John Kerry: ‘I Feel Deeply Frustrated’

When former Secretary of State John Kerry stepped into a newly created post as America’s top climate diplomat in 2021, the reputation of the United States abroad was, in his words, “in the crapper,” and the pathway to meeting the world’s climate goals looked, to most, very narrow.

Kerry, now 80, is stepping down this week but will continue to work on climate change. In the last three years, the climate landscape has changed in two big and contradictory ways: The goal the world set in Paris in 2015 of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times is now functionally dead, but the world’s green transition is accelerating far more rapidly than most anticipated just a few years ago. I spoke with him in February about the way the planet and its future look to him now. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I wanted to start with comments you recently made at the Munich Security Conference, since I think they showcase your big-picture perspective on climate very clearly. You said: “We do stand next to another abyss. It is the test of our own times, a test as acute and as existential as any previous one. It is about survival.” If those are the stakes, how are we doing?

To understand the present tense, you have to go back a little bit in the road traveled. When Biden came in, the credibility of the United States was in the crapper, and we were viewed with suspicion if not derision. Our job was to go out and create credibility for our nation and for the president. At the time, the U.S. didn’t really have a global strategy, and so we laid out “keep 1.5 alive.”

Do you think the goal is still alive today?

If we did the things we could do — that we know how to do, and that we have the technologies for — we could actually do it. We’re just not. We’re not doing it on a global basis. Emissions are going up in too many countries. Oil and gas are still on a binge and their profits are obscene. I mean they’re just shocking. And everybody seems to be locked into a place of indifference.

What explains that?

Greed in a lot of cases, the ease of business as usual in a lot of cases and some wishful thinking in a lot of cases. And then, in some cases, just lies — complete distortion paid for by those profits.

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