President Barack Obama's chief global climate cop won't be stationed at EPA or on the White House staff. He'll be at the State Department.
Obama's choice of John Kerry as the nation's top diplomat is the strongest signal to the international community -- and the smart set in Washington's political class -- that the president is truly committed to striking deals designed to save the world. Add that to his mention of climate change in his inaugural address, and it's giving hope to greens that Kerry will make climate change a key part of his portfolio at Foggy Bottom.
Kerry has spent years working on the issue in Congress and around the globe. His name was on the last real climate-change legislation, a Kerry-Lieberman bill that never made it out of the Senate. He's a regular at international conferences, once flying halfway around the globe to spend a few hours on the ground during U.N.-led talks in Bali, Indonesia. And he, like outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will have the ability to explain the world to the Senate and the Senate to the world.
In both venues, Kerry is Mr. Climate. And Obama's decision to bring the Massachusetts Democrat into the Cabinet struck some administration officials and allies as a bold statement on the president's climate-change intentions.
"Obviously, he has enormous credibility. I think that's going to help," said Phil Schiliro, former Obama White House legislative director. "Combine that with the fact that the president has such a commitment to the issue, and it sends a good signal."
Still, the nation's energy picture -- and that of the world -- isn't so simple as being for or against more environmentally friendly energy production and consumption. One of the first major energy issues facing Kerry at State will be whether to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline project that would run from Canada to Texas.
Kerry didn't tip his hand at a hearing Thursday when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, pushed him on what he'd do on Keystone.
"There is a statutory process with respect to the review that falls to the State Department and elsewhere and that is currently ongoing," Kerry said. "I've already checked into it. It's under way. It will not be long before it comes across my desk and at that time, I'll make the appropriate judgments about it."
Kerry barely mentioned climate change in his prepared remarks to the committee, choosing to avoid blanket statements about a politically controversial issue at a time when he is expected to sail through the confirmation process. But when he faced high heat from Republicans who believe new environmental regulations could hamper the nation's economic recovery, Kerry ripped away with an argument that clean energy is good for the economy.
"The solution to climate change is energy policy," Kerry said in reply to Wyoming GOP Sen. John Barrasso's question on climate. "And the opportunities of energy policy so vastly outweigh the downsides that you're expressing concerns about. And I will spend a lot of time trying to persuade my colleagues about this. You want to do business and do it well in America, we gotta get into the energy race. ... I'll be a passionate advocate, but not based on ideology, based on fact, based on science. This $6 trillion market is worth millions of American jobs and we better go get it."
That's too much effort to put on climate change, according to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a leading early contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
"I don't think it's the most pressing foreign policy issue facing America," Rubio told POLITICO outside Kerry's confirmation hearing on Thursday. "There's a lot of things government can do but changing the weather isn't one of them."
Democrats view his efforts differently.
"It goes without saying that you have truly been a world leader on one of the most consequential issues of our time: climate change," Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Kerry's successor as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said at the nominee's Thursday confirmation hearing. "It heartens me to know that someone with your commitment to the issue will be our voice to the world."
International talks are on track to wrap up in France in 2015 on a new global warming accord. As the U.S. joins in those negotiations, Kerry and Obama must be mindful of the ghosts of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and a series of hurdles that could again prevent success in getting an agreement through the Senate.
"The details can determine whether it's bad or really bad," David Kreutzer, a research fellow in Energy Economics and Climate Change at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said of a prospective pact.
As U.S. officials navigate the domestic political maze, they can take solace that climate diplomacy over the past five years has evolved to the point that a key question is no longer whether China, India and the developing world will do anything to address the issue. Leaders from those emerging economic powerhouses agreed at the Bali meetings in 2007 that any new treaty would include requirements that they must also take steps to ratchet down their emissions, albeit with a fine line still drawn to ensure their limits don't have to be the same kinds of binding mandatory requirements of the developed world.
It was on the topic of China that Kerry seemed most willing to talk about climate change during his confirmation hearing. Asked about the U.S. trade imbalance with China, an issue that resonates with many Republican voters, Kerry said China is at a competitive advantage if nothing is done to limit emissions.
"If we just sit around where we are today, we're going to have a problem," he said. "Because China is soon going to have double the emissions of the United States of America. We've got to get those folks as part of this unified effort and I intend to do that."
The 2015 climate agreement -- if it can even be reached on time -- would fall smack in the middle of presidential primary season. Its implementation and ratification likely await Obama's successor.
Asked how a climate agreement come 2015 would shake up the presidential race, Rubio replied, "My problem with these initiatives is the ability of our government, of one country, to effectively impact the climate is very limited. But these measures have disastrous impacts on our economic competitiveness. That's the reason why some countries are pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol. That's the reason why China is not interested in any of this. They're the biggest polluters on the planet today and they're not about to economically disarm anytime soon. So that's the fundamental concern."
Yvo de Boer, the former top U.N. climate official, said he expected Kerry to be more active on the climate-change front than Clinton.
"This was clearly not an issue on which she was directly engaged, which was a little bit to my surprise," de Boer said, recalling a multilateral climate meeting where he met personally with the secretary of state.
The White House, not the State Department, has driven climate-change policy ever since the George H.W. Bush administration, which signed the underlying 1992 treaty that launched the entire U.N. process. Obama generally has followed suit, though the government's lead negotiator on climate change, Todd Stern, is a State Department employee and carries a special-envoy title that gives him direct access to Clinton.
"So far, the international engagement on climate has been driven very strongly from the White House. But that has not been matched as strongly so far through a direct engagement of the secretary of state," said de Boer, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "Obviously climate is an environmental issue, but it's also very much an economic and diplomatic issue, and I feel it's really important that there is strong engagement from the State Department and the secretary of state, given the fact that the challenge we face is as much a diplomatic one as it is an economic and environmental one."
David Goldwyn, Clinton's former special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs at State, said Kerry understands the connection between climate change and national security.
"There's a nexus between these issues," Goldwyn said. "Having to deal with security issues on the front burner and climate at least in the top five, he is likely to devise a strategy that is going to address both those issues."
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