WASHINGTON — When John Kerry served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, he helped steer the negotiation of the Paris Agreement on climate change, locking down commitments from nearly 200 nations — including his own — to begin to reverse the dangerous warming of the planet.
Now his diplomatic task may be even tougher.
On Monday, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. said he would name Mr. Kerry his special presidential envoy for climate, creating a new cabinet-level position. In that role, Mr. Kerry will need to convince skeptical global leaders — burned by the Trump administration’s hostility toward climate science and its rejection of the 2015 Paris Agreement — that the United States not only is prepared to resume its leadership role but will also stay the course, regardless of the Biden administration’s future.
“The United States’ credibility on climate change has plummeted over the last four years,” said Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor and a former longtime State Department official who served Republican and Democratic administrations.
He called Mr. Kerry’s appointment a “powerful signal” that will help the United States, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China, start regaining global trust on the issue.
The appointment of Mr. Kerry not only as a roving diplomat but also as a sitting member of Mr. Biden’s National Security Council elevates the issue of climate change to the highest echelons of government, and indicates that the incoming administration intends to treat “the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat that it is,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement.
In naming Mr. Kerry Mr. Biden has tapped one of the biggest names in his government so far, a veteran politician adept at drawing attention to himself and his causes since he led opposition to the Vietnam War as a decorated young veteran.
“It’s an unusual sign, and certainly one that will grab everybody’s attention internationally,” said Todd S. Stern, who served as the State Department’s climate envoy under Mr. Obama.
But Mr. Kerry’s powers of persuasion on the world stage will only be as strong as the domestic policies that back up his promises. If Republicans continue to hold the majority in the Senate next year, he could face considerable headwinds at home.
Although two-thirds of Americans say the government should do more to address climate change, many Republicans remain firmly opposed to the measures most likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as drastically reducing the burning of fossil fuels. Such actions, they say, will further cripple an economy hobbled by the coronavirus and would accomplish little as emissions grow in the world’s two most populous nations, China and India.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and an opponent of addressing climate change, called Mr. Kerry “the poster child for what Middle America thinks the elitists look like who live in their fancy houses and drive their expensive cars and use a lot of carbon and tell the rest of us that the peasants are enjoying life too much.”
Republicans have been eager to pursue that line of attack, claiming repeatedly that the Biden administration is destined to embrace the Green New Deal proposals supported by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Mr. Biden has denied that, while pledging to “work with Congress to implement a bold agenda that addresses the climate emergency, achieves environmental justice and creates good-paying jobs.”
Bob Inglis, a Republican climate activist and former conservative congressman from South Carolina, said Mr. Biden’s choice of an elder statesman might make Republicans more willing to work constructively, as “it takes away the threat of creating a new Democratic star.”
Another factor in Mr. Kerry’s appeal to Republicans? His appointment prompted concern on the left.
The group Food & Water Action, which fights against the oil and gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, criticized Mr. Kerry for having supported natural gas and for being a “promoter of false climate solutions like market-based carbon-trading schemes.”
Mr. Kerry last year created a coalition of Republicans and Democrats willing to work together on climate change. Several Republican members strongly embrace the continued burning of natural gas as a way to eliminate coal, which emits twice as much carbon dioxide. However, drilling for natural gas also releases methane — an extremely potent greenhouse gas.
Mr. Biden’s support for natural gas was one of the biggest sources of concern for liberals throughout his campaign. Even as Mr. Biden promised to steer the United States toward reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and pledged to end new permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters, he vowed not to ban fracking and publicly embraced natural gas as a “bridge” between coal and renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
It may be Mr. Kerry who serves as the bridge — between the dissatisfied left, the unmoving right and the waiting world. He has been advocating action on climate change since he served in 1992 with then-Senator Al Gore on the U.S. delegation to the first Rio Earth Summit, where the framework of United Nations climate talks was formed.
He also knows the difficulty of persuading his own country to take action. In 2009, Mr. Kerry was co-author of climate change legislation as a senator from Massachusetts that would have set a ceiling on America’s greenhouse gas emissions while allowing companies to trade permits to meet that target; the legislation passed the House but died in the Senate without even seeing a vote.
Those who have worked with him describe Mr. Kerry as having real understanding of the science of climate change, a grasp of the economic costs and benefits of moving to clean energy and a close working relationship with dozens of leaders in the field. Mr. Stern recalled a speech Mr. Kerry gave to ministers on one of the tense final nights of the Paris negotiations in which he urged developing nations to give up long-held positions that only industrialized nations should have to take firm emissions commitments because the threat of a warming planet was too dire. The speech won praise even from countries that opposed his view, Mr. Stern said.
The role of envoy has changed since the Obama years. Rather than corralling other nations into a legal agreement, Mr. Kerry will be charged with persuading other nations to take increasingly bold steps to significantly cut their carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030.
“His job is to basically execute a pivot from 30 years of negotiations to a decade of aggressive action,” said Paul Bodnar, managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which works on climate policy, and who served at the State Department under Mr. Kerry.
“The single most important thing is going to be the relationship with China. That is first, second, third and fourth on the list after re-entering Paris,” said Tim Wirth, who served as under secretary of state for global affairs under President Bill Clinton.
As special presidential envoy for climate, Mr. Kerry will participate in ministerial-level meetings with a cabinet rank. He will not have to face Senate confirmation, according to Mr. Biden’s transition team.
One of his earliest tests will be a global summit that Mr. Biden has said he will hold on climate change within the first 100 days of his administration. According to Mr. Biden’s transition team, the president-elect will also name in December a White House climate policy coordinator who will help streamline domestic climate change policies throughout the government.
“I think we cannot underestimate the loss of credibility that the U.S. has experienced since Paris,” warned Carol Browner, who held the position of White House coordinator for energy and climate policy in the Obama administration.
Democratic administrations in the United States have a history of joining climate pacts like the Paris Agreement (and before that, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol) only for them to be abandoned by subsequent Republican presidents. International leaders said they were eager to see Washington back at the table, but said restoring America’s credibility would not be easy.
“Kerry’s challenge is ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,’” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
She noted that the Paris Agreement was designed to survive a hiatus in support from the United States. But, Ms. Kyte said, “That the U.S. walked away from the biggest challenge of this generation has left scar tissue.”