It’s now been 30 days since President Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, which means the U.S. is formally back in the global effort. But while there is important symbolism in that action, it’s only the beginning of the climate work Biden’s administration must do. John Kerry, who first signed the country into that agreement as Secretary of State in 2016, is now tasked with convincing the rest of the world that the U.S. can be trusted as a leader in this space as Biden’s climate envoy.
It’s a role he’s approaching with humility, ambition, and a focus on environment justice, Kerry says in conversation with Al Gore for TED Countdown, a global initiative from the media company focused on accelerating solutions to the climate crisis. The talk was released Friday in honor of the day the U.S. has legally rejoined the agreement.
After four years out of the Paris agreement, it’s not appropriate for the U.S. to “leap back in and start telling everybody what has to happen,” Kerry says in response to Gore asking how he’s approaching this re-entry. “We have to listen. We have to work very, very closely with other countries, many of whom have been carrying the load for the last four years in the absence of the United States.”
Despite the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of that agreement, states and cities have made their own efforts to curb the climate crisis, but the U.S. has to earn its credibility by stepping up with a “strong national determined contribution.” On April 22, the U.S. will host a summit with the major greenhouse gas emitting nations, along with smaller island and poorer nations that were left out of the Paris agreement; the U.S. is expected to strengthen its carbon reduction pledges then.
This also builds up to the UN Climate Conference COP26, scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, which Kerry says is “the last best hope we have for nations to really set us on that path [to net zero emissions in 2050].” To get to net zero emissions, we have to raise ambitions, like bringing coal down faster and deploying renewables more quickly; define next steps with a clear roadmap; and bring an “unprecedented” global finance plan to the table, which includes getting monetary support from the private sector. “In the end, it’s not going to be government cash that makes this happen,” Kerry says. “It’s going to be private sector investment that is coming in because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s also smart investing.”
Though some officials have gawked at the high price of climate legislation, it’s nothing compared to the money we’ve had to spend cleaning up from climate disasters we haven’t adequately prepared for. The U.S. spent $265 billion cleaning up after just three storms—Maria, Harvey, and Irma. “You spend $265 billion to clean up after the storms, but we can’t put a hundred billion together for the clean green climate fund?” Kerry says. “That’s what this year has to be about. We got to break that cycle.” It’s an apt comment in light of the crisis currently unfolding in Texas, which didn’t winterize its power plants, and an example of the upgrades we need to make across our entire electric grid in order to be more resilient.
Kerry also talked about the importance of embarking on climate efforts with an environmental justice lens, the need for a green COVID-19 recovery, and how to ensure that Biden’s rebuilding effort includes actions like building out America’s energy grid, directing funds to green sectors like electric vehicles, and jobs in that green economy for people who were previously in coal and fossil fuels.
Kerry also gave a nod to Greta Thunberg and the ways she has held adults accountable when it comes to climate action. “We should be ashamed of ourselves that we have to have people who were then 16 or 15 not going to school to get our attention,” he says. “I mean what the hell is the matter with adult leadership? That’s not leadership at all. …And I hope we’re going to keep young people at the table here, and finish the job. That’s the key now.”
You can watch the full conversation between Kerry and Gore here.