fossil fuels. But at the same time, China is building more coal fired power plants. In the U.S., emissions are not falling fast enough to meet American climate goals. So what leads you to believe that these promises will be kept?

Kerry: Yes, China has about 360 gigawatts of coal fired power that is slated to come online, and that would be catastrophic if that's what happens. But China is, I think, to some degree hedging against the reality of what their economy needs as a backstop. But they're constructing and deploying more renewables than all of the rest of the world put together. China is looking at something like 2,500 to 3,500 gigawatts of power that's going to be created over the course of the next six years. Now that's game changing if that happens. We still have to see China massively reduce coal-fired power, we have a lot of work to do together to advance that. But happily, we had a major negotiation with China in Sunnylands California for four days, and China agreed, for the first time, to put all greenhouse gasses on the table as they revise their goal for what they're going to achieve over the next round of reductions.

John Kerry, left, listens to Xie Zhenhua, Special Envoy for Climate Change for China, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2022.
Markus Schreiber / AP
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AP
John Kerry, left, listens to Xie Zhenhua, Special Envoy for Climate Change for China, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2022.

Shapiro: I want to ask you about corporations, because you've often talked about the role that private industry plays in the transition away from carbon. Just this week, the CEO of ExxonMobil, Darren Woods, told Fortune magazine that the world is not on track to reach net zero emissions by 2050. And he blamed the public for that, saying: "The people who are generating those emissions need to be aware of and pay the price for generating those emissions." Secretary Kerry, when you hear those words coming from the head of the largest publicly traded oil company, blaming the public for a lack of climate progress, how do you conclude that corporate America is marching alongside you?

Kerry: Well, I haven't suggested that everybody is. I've said to you that there are many corporations that are doing unbelievable things right now.

Shapiro: But ExxonMobil is a pretty big one.

Kerry: ExxonMobil is an oil and gas producer that has not yet joined in some of the larger initiatives that we need in order to achieve our goal. And ExxonMobil did step up in Dubai, but we need them to do more. That's why the UAE consensus is actually so important, because for the first time ever in our history, oil and gas was at the table. They agreed to do certain things and they all signed on to a transition away from fossil fuel. We're seeing a pace of penetration of renewables around the world: China is at about 31% now, electric vehicles; Europe is at about 21% electric vehicles; the United States is at 4%. So we have to speed up. That's one of the reasons why I'm transitioning out of this particular job, because I think that now the private sector is going to be the key to our ability to be able to win this battle.

Shapiro: So you're giving up the job title, but you're not giving up the fight?

Kerry: Correct. I am going to be directly involved in trying to help deploy the financing, which will accelerate this transition. All the finance reports say if you want to achieve net zero by 2050, then it's going to cost about $2.5 to $5 trillion a year for the next 30 years. No government in the world has that money put on the table, but the private sector does.

Shapiro: Can the push to achieve net zero by 2050 survive a second term of Donald Trump as president if he wins the election in November?

Kerry: When Donald Trump was president, even though he pulled out of Paris, more than a thousand mayors in the United States kept on track to meet the Paris agreement requirements. 37 governors out of our 50 states, Republican and Democrat alike, continued to adhere to the renewable portfolio laws of each of their states. We actually saw 75% of the new electricity in America during Donald Trump came from renewables. It does matter who is president, but no one prime minister, one king, one president anywhere in the world is able to stop what the marketplace of the world is now moving towards.

Shapiro: You have been involved in climate and environmental efforts for more than 50 years, since at least 1970. So what do you do when you have a day of despair or hopelessness?

Kerry: I kick myself in the ass and go back to work. We can win this fight. And if we don't do what we need to do between now and 2030, there is no net zero 2050. And I refuse to believe that that's what we're left having to accept.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Kai McNamee