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 UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt as weary negotiators engaged in the final hours of heated midnight talks. However, one of the summit’s most powerful diplomats has been forced to work remotely from the phones in his hotel room after the Covid-19 lockdown.

It was the first time that US special climate envoy John Kerry, 78, has failed in his bid to lead the US environment. The former US secretary of state is the face of the US government’s response to climate change, but her track record has been mixed. The nations of the world are far behind on the promises they made under the Paris accords, which he helped broker. in 2015 and activists and some national leaders say they are disappointed with the COP summits and America’s ability to fulfill its promises.

Such is the dichotomy Kerry faces. He’s a rock star in climate diplomacy, but he’s connected to the messiness of US and global politics. This left many wondering why his charisma and influence could not generate a more effective response in the capitals of the world, including his own.

“He is a force in the negotiations and he is respected,” said Remy Rio, chief executive of the French Development Agency and an expert on international institutions. At the same time, Rio added, “people see what the United States is doing for Ukraine with the help of tens of billions of dollars. … Why is there no agreement in the United States to do something like climate change?

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Kerry has heard these kinds of questions before. In 2010, then – Sen. Kerry and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) couldn’t get a climate bill together, even after the House passed legislation that would have curbed carbon pollution nationwide. Not long ago, he and President Biden failed to convince Congress to approve climate finance for developing countries, despite the president’s pledge to provide $11.4 billion by 2024. And any effort to garner more support for climate action in Washington will be more difficult. starting in January when Republicans control the House.

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

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200 countries at the summit eventually did so, and Kerry helped reverse the United States’ previous resistance to such funding. The Egypt summit risked failure without a moment of progress. The US delegation was commended for helping to deliver it.

“I can’t remember a time when the United States came up with a big idea to mobilize financing for developing countries,” said Nigel Purvis, chief executive of climate consultants and former top US climate negotiator. “It’s great to see.”

However, the meeting ended without the approval of John Kerry and EU officials on two of his main priorities. The United States sought language to accelerate global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — specifically a phase-out of all fossil fuels — but those terms never made it into a final deal.

COP27 puts the world on a dangerous warming path despite the historic climate fund

Typically, rich countries won’t agree to something they previously opposed—reparations for climate-ravaged countries—without getting something they wanted, like stronger emissions cuts. But the United States of America agreed to take nothing in return and offered some clarifications.

John Kerry’s senior aides left the meeting before the end of the final session and beckoned reporters with questions. The official U.S. statement on the final COP27 agreement was released about six hours after the summit officially ended, and Kerry’s office declined a request for an interview.

In a 2,020-word statement, Kerry mentioned any failures or shortcomings of COP27. He has joined many Western leaders in downplaying the lack of bolder climate action they have publicly called for. Instead, Kerry presented a long list of accomplishments by the US delegation and praised the summit for incremental progress to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

“In the very real world of climate science, when you focus on the fractional face, this math matters: every tenth of a degree of heat avoided means fewer droughts, fewer floods, less sea-level rise, and less extreme weather.” said in a statement. “This means lives are saved and losses are prevented.”

Although Kerry is older than many of his other cabinet colleagues, his experience and versatility make him valuable to the White House — so much so that Biden named him one of his first appointments. Kerry’s long history in public life, as a soldier, activist, presidential candidate, statesman and even socialite, allows him to excel in a job that requires frequent worldwide travel and constant diplomacy. To succeed, Kerry must connect with young protesters and bank managers, Chinese bureaucrats and Emirati sheikhs.

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In back-to-back public speeches here Tuesday morning, Egyptian pavilion presenters used honors befitting his long career. They presented the former US senator as “His Excellency”, and a coalition of countries and non-profit organizations with the support of the UN included him in the John Kerry list. His staff have been calling him secretary since he was secretary of state during the Obama administration.

Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, special climate envoy Xi Jinping, have spoken openly about their friendly relationship. And they exchanged emails even when formal negotiations were suspended. At two past climate summits in Scotland and Egypt, Xi has made surprise appearances with Kerry, who last week surprised a capacity crowd by joining a COP27 event on methane emissions.

“You may be wondering why China’s climate envoy could participate in the global methane pledge,” Xi said, according to an interpreter, after Kerry’s introduction. “My very close friend, Secretary Kerry, told me about the conference this morning.”

However, even with such a gesture, the world’s two biggest emitters have yet to strike a broader deal to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to work together on climate change at the G-20 summit. But Xi did not commit China to a global methane pledge or announce any new climate policies at a news conference he attended at Kerry’s request.

In his statement on Sunday, John Kerry’s only apparent regret was for China, although he said negotiations between the two countries would continue.

“I’m glad that we talked about climate with China after President Biden and President Xi met in Bali in Sharm el-Sheikh,” Kerry said. “Due to the time constraints of our negotiations, unfortunately we were only able to make limited progress in Sharm.”

Several of his former staffers and diplomatic allies, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said Kerry is at a difficult political juncture. US Congress and voters refuse to support the kind of US international aid that would help it build strong allies abroad. And Kerry’s allies said international audiences can be difficult, too.

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In his statement, John Kerry mentioned international aid and fundraising by the US government with partners to help Indonesia with 10 billion dollars and Egypt with 250 million dollars for the development of clean energy.

French economist Laurence Tubiana said the funding is seen as part of a pragmatic U.S. strategy to direct limited funds to key developing countries — but it has a clear downside: Other countries feel they are getting such special treatment. they don’t have architect of the Paris Agreement, said in an interview.

A lack of trust between large parts of developing countries and the United States played a major role in the heated outcome of the meeting, said several negotiators here. While the United States eventually withdrew from a fund designated to compensate countries affected by climate change, it failed to rally the developing world to support more emissions reductions. The reason: Many countries are reluctant to follow through on previous climate aid pledges by Washington.

The rift between rich and poor countries that dominated COP27 was a more intense meeting than in Glasgow. Kerry’s fight against Covid-19 did not help the United States to overcome this tension.

Kerry, who turns 79 next month, could have avoided the difficult situation by resigning as the special climate envoy, and some EU leaders and others were surprised that he stayed. But close allies said that Kerry, despite his frequent temper tantrums, finds it encouraging.

He has not said whether he will leave the administration anytime soon, although two people who spoke on condition of anonymity said he may consider that option and could easily find work in the private sector.

Tubiana said that Kerry, like many political leaders, does not take advantage of the opportunity. He works to use political power to address issues he cares about, including climate change. He added that it is a decades-long global problem.

“If you’re really convinced that this is a global challenge that we have to face – and he absolutely is … you don’t care so much whether you succeed … you fight.” said Tubiana. “He’s really, really loyal and doesn’t care. If this COP is not honorable, he does not care. He has to do it.”

Mufson reported from DC


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