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John Kerry doesn't yet ‘see the evidence’ of stronger climate pledges

The Climate 202

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John Kerry doesn't yet ‘see the evidence’ of stronger climate pledges

At the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland last fall, negotiators from nearly 200 countries agreed to revisit — and potentially strengthen — their climate pledges this year.

But more than five months later, U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry does not see proof that nations are following through on that crucial commitment before the next U.N. climate summit in Egypt in November.

“I don’t see the evidence that that is happening, and I also don’t see the evidence that they are reducing [emissions] significantly enough to keep us on a track where we can achieve it. So I think we have a huge lift,” Kerry told our colleague Brady Dennis in a recent interview.

You can read Brady's full Q&A with Kerry here. But if you're short on time, here are our top takeaways from the conversation, which came after Kerry attended the Oceans Conference in Palau:

The war in Ukraine is distracting from climate action

Kerry acknowledged that the war in Ukraine has prompted calls to produce more oil and gas to replace Russian energy — a move that could undermine progress toward slashing planet-warming emissions. 

“What’s happened in Ukraine has not helped to concentrate people on reducing [emissions],” he said. “It’s concentrated people on trying to find substitutes for Russian gas and to meet higher levels of production because of low supply. But it obviously does interrupt the momentum that we had created coming out of Glasgow.”

In the United States, President Biden has taken several steps in recent weeks that could lower gasoline prices in the short term but worsen climate change in the long term. He has authorized a historically large release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, resumed selling leases to drill on federal land and waived an environmental restriction to allow summer sales of ethanol-based gasoline.

The U.S. probably won't update its 2030 goal

Biden has pledged to slash the nation's greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030. Kerry said that while the United States probably won't strengthen this pledge under the Paris agreement, America does need to figure out how it will achieve this ambitious goal in less than a decade.

“I think our [national pledge] is strong enough for the 2030 target, but I think we need to review how we’re going to get there more,” he said. “I think there’s got to be some taking stock right now of what’s happened to us in terms of the Ukraine situation, the gas demand, the production levels — and we’ve got to take a hard look at it.”

Kerry plans to stay in his role

White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy is preparing to leave her post, although no final decisions have been made, people familiar with her plans told The Washington Post and other news outlets last week.

But Kerry said he's staying put.

“I haven’t made any other plans at this point in time other than to keep working away,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. We’ll see where we are. I’m not going anywhere right now.”

Kerry made similar comments in an interview with CNN last month, saying he plans to stay in his post through the next U.N. climate summit in Egypt, known as COP27.

Build Back Better will influence U.S. credibility in Egypt

Biden's sweeping climate and social spending bill, formerly known as the Build Back Better Act, has stalled in Congress amid opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Republicans. 

But Kerry said that Biden “remains committed” to getting the legislation over the finish line before COP27, noting that America's credibility at the conference depends on it.

“Joe Manchin has said publicly that he supports an appropriate energy [and] climate bill,” Kerry said. “And obviously, our hope is that something can happen in the next days. But there’s no debate over the fact that our diplomacy will be affected by what we do or don’t decide to do in that regard.”

Pressure points

These whales are on the brink. Now comes climate change — and wind power.

As the Biden administration balances its efforts to protect wildlife with the need to tackle climate change, researchers are racing to save the declining North Atlantic right whale, The Washington Post's Dino Grandoni reports.

There are only about 300 of the species left, making them one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals. Although they are no longer being hunted for baleen and blubber as they were centuries ago, right whales today are at risk from ship strikes along the East Coast, fishery ropes and climate change. 

Already, North Atlantic right whales are scrawnier and reproduce less often than their cousins around Antarctica, with warming waters forcing the whales into new seas. And soon, dozens of offshore wind turbines — part of President Biden’s clean energy agenda — will cut into their ecosystem, with some environmentalists saying that noise and other ecological effects of the projects could make the plight of right whales even more challenging. 

“While these benefits of offshore wind power — they’re undeniable, they’re exciting — it’s also critical to make sure that this new industry advances in a way that’s compatible with healthy ocean ecosystems,” said Francine Kershaw, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that struck a deal with offshore wind developers to better protect whales. “We believe that both of these goals can be achieved.”

Gulf Coast gas export frenzy raises tough questions for U.S., Europe

Along a stretch of the Gulf Coast in Louisiana where wetlands yield to fuel and petrochemical plants, some residents are hopeful for a boom in gas exports to address Europe’s energy dilemma — and their own economy, The Post's Evan Halper reports. 

But other residents, like Roishetta Ozane, are nervous and can’t help but think about the extreme environmental risks the region has already experienced — and what additional harm the rapid growth of the gas industry would bring.

“People are getting tired of this,” said Ozane, a community organizer. “They are going to the hearings for these facilities and using the words ‘climate change.’ They’re realizing we’ve had four federally declared natural disasters in the last two years. That’s unheard of.”

Despite their calls — and a lack of interest from the European Union — U.S. energy companies are looking to expand their ability to produce and export liquefied natural gas to replace fuel in Europe supplied by Russia. The expansion projects would not only anchor the region to fossil fuels for decades, but they would also take years to build — far longer than the E.U. anticipates needing the gas because of its own climate targets and transition to clean energy.

On the Hill

House Republicans question Energy Department over its Clean Energy Corps

Rep. Frank D. Lucas (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, on Wednesday led a group of Republicans in a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm requesting more information on the Energy Department's Clean Energy Corps.

The lawmakers expressed concern that the initiative, which involves hiring 1,000 additional workers focused on climate change and clean energy, lacks strategy and focus. They added that if poorly implemented, the program “has the potential to be a significant waste of taxpayers dollars that, instead of furthering the Department’s work to develop clean energy solutions, will drain resources and focus from critical research activities.”

Agency alert

Transportation Department announces $6.4 billion for emissions reduction programs

The Department of Transportation on Thursday launched a $6.4 billion emissions reduction program that will give states five years of funding to cut greenhouse gases from transportation, the nation's largest source of planet-warming pollution, The Post's Michael Laris reports. 

“No one unit of government, including ours, has all the answers on how to do this most cost effectively and efficiently,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview with The Post, adding that the whole country will benefit from the “laboratory effect” across different states.

Instead of setting out requirements that states cut emissions by a certain amount and date, the new Carbon Reduction Program, created under last year’s infrastructure law, allows states to implement projects and policies of their choosing, so long as they reduce on-road emissions.

In turn, states must create a non-binding strategy that outlines their vision to decarbonize transportation, such as by improving highway congestion, making streetlights more efficient, electrifying truck stops and building bike lanes. 

In the atmosphere

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