Biden picks Kerry for Cabinet-level climate role

Former secretary of State will be a special presidential envoy for climate, a role that does not require Senate confirmation

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and former Secretary of State tried to explain the national security threats posed by climate change to lawmakers in 2019.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and former Secretary of State tried to explain the national security threats posed by climate change to lawmakers in 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 23, 2020 at 2:15pm

President-elect Joe Biden said longtime climate hawk and former diplomat John Kerry will serve in his administration as a key adviser on climate change.

Kerry will be appointed as special presidential envoy for climate, a role that does not require Senate confirmation, the president-elect’s transition team said Monday.

Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the vice president-elect, will announce Kerry’s position Tuesday, along with a slate of other nominations, including Antony Blinken to lead the State Department, Alejandro Mayorkas to run the Homeland Security Department and Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The choices of Blinken and Kerry signal a focus on climate change for Biden, who has promised the U.S. will rejoin the Paris climate agreement of 2015, and is a testament to the reality that climate change transcends environmental issues and seeps into matters of national security and international affairs.

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“These officials will start working immediately to rebuild our institutions, renew and reimagine American leadership to keep Americans safe at home and abroad, and address the defining challenges of our time — from infectious disease, to terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cyber threats, and climate change,” the Biden team said in a statement.

In his role, Kerry will sit on the National Security Council. “This marks the first time that the NSC will include an official dedicated to climate change, reflecting the president-elect’s commitment to addressing climate change as an urgent national security issue,” the Biden team said.

While representing Massachusetts in the Senate and during his time as secretary of State in the Obama administration, Kerry often focused on climate change.

“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is,” Kerry said in a statement on Twitter. “I'm proud to partner with the President-elect, our allies, and the young leaders of the climate movement to take on this crisis as the President's Climate Envoy.”

Climate agreements

In the Senate, Kerry was often one of the few members of Congress to attend global climate talks. And as secretary of State, he played a key role in negotiating the 2015 Paris climate accord and led the U.S. delegation in 2016 at an international summit dedicated to limiting hydrofluorocarbons, powerful chemicals used in common household items like air conditioners, sprays and refrigerants.

The U.S. Senate hasn't ratified that agreement, known as the Kigali Amendment, since it entered into force globally in 2019. Separately, President Donald Trump's administration formally withdrew the U.S. from the Paris deal this month.

Speaking at a Hudson Institute forum in July, Blinken described climate change in brutal terms.

“Quite simply, it is arguably the one truly existential issue that we face. It has to be, and under a Biden administration would be, a number one priority,” said Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration.

Environmental groups greeted the Kerry announcement with lukewarm approval. 

“I worked alongside Secretary Kerry on the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force, and know that he is committed to engaging and listening to young voices — even when we might not always agree — and ensuring we have a seat at the table,” said Varshini Prakash, a founder of the youth-led environmental group, Sunrise Movement. “This is an encouraging commitment, but it is not enough,” she said, pushing the incoming Biden administration to create a new government wing called the “Office of Climate Mobilization” for a significant domestic climate agenda. “What good is it to engage in diplomacy abroad if we’re not doing everything we can at home?”

Janet Redman, climate campaign director with Greenpeace, called the Kerry appointment a “good first step” and said rejoining Paris “should be the baseline for Biden’s climate ambition,’ not the ceiling,” while Mindy Lubber of Ceres, the sustainability group based in Boston, said, in part, “Biden is already showing a commitment to prioritize climate action and take into account the impacts of the crisis across cabinet positions.”

In a separate statement, the Biden team said Kerry's role would be the first Cabinet-level position specific to climate change and "the first time climate change has had a seat at the table on the National Security Council. There could be no one better suited to meet this moment."

Speaking in February 2014 in Jakarta, Indonesia, while serving as secretary of State, Kerry spoke at length about climate change, calling it a “global threat” and saying the city was on the “front lines” of human-caused warming.

“Emissions coming from anywhere in the world threaten the future for people everywhere in the world,” he said in part. He told an audience at the embassy in Jakarta to prod its elected officials to address the issue. “Speak out. Make climate change an issue that no public official can ignore for another day. Make a transition toward clean energy the only plan that you are willing to accept,” he said.

While leading the State Department, Kerry recommended that former President Barack Obama reject the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed project that would take petroleum products from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. While Obama agreed and rejected the pipeline, Trump seized on the project as a campaign issue and approved the pipeline, which remains unfinished.