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Opinion: Kerry Must Lead Total Reform of U.S. Climate Diplomacy

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After four years of climate denial at the top of the U.S. government, the appointment of John Kerry as a climate envoy for the next administration is a bit of a breath of fresh air. Having an administration that believes the climate crisis is real, and takes it seriously enough to create high-level White House positions to deal with it, is obviously far better than the alternative.

But let’s not forget the scale of action and transformation that addressing the climate crisis demands. If we are going to avert runaway climate breakdown, we need the Biden administration to be orders of magnitude more ambitious in transforming our energy, food, and economic systems, than any previous administration. We are going to need a new level of recognition of U.S. responsibility and capacity for action, with global solidarity at the core of our belief.

The Biden administration has to deal with the stark reality that after four more years of climate inaction—on top of 30-odd years of little to no action since the beginning of international climate negotiations—business-as-usual solutions to climate change are even more inadequate than they were before. While the continuity of John Kerry as Obama secretary of state, to John Kerry as Biden climate envoy, may be welcome diplomatically for some, we cannot afford to just go back to old negotiating tactics and climate policies.

Out with the Old…

Under previous administrations, U.S. negotiating strategies were more focused on maintaining U.S. economic and geopolitical dominance rather than on finding ways to work collectively and constructively with other countries to solve the climate crisis. Divide-and-conquer tactics—playing blocs of developing countries against each other using bullying tactics and power—were the norm. U.S. politicians also relied heavily on “national security” framing, emphasizing the importance of U.S. interests above the needs of shared human society.

Click here for our Special Report on climate and the U.S. election.

To their credit, the Obama administration proactively re-engaged with international climate negotiations after a long U.S. absence. But the Obama State Department negotiating team – including while Kerry was at the helm—trumpeted “U.S. climate leadership” while undermining core principles of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The principles that especially came under fire from U.S. negotiators were those around equity and fairness—the idea that the U.S. and other historically industrialized countries should do more, faster, than poorer countries.

So what did U.S. climate leadership look like with Secretary Kerry’s negotiation team? The U.S. commitment for emissions reductions under the Paris Agreement was five to six times weaker than our fair share. The U.S. was a perpetual roadblock to progress on key negotiations around financial support for poorer countries. The U.S. tried to ensure that it could never be held liable for the damage caused by climate impacts in vulnerable countries and has no obligation to support them—a hard-line position that nearly torpedoed negotiations on multiple occasions.

John Kerry, as President-elect Biden’s climate envoy, must break from Obama-era policies and negotiating practices. The U.S. has never been a climate leader—quite the opposite. For the U.S. to really lead, Kerry must pioneer an approach that has true international cooperation, global solidarity, and respect for human rights and justice at its centre. First and foremost, that means he must find a way to convince the world that the U.S. is genuinely ready to do its fair share—meaning deep emissions reductions at home and massively scaled up international support for poorer countries.

In his speech Tuesday accepting the position of presidential climate envoy, Mr. Kerry fell back on outdated and misleading talking points. “No country alone can solve this challenge. Even the United States, for all its industrial strength, is responsible for only 13% of global emissions.” The first sentence is absolutely correct. The second is an incredibly dangerous underestimation of the U.S. responsibility for the climate crisis.

In 2017, the U.S. was indeed responsible for about 13% of greenhouse gas emissions, compared to China’s 24%. But climate change is not based on a single year of emissions. The climate changes due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, so historical emissions over time are what really matters. Over history (since the Industrial Revolution), the United States is responsible for closer to 25% of greenhouse gas emissions—vastly more than any other single country, including China at just over half of U.S. emissions.

Old-style U.S. climate diplomacy dictated that U.S. officials ignore this basic fact in favour of finger-pointing at other countries, particularly developing economies. There is no pathway to successful global cooperation with this kind of behaviour. The only U.S. climate diplomacy that gives us a chance at solving the climate crisis is a completely new version—one in which the U.S. recognizes its true responsibility and commits to urgent action at a huge scale. The United States must pull our weight—not just throw our weight around to try to get other countries to act so that we don’t have to.

In with the New?

Donald Trump was a disaster for the climate, but a repeat of previous U.S. climate diplomacy and inaction will be a disaster, as well. Simply being better is not going to be enough. We hope that Kerry and other climate leaders in the Biden administration recognize this fact and are planning a new, less exceptionalist, more equitable vision of U.S. climate leadership.

We look forward to working with Mr. Kerry and the Biden administration to ensure that they act with the urgency the crisis demands, rather than simply going back to the failed pre-Trump status quo.

Brandon Wu is Director of Policy and Campaigns at Washington, DC-based ActionAid.

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