The National Security Council will break new ground with the appointment of John Kerry to a dedicated role tackling climate change, highlighting the international diplomacy focus on climate as a key priority for Joe Biden’s incoming administration.
The appointment of the former Obama-era secretary of state, who helped to orchestrate the 2015 Paris climate accord, as the special presidential envoy for climate, signals that the issue will rise to the top of the US policy agenda, even as the Biden administration could face an uphill battle to enact its environmental goals domestically.
“Having Kerry on the National Security Council puts climate at the very pinnacle of White House influence,” said Paul Bledsoe, an adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute, and former White House climate official under President Bill Clinton.
“Biden sees climate as a global security issue, not a classic environmental one, and that elevates its priority within the White House superstructure.”
However, the prospect of a Republican-controlled Senate could mean that the Biden administration is unable to pass key climate legislation, including the $2tn climate budget that was part of its campaign platform.
The president-elect could still use regulatory measures to undo some of the actions of Donald Trump’s administration, which loosened dozens of environmental rules.
He will also be able to use executive orders to stop new oil and gas leases on federal land, and restore California’s right to regulate auto emissions standards — reversing key policies of Mr Trump.
As an indication of the wider effects of a major policy shift, carmaker GM has already fallen into line with Mr Biden’s agenda by this week ditching its previous support for Mr Trump’s pushback on the California action.
Jeff Colgan, director of the Climate Solutions Lab at Brown University, said Mr Biden would need to provide a domestic climate change blueprint to steer the country, and look for ways to reduce emissions even if legislative efforts failed.
“There’s so much that a federal government can do on climate change across the various agencies, not just at the state department, or the Treasury or the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Federal Reserve, at all of them,” he added. “We should not forget how powerful the president can be.”
The Biden administration has not yet announced who will lead the EPA, which under Mr Trump experienced staffing cuts and reduced enforcement actions.
Some progressives have been critical of the president-elect’s stance on fracking, which he does not plan to ban, and his reluctance to endorse the Green New Deal proposal.
But the appointment of Mr Kerry — long seen as an optimistic centrist who likes to build alliances and work cooperatively — could help the new administration win favour on both sides of Congress.
Bob Inglis, Republican ex-Congressman who now heads republicEN, a climate advocacy group, described it as a “huge relief”, saying Mr Kerry was “devoted to climate action”.
Mr Kerry’s formal involvement in climate change policy dates back to 1992 when he was a member of the US delegation led by Al Gore at the first Rio Earth summit, where the framework was set for the 2015 Paris climate accord which aims to limit global warming to well below 2C.
Mr Biden has vowed that the US will re-enter the climate pact on his first day in office, after Mr Trump withdrew from the deal.
Mr Kerry’s diplomatic background and seat on the NSC signals that the US will work to convince other countries to improve their climate targets, which are at present way off track from the Paris goals.
But he could face an uphill battle to restore US credibility after President Trump spent years denigrating the Paris accord, particularly if Mr Biden’s climate bill is rejected by Congress.
After rejoining the Paris accord, the US, which is the world’s second-biggest emitter after China, will have to set a new climate target for 2030, ahead of the UN climate talks in Glasgow next year.
“The work we began with the Paris agreement is far from done,” Mr Kerry said on Twitter on Monday. “I’m returning to government to get America back on track to address the biggest challenge of this generation and those that will follow.”
The world is now on course for about 2.7C of warming by the end of the century, according to analysis by Climate Action Tracker, a research group based in Germany.
About 0.1C of that warming could be avoided if the US rejoins the Paris agreement and sets a net zero target for 2050, according to their analysis.
China’s recent carbon neutral target set for 2060 will shave a further 0.2C to 0.3C, putting the Paris goal closer to being within reach.
Mr Kerry stayed active in climate diplomacy even after leaving office in 2017, and last year launched a campaign for climate action called World War Zero. “I believe we have to treat this as if we were at war. I say this not lightly,” he said at the UN climate talks last year in Madrid.
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