Comment: Kerry’s shuttle climate diplomacy caught between a rock and a very hard place

John Kerry at COP26 in Glasgow
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry gestures as he speaks during the COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

July 26 - How can US diplomats lead on climate as homegrown challenges abound?

John Kerry has crisscrossed the world as a senator, a secretary of state, and most recently as President Biden’s climate envoy. Climate change has been a crusade, whether in office or out, for the past 30 years or more.

But today, the tall, imposing envoy cuts a more dismayed, and dismaying, figure. Kerry is our modern Odysseus handed no good choices by the United States domestic political system.

There are impossible choices for Kerry trying to steer U.S. climate engagement and global action forward. His modern-day “moving rocks” is Congress’s inability to legislate climate action, spurring the U.S. towards its climate targets or, more importantly, backing its competitiveness and resilience. With decarbonization gathering momentum, and extreme weather events taking an ever-greater toll, failure to grasp the urgency is dangerous.

His rock and a hard place, his Scylla and Charybdis, are Joe Manchin and the U.S. Supreme Court. Joe Manchin’s carefully choreographed “death drop” finally put paid to hopes that incentives could support renewable energy uptake to meet the U.S. commitment to curb emissions by 52% by 2030. The Supreme Court’s recent decision to limit government’s ability to curb carbon emissions undermined the state's role in protecting people. It did so just as our experience of climate impacts underlines how much we need to do to build resilience to fires, floods, storms, drought and disease.

To continue to smooth the path to a collective, urgent climate action, the U.S. needs to come to the next round of climate talks, COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, with clarity on how it will implement its 2030 target and its longer-term commitment to net zero. At COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 countries agreed to come back a year later with improved plans. But that addresses the ambition gap, between science and plans. The implementation gap, between plans and action, is more worrying. Here the U.S. needs to come with funding as well.

A residential cul-de-sac is covered in floodwaters after heavy rain in Chehalis, Washington, U.S. earlier this year. REUTERS/Nathan Howard DAY

Climate finance has been an open sore in climate negotiations and contributes to growing resentment from countries whose development did not bring us to this point. The sanction-imposing allies exacerbate this feeling of grievance with their short-term scramble to replace Russian oil, gas and coal. There is no economic case for developing new oil, gas and coal: we need more gas for the next couple of years, but demand for fossil fuels will fall away precipitously, as sources as varied as Greenpeace and BP agree. But that hasn’t stopped the fossil fuel lobby from arguing for more medium- and long-term investment. Gas deals to supply fuel to Europe and the U.S. have threatened supplies to the global south.

Developing countries' frustration will crescendo towards COP27, and their demands for progress will concentrate on support for their adaptation, and for “loss and damage”. The latter refers to support from those who contributed emissions historically to those who did not and represents paying a "fair share". In climate negotiations, this is considered a separate issue from adaptation, and tensions are high in discussions on how to finance both: ensuring governments have the financial, technical, and human capacity to adapt and, in addition, contribute funds to recognizing loss and damage.

On African soil, COP27’s Egyptian president will feel relentless pressure to make good commitments to move forward. Still, with public coffers running dry as funds are diverted to domestic cost of living crises and Ukraine, there is little sign that a breakthrough is possible. The U.S., European Union and Switzerland adopted a “talk to the hand” approach to loss and damage negotiations at the inter-sessional meetings held last month in Bonn.

Kerry has been long focused on leveraging and crowding in private finance to meet the climate action needs in the global south. But as capital repatriates in the economic crisis of high inflation, debt and liquidity distress, fuel and food price spikes, and global supply chain disruption, that looks harder to deliver.

He will continue to try to wrangle collaboration and ambition to help the largest emitters quickly move through their energy transitions. He is an enthusiastic proponent of Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JET-Ps), a platform under creation in South Africa to speed the exit from coal, while improving access to clean, reliable and affordable energy for all by supporting transitions for coal miners and their communities. He will hope it can inspire the creation of similar, yet bespoke, platforms for Indonesia, Vietnam, Senegal and gain greater support for India.

Turkana tribe women fetch water from a shallow well amid drought in Kenya, July 19 2022. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

But while important, announcements of a series of JET-Ps will be incremental. What is needed is a comprehensive Build Back Better World engagement, and that remains out of reach..

Kerry will chart his course through the G20, G7, United Nations General Assembly, the annual meetings of the IMF, and the somnambulant World Bank before arriving in Sharm el-Sheik. The esteem in which the world holds him and others in the Biden administration is tempered by fatigue at a diplomacy based on appeal and calls to moral rectitude and not on leading by example and creative multilateral engagement.

Across the U.S. government, the most climate-literate US administration ever formed, many try to find creative ways to advance their mandate on climate action despite the hostility and log jam in Congress and now the Supreme Court. Janet Yellen’s team, in particular, is pressing a carefully pointed stiletto at the soft managerial underbelly of the World Bank, which should be applying its technical depth and capital with much greater urgency.

But even if Kerry steers through these choppy waters to arrive at scaled progress in November, we all need him to avoid an epitaph of “too little, too late”. The U.N. scientific panel has said that at our current pace of change we will inevitably need to invest in the technologies and practices necessary to suck harmful emissions out of the atmosphere. There will always be more for the techno-optimistic envoy to do, but for now, U.S. climate diplomacy is lost and damaged with self-inflicted wounds, and the world increasingly resents us for it.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Sustainable Business Review, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Rachel Kyte is dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University. She is a member of the U.N. Secretary-General’s high-level advisory group on climate action and co-chair of the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative (VCMI). Kyte served as special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General and chief executive officer of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL). She previously was the World Bank Group vice president and special envoy for climate change, leading the run-up to the Paris Agreement. In 2019 she was named by Time magazine as one of the 15 women that were leading climate action.