The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.N. summit marks the latest hurdle in John F. Kerry’s long climate crusade

Covid and global dysfunction tripped up the U.S. climate envoy at COP27. It’s hardly the first time he’s faced diplomatic hurdles.

U.S. special climate envoy John F. Kerry visits Ukraine’s pavilion at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Nov. 14. (Sedat Suna/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — The lights were literally going out on this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Egypt as weary negotiators engaged in the final hours of heated, middle-of-the-night bargaining. Yet one of the summit’s most powerful diplomats had to work the phones from afar, isolated in his hotel room after contracting covid-19.

It was hardly the first time U.S. special climate envoy John F. Kerry, 78, has been tripped up in trying to exert U.S. environmental leadership. The former secretary of state is the face of the U.S. government’s response to climate change, but his résumé of accomplishments is mixed. The nations of the world lag far behind on the pledges they had promised under the Paris accords he helped broker in 2015, and activists and some national leaders say they are becoming disillusioned with the COP summits and America’s inability to deliver on its promises.

Such is the dichotomy Kerry confronts. He is a rock star in climate diplomacy, but he is tethered to the vagaries of U.S. and global politics. That has left many to wonder why his charm and influence cannot marshal a more effective response in the world’s capitals, including his own.

“He’s a force in negotiations, and he’s respected,” said Rémy Rioux, chief executive of the French Development Agency and an expert in international institutions. At the same time, Rioux added, “people see what the United States is doing for Ukraine, with tens of billions of dollars of support. … Why is there no consensus in the United States for doing something similar for the climate?”

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Kerry has heard such questions before. In 2010, then-Sen. Kerry and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) failed to patch together a climate bill, even after the House approved legislation that would have capped carbon pollution nationwide. More recently, he and President Biden have been unable to persuade Congress to approve climate financial assistance to developing countries, even though the president has pledged to deliver $11.4 billion by 2024. And any effort to marshal greater support for climate action in Washington will become harder starting in January, when Republicans take control of the House.

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

The 200 nations at the summit ultimately did so, and Kerry helped reverse the United States’ past resistance to such financing. The Egypt summit risked failure without a breakthrough moment. The U.S. delegation won praise for helping to deliver it.

“I can’t remember a time when the United States was in front proposing a big idea to mobilize funding for developing countries,” said Nigel Purvis, chief executive of Climate Advisers and a former senior U.S. climate negotiator. “It’s great to see.”

Yet the summit ended without Kerry and European Union officials winning approval for two of their main priorities. The United States had sought language to accelerate global cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions — especially a phase down of all fossil fuels — but those terms did not make the final agreement.

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Normally, wealthy countries would not concede on something they once opposed — compensation for climate-ravaged nations — without getting something they wanted, such as stronger emissions cuts. But the United States compromised without getting much in return, and it offered few explanations.

Kerry’s top deputies left the plenary before the end of the final session and waved off reporters asking questions. The official U.S. statement on COP27’s final agreement came out roughly six hours after the summit’s formal conclusion, and Kerry’s office declined an interview request.

In the 2,020-word statement, Kerry did not mention any failure or shortcoming from COP27. He joined many Western leaders in downplaying the lack of bolder climate action that they had publicly demanded. Instead, Kerry offered a long list of the U.S. delegation’s accomplishments and lauded the summit for making incremental progress to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

“In the all too real world of climate science, that math matters when you focus on the faces of the fractions: every tenth of a degree of warming averted means less drought, less flooding, less sea-level rise, less extreme weather,” he said in the statement. “It means lives saved and losses avoided.”

Though Kerry is older than many of his other government counterparts, his seniority and versatility make him valuable to the White House — so much so that Biden named him as one of his very first appointments. Kerry’s long history in public life — as a soldier, activist, presidential candidate, statesman and even socialite — gives him a leg up in a job that requires frequent worldwide travel and constant diplomacy. To succeed, Kerry must connect with youth protesters and banking chief executives, Chinese bureaucrats and Emirati sheikhs.

In back-to-back public speeches Tuesday morning, presenters at the Egyptian pavilion used the honorifics that befit his long career. They introduced the former U.S. senator as “his excellency,” and a U.N.-backed coalition of countries and nonprofits listed him as the honorable John Kerry. His staff calls him secretary, from his time as secretary of state during the Obama administration.

Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, have talked publicly about their friendly relationship. And they exchanged emails even when formal negotiations were suspended. At the past two climate summits in Scotland and Egypt, Xie made unexpected appearances with Kerry, last week stunning a capacity crowd by joining a COP27 event on methane emissions.

“You may be wondering why the Chinese envoy on climate may be attending the global methane pledge,” Xie said, according to an interpreter, after Kerry introduced him. “My very good friend Secretary Kerry told me about the conference this morning.”

Yet even with such gestures, the world’s two biggest emitters have yet to strike a broader deal to slash their greenhouse gases.

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

In his statement Sunday, Kerry’s only explicit regret was about China, though he said talks between the two countries will go on.

“I am glad we have had discussions on climate with China here at Sharm el-Sheikh, following President Biden and President Xi’s meeting in Bali,” Kerry said. “Due to the compressed time for our negotiations, we unfortunately were able to make only limited progress here in Sharm.”

Kerry is in a difficult spot politically, said several of his former staff members and diplomatic allies, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Congress and the U.S. electorate are reluctant to support the type of U.S. international aid that would help him build strong allies abroad. And the international audience can also be tough to please, the Kerry allies said.

In his statement, Kerry touted the U.S. government’s international aid and fundraising with partners to help Indonesia with $10 billion and Egypt with $250 million for clean energy development.

The funding is seen as part of a pragmatic U.S. strategy to direct limited money to important developing countries — but it comes with a clear downside: Other countries feel miffed that they do not get the same special treatment, said Laurence Tubiana, a French economist and an architect of the Paris agreement, said in an interview.

Lack of trust between large parts of the developing world and the United States played a big role in the summit’s tepid outcome, said several negotiators here. While the United States finally relented to creating a fund designated to compensate countries damaged by the effects of climate change, it failed to engender solidarity with the developing world to win support for more emissions reductions. The reason: Many countries feel spurned by Washington’s failure to deliver on past promises of climate aid.

That friction was central to the divide between rich and poor countries that dominated COP27, a much more acrimonious summit than Glasgow. Kerry’s bout with covid-19 did not help the United States smooth over such tensions.

Kerry, who will turn 79 next month, could have avoided this challenging terrain by stepping down as special climate envoy, and some E.U. leaders and others were surprised he stuck around. But close allies said Kerry finds the cause invigorating, despite the frequent acrimony.

He has not said whether he will step down from the administration anytime soon, though two individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid said that he may consider that option and could easily find work in the private sector.

Kerry is not driven by opportunity like many political leaders, Tubiana said. He works to use political power to solve problems he cares about, and he has seen climate change as a top global problem for decades, she added.

“If you are really convinced it is global strife we have to face — and he is totally convinced … you don’t care so much if you succeed … you are fighting,” Tubiana said. “He’s really, really committed and doesn’t care. If this is not a glorious COP, he doesn’t care. He has to do it.”

Mufson reported from D.C.