John Kerry’s Fifth Act is Good News for Climate Policy

Former US secretary of state, former Democratic presidential nominee, former senator and former anti-Vietnam activist John Kerry has just become the face of US climate policy. Longtime Canadian Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is just fine with that.


Elizabeth May

November 25, 2020

United States President-Elect Joe Biden has named former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate envoy. As with all of Biden’s cabinet and other senior appointments so far, this one telegraphs a message that carries particular, post-Trumpian cargo: America is taking climate change seriously again. Or, as my Québec compatriots might say, “finies les folies” (enough with the craziness).

The first televised image I can recall of John Kerry is seared in my memory. On an April day in 1971, along with dozens of other Vietnam veterans, he threw his medals over the fence in front of the US Capitol building. His testimony before the US Senate on behalf of a group he helped form, Vietnam Veterans against the War in Vietnam, was powerful. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee America had created a monster. “A monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence…And who were given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history.”

Fast forward to more recent images — Kerry as Senator, Kerry as presidential candidate — the victim of dirty tactics that turned “swift-boat” into a verb. Then, for me, before Kerry becomes President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, the images of John Kerry segue from the public to the personal, with our paths — along with thousands of others — intersecting at major global climate diplomacy events.

We were both present at the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen. As a senator, he was working across party lines to develop a climate bill to help deliver cuts in greenhouse gases. He was not the strongest climate champion within the US Congress. Those credits went to Rep. Henry Waxman of California, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts (now a senator) and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Nevertheless, John Kerry was constructive and committed.

In 2013, John Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, with significant implications for Canada. The Keystone Environmental Assessment and report conducted by the US State Department had initially been in Hillary Clinton’s hands. Its analysis made clear that neither Trans Mountain nor Keystone should be built, but Clinton seemed to believe building Keystone would have minimal impact on GHG emissions. By 2015, on Kerry’s advice, President Obama rejected the Keystone pipeline. Some in Canadian media attacked Kerry for rejecting the pipeline on the same report that had led Clinton to suggest she was more favourable. But few have actually read it.

This appointment sends a message to people like me, who’ve devoted so much of our lives to this issue: America isn’t just back, it’s back in charge on climate change policy.

The key analysis looked at the relationship between the price of a barrel of oil sands bitumen and the building of a pipeline. When the price of oil is high, expanding production will happen, with or without a pipeline. The US State Department concluded that as the price dropped below $80/barrel, building a pipeline would create pressure — that would not exist based on other market forces — to expand production. So, both of Obama’s secretaries of state were right. As the price of oil fell, so too did the fortunes of Keystone.

Only a month after that historic decision, in December 2015, John Kerry played a key role in negotiations in Paris at COP21. Unlike the 2009 Copenhagen conference, in which heads of government arrived for the last few days of stirring speeches and fanfare while the conference collapsed in failure around them, in Paris, world leaders spoke first. They got out of town not knowing the outcome. This timing placed John Kerry in a critical role as the head of the US delegation.

President-Elect Biden has committed to re-joining Paris — after Trump’s withdrawal took legal effect only weeks ago — so the wind is back in the sails of climate action. With Kerry’s role in the success of Paris, his serious policy and diplomatic chops, and the fact that Biden has given him a seat on the National Security Council as climate envoy, this appointment sends a message to people like me, who’ve devoted so much of our lives to this issue: America isn’t just back, it’s back in charge on climate change policy. Kerry’s launch last year of World War Zero, bringing together Hollywood stars, climate activists and Washington policymakers to push for more aggressive climate action, doesn’t hurt.

The world has emitted more GHG globally since 1992 when we signed the Rio climate treaty than in all the time between that day and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And, Canada is among the laggards of laggards. Without substantial improvement, Bill C12, the Net Zero Climate Accountability Act, will contribute to worsening our children’s chances of a livable planet. In the post-COVID world of “build back better” and the call for green recovery, it is inexplicable that Canada’s pathway to accountability will start when the IPCC has warned us actions may be too late. By December 12th — global celebrations of the five year anniversary of the successful conclusion of Paris negotiations — I expect the US will be in the spotlight again. Will Canada be there?

And that brings me to my last remembered image of John Kerry, climate champion. It was Earth Day 2016, and we were in the United Nations Assembly Hall for the official signing of the Paris Agreement.

Kerry was the only dignitary to bring a child to the signing. His two-year-old granddaughter, the angelic Isabelle Dobbs-Higginson, was on his lap. It reminded me of when my not-yet one-year-old daughter was with me as the 1992 UNFCCC treaty was signed in Rio. She is now 29.

On that day, Kerry kissed his granddaughter’s forehead after signing the Paris Agreement, highlighting the deep and personal nature of his commitment. Now, he has a chance to truly deliver for her.

Contributing Writer Elizabeth May, the MP for Saanich Gulf Islands, is the former Leader of the Green Party and its House leader.