John Kerry Is Bringing America Back Into the Climate Fight

22 minute read

John Kerry can feel the heat. It’s a sunny mid-July day in Naples, Italy, and we’re sitting on the roof of his hotel overlooking the Mediterranean.

As tourists on the other side of the patio snap photos of Mount Vesuvius looming in the background, Kerry is warning about the fate of human life on earth. Kerry, 77, has been on the public stage for decades as a Senator, presidential candidate and U.S. Secretary of State and, on paper, his latest role representing the U.S. as President Biden’s climate envoy may look like a demotion. But Kerry rejects any question about why he’s taken this role. The fate of civilization is on the line, and he will do anything he can to help. “I’ve fought around war and peace, and that was life and death. This is already life and death—and in growing terms,” he says. “This is existential, and we need to behave like it.”

Read more: Extreme Heat in American West Shows Climate Change Is Here

Despite the stifling heat and humidity, the lobby of the Excelsior hotel several stories below is brimming with life unthinkable just a few months before. Chatter in Arabic, Dutch and Japanese can all be detected among the cadre of diplomats who have descended here for a gathering of energy and climate ministers from the world’s biggest economies. It’s a key meeting in the yearlong slog to COP26, the U.N. climate conference set to take place in Glasgow in November. A few miles away, in the city center, thousands of protesters are marching and chanting, insistent that official proceedings aren’t moving fast enough. System change: another world is possible, one sign reads.

John Kerry Time Magazine Cover
Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

The stakes are existential, but the debates at the Excelsior can seem pedantic; in one conference room, negotiators are tussling over the wording of how countries should submit new climate plans. On the roof, I ask Kerry about the various conflicts that some fear might scuttle the COP26 talks—the U.S. rift with China, Europe’s plan to tax climate laggards and the demands from developing nations that their rich counterparts do more. Kerry takes each one in stride, responding to every question with optimism that reason will prevail. “I’ve always believed in diplomacy,” he says. “I believe in the ability of people to sit down and try to work reasonably together.” In the frenzied 24-plus hours of talks that followed, Kerry’s team sought to put that mantra into action, refusing to let the two-day conference end without an agreement. The results were mixed: the U.S. helped broker a key compromise to affirm the countries’ broad commitment to ambitious climate-fighting measures but could not win universal agreement on a specific commitment to phase out coal.

This year, the fate of our civilization is being determined in bland convention-center meeting spaces, slick corporate boardrooms and regal hotel ballrooms, and wherever you go, it’s hard to escape Kerry’s name. He comes up in conversations with the diplomats, legislators and business personalities on the inside as well as with the activists looking in. The dynamic is, in part, a testament to Kerry’s role as an elder statesman who is greeted with open arms by heads of government in foreign capitals. But it’s also a recognition that even after a Trump presidency that stomped on diplomacy and global norms, governments want the multilateral system to work—and for the U.S., which wrote the rules of the road in the aftermath of World War II, to do its part and remain an essential player.

On the road, Kerry has clearly boiled down the U.S. mission: his country wants to keep the world from surpassing 1.5°C of global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. Temperatures have already risen 1.1°C, and scientists say meeting that goal requires dramatic action right now. The 1.5°C marker has come to represent the point where we are likely to face the worst effects of climate change, a reality often assessed in feet of sea-level rise, days of drought and the cost of storms. But the now decades-long failure to adequately address climate change has also placed the multilateral system and the U.S.’s place in it at risk. If nations don’t come together, not only do U.S. leadership and democratic governance suffer, but the resulting disorder—caused by those storms, droughts and so much more—will also force a transition to something new.

Kerry with French President Emmanuel Macron
Kerry with French President Emmanuel MacronMichel Euler—POOL/AFP/Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine someone more fitting to defend multilateralism than Kerry, a Vietnam veteran turned antiwar activist and son of a diplomat who has served at the highest levels of the U.S. government for decades. Kerry speaks carefully, not wanting to overstep his climate mandate, but understands the stakes. “We’re fighting for everything here,” he says. “It’s not just the climate—it’s fighting for a reasonable response by governance, for a reasonable relationship with our fellow citizens, or noncitizens, a reasonable relationship with people in the world.”

Read more: The Pandemic Remade Every Corner of Society. Now It’s the Climate’s Turn

Over the past eight months, TIME has followed Kerry on that mission—first via telephone calls and virtual events and then, as vaccination became widespread and travel returned, in person on both sides of the Atlantic. Kerry makes a robust case for the constructive role he, his government and, indeed, good diplomacy have played in the lead-up to this year’s climate conference. But to measure Kerry’s success by the list of deals and announcements he brings to COP26 would be premature. The real test will come in the weeks and months to come—not just for Kerry but for the world.

On the late-night train from Geneva to Milan in late September, long after it has mostly cleared out, Kerry is taking a break from his briefing book and following each station stop intently, reflecting on the Alpine geography and noting with excitement when we cross the border into Italy. He offers me candy from his favorite and oft-visited chocolate shop in Geneva.

Kerry is an internationalist when many leaders are looking inward. He knows where to stop for chocolate in foreign cities, yes, but he also has a vision of solving problems through diplomacy and dealmaking. The son of a foreign service officer, he grew up on both sides of the Atlantic at a time when the U.S. was working to rebuild Europe, attending boarding school in Switzerland before returning to the U.S. for high school. “I grew up very used to other cultures, other countries, other points of view,” he tells me. “I didn’t view things exclusively through an American lens.”

From the beginning of his political career, Kerry found himself drawn to both environmental issues and foreign affairs—something he attributes to his transatlantic upbringing and a mother he says was devoted to green issues. And throughout his career, he has tried to prioritize climate change even as it remained on the broader political back burner. In 1992, he traveled to the Rio Earth Summit, the first U.N. climate meeting, to advocate for global climate solutions. (He had his first significant conversation with his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry on the sidelines of the meeting, where she was impressed by his singing in her native Portuguese.) In the Senate, he worked publicly to build a bipartisan coalition to pass climate legislation that would have capped U.S. emissions while working behind the scenes on efforts to educate his colleagues on the urgency of climate science. “He came at this with a lot of personal determination,” says Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic Senator from Rhode Island.

Kerry took over as Secretary of State in 2013, at the beginning of President Obama’s second term. His tenure is perhaps best remembered for his role brokering the ill-fated Iran nuclear nonproliferation deal, but Kerry also takes particular pride in his work to center climate diplomacy in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. Immediately upon taking office, Kerry began traveling the world, putting the issue on the agenda of heads of government rather than just environment ministers. Inside the department, he pushed every diplomat to have basic fluency on the issue and incorporated it into talking points for meetings large and small. “He basically said that every diplomat at the State Department was going to be a climate negotiator, on one level or another,” says Jon Finer, Kerry’s chief of staff at the time who now serves as the Deputy National Security Adviser.

All this helped lay the groundwork for the talks that would eventually yield the Paris Agreement, which sets up a framework for countries to reduce their emissions. Although the French hosts shepherded the deal into existence, the structure and details of the agreement were designed to meet the exigencies of U.S. politics. Kerry remained on the ground for most of the two-week conference, engaging directly in negotiations most Cabinet officials would leave to underlings. A wide range of officials ultimately deserve some credit for shaping the Paris deal, which was the result of intense negotiations between nearly 200 nations, but Kerry played a central role steering the talks and bringing the world to an agreement.

Kerry speaking at the Earthshot Prize award ceremony
Kerry speaking at the Earthshot Prize award ceremonyYui Mok—POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Kerry took his current job during some of the darkest hours of the ongoing pandemic and immediately faced a tough deadline. He spent three years rallying the world for the Paris talks; this time around he had only nine months before COP26. Kerry quickly adopted the conference organizers’ aim of creating a pathway to keep temperature rise to 1.5°C as his own. Scientists estimate that to have a good chance of meeting the 1.5°C goal, global emissions would need to be sliced in half by 2030, but a February report from the U.N. climate-change body found that the combined climate commitment from countries would barely slow emissions in the next decade. Almost immediately, Kerry turned his diplomatic focus to G-20 countries—which account for more than 80% of global GDP and emit 75% of global greenhouse gases. A September analysis from the World Resources Institute showed that action from this group alone could bring the world close to meeting the 1.5°C goal. “If the 20 major emitting countries [do] all that’s possible, then, Glasgow will be a success,” he told me in March. “If we do our jobs, all of us, hopefully, we can look at Glasgow and say this was a turning point.”

China, without question, was the most important G-20 nation to pursue. The country is the world’s largest emitter and second largest economy. And although China has committed to peaking and then declining its emissions by 2030, scientists say it needs to happen sooner to keep the world in line with the 1.5°C goal.

Read more: Why China’s Promise to Stop Funding Coal Plants Around the World Is a Really Big Deal

From his first months as Secretary of State under Obama, Kerry set out to build a bridge to China on climate while tensions festered on other matters, putting the issue at the center of the relationship. In 2014, in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama, with Kerry by his side, announced agenda-setting plans to cut emissions, effectively inviting other countries to get on the same page. On the back of Kerry’s climate diplomacy, Obama and Xi feted each other a year later at a state dinner in Washington—perhaps the zenith of relations between the two countries in recent years. In the early days of the Biden Administration, longtime watchers of international climate politics speculated about whether Kerry would try to repeat that effort. Kerry told me that from the outset he knew that wouldn’t be possible—the Trump presidency had spoiled the well, and, while less vociferous, Biden hasn’t sought to placate China. “It’s a very, very different time now,” Kerry says. “It’s a very different set of political circumstances.”

Instead, he sought a subtler form of rapprochement, traveling to China in April, becoming the first senior U.S. official to visit since the start of the pandemic. His message, he says, was to create a lane for climate collaboration amid the iciness. The reception was a sharp contrast from the jubilant atmosphere at the state dinner six years earlier. The two parties released a joint statement, agreeing to cooperate but not much more. Then in September, after making the 7,000-mile trip to Tianjin, Kerry encountered even more tense feelings. Despite the long journey, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi only met with him virtually, and said that climate collaboration could not be an “oasis” away from the other rifts in the relationship. “If the oasis is surrounded by desert, sooner or later the oasis will also become desert,” he said.

Nonetheless, Kerry remains optimistic. He has met with his counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, more than two dozen times and insists that China “remains essential” to the U.S. strategy. But his approach has necessarily been to give the country space. “They will not get pushed,” he says. “If you publicly are trying to hash this out, it’s going to work against you.”

Other countries have been more open to entreaties. In April, Kerry traveled to South Korea and made the case for ending international coal financing abroad; a few days later, at a U.S.-hosted climate summit, the South Korean government announced it would do just that. Japan followed a few weeks later. In September, Kerry sent a delegation to South Africa to work with allies to put together a financial package to wean the country off of coal. And Kerry’s joint initiative with the E.U. to push other nations to cut emissions from methane, a potent greenhouse gas, has drawn commitments from at least two dozen countries.

Read more: 2050: The Fight for Earth

Kerry’s job centers on engaging other countries, but he says that the immense role the private sector plays in global affairs makes corporate leaders an essential target. The private sector, he says, has the power to make or break the efforts of diplomats. “There’s no way to get this done unless the private sector buys in 100%,” he says.

So, when Kerry isn’t meeting with his official counterparts, he’s often working the room with CEOs and other executives, pushing them to join business coalitions and highlighting the companies that are making progress. In New York, in late September, Kerry took the stage at the Concordia Summit at the same time that world leaders were gathering a few blocks away for the U.N. General Assembly. The Concordia conference draws a mix of public officials, corporate executives and civil-society leaders, and Kerry’s session featured senior executives from LinkedIn and Apple, whom he peppered with questions as he announced the Glasgow Is Our Business initiative, which is designed to show corporate support for a robust outcome at COP26. A few weeks later, in Geneva, I watched as Kerry convened a meeting of more than two dozen companies—from DHL to the Boston Consulting Group—to discuss what he named the First Movers Coalition, whose members all commit to helping bring new clean technologies to market.

Kerry with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos
Kerry with Amazon founder Jeff BezosDimitrios Kambouris—Bezos Earth Fund/Getty Images

“I’ve had several calls with him, he talked to our board … I’ve had some video conferences with him,” says Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, a member of the coalition. “The only way to solve this is a public-private partnership where like-minded people in the public arena and the private arena find real solutions.”

In his position, Kerry has traveled to more than a dozen countries and met with many more leaders from other countries and the private sector. It follows that energy is often the first word that comes to mind when I ask officials around the world about him. “He’s a force,” says Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency. That energy, combined with Kerry’s long-term commitment to the effort, has translated into a slew of constructive bonds—the glue that keeps diplomacy intact. Frans Timmermans, who leads climate policy in the E.U., said they share a “strong personal relationship” after years of working together. “There’s a base of trust, and that makes these complicated things easier,” he says.

“There’s just no substitute for the kind of deep, meaningful, decades-long relationships John brings to his role,” Wendy Sherman, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, told TIME. “It’s ultimately relationships like his that are critical to achieving diplomatic breakthroughs.”

But relationships can go only so far. Kerry has also had to combat persistent questions about the U.S.’s own climate commitments. Under Trump, the U.S. had reneged on a commitment to help finance climate efforts in developing countries. And although Biden in April proposed contributing $5.7 billion annually, much of the rest of the world rejected that as insufficient. In interview after interview, Kerry made it clear that he was pushing hard for Biden to double down on his commitment. “We made a promise back in Paris,” he said in July. “We have to live up to our promises.” After much wrangling, Biden announced in September that the U.S. would double its commitment.

More recently, attention has focused on whether the U.S. can actually meet its own emissions targets. In April, President Biden promised to cut emissions in half by 2030 when compared with 2005 levels, but the details remain fuzzy on how he plans to achieve it. The spending packages currently on Capitol Hill would likely take the U.S. close to those targets, but they remain up in the air.

Read more: If the U.S. Spends Big on Climate, the Rest of the World Might Follow

“John Kerry is doing his best, but Congress may or may not fulfill the climate commitments,” says Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland who now works on climate issues as the chair of the Elders, an NGO led by prominent former officials. Whatever happens in Congress, Kerry is confronting a challenging reality. For three decades, U.S. engagement with international climate efforts has seesawed with each new Administration. No matter how much cachet Kerry has on the global stage, the world is unsure how much it can trust the U.S. and whether the system it helped establish is actually working. “Entirely outside of the substance of climate, Glasgow is a test case for whether American leadership is still a force to be reckoned with,” says Whitehouse, the Senator from Rhode Island. “If we can’t be a part of the solution now, and climate gets really out of hand, everybody in the world is going to look at what happened in the U.S.—and it’s not a good story.”

We arrive in Milan at nearly 11 at night. With one exception, Kerry and three of his advisers are the only people left in the sleepy train car. Kerry reaches for his old-school Orvis suitcase, worse for the wear after many of these trips, and lugs it through the grand train station to a waiting car. For the past few days, Milan has played host to a youth climate summit, bringing together young people from around the world to come up with their own demands about how to address climate change and then present them to ministers and senior government officials.

The next morning, Kerry joins his counterparts on the stage of the primary convention hall, surrounded by hundreds of youth climate activists seated in a semicircle surrounding the stage. Despite the gesture of open communication made by the international climate negotiators, an undercurrent of anger and dissatisfaction is palpable. Earlier that morning, youth protesters had interrupted Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and police had escorted them out outside. During the conference, a crowd of protesters chanted outside while others spray-painted graffiti on the convention hall. A few days prior, Greta Thunberg had summed up the sentiment from the same stage, calling climate action leading up to the talks a bunch of “blah blah blah”—empty rhetoric while the world burns.

Kerry addressing the White House press corps
Kerry addressing the White House press corpsAlex Wong—Getty Images

Facing the youth, Kerry didn’t turn defensive. If anything, he seemed to join in. With no notes and no teleprompter, for seven minutes he described the climate battle as “a fight for our lives,” condemned the “BS” of laggards and called out the “powerful interests that want to continue business as usual.” He said that developed countries are failing to help their poorer counterparts in financing the transition. He invoked the Holocaust to remind people that the world once said, “Never again,” and yet we are already we are letting millions die from air pollution, extreme heat and other climate-change-related tragedies. “This is an existential battle,” he says. “And for some people in the world it already is absolutely existential: they’re losing their lives.”

The next day, I asked Kerry whether he sees himself in the youth activists. After all, before he held any elected office, Kerry was a combat veteran turned antiwar activist who took to the streets to protest Vietnam. “I don’t feel separated from them at all,” he says. “I feel like the same person I was in terms of my activism, frustration, motivation. I would probably be sitting there now if I was 18 years old. I sort of feel like I’m playing the same role here. I’m pushing, trying to lay out what I believe is the basic truth about climate.”

Read more: We’re Handing Our Kids a Damaged Planet. And Our Excuse for Doing Nothing About It Has Now Fallen Apart

If the stakes are existential for the planet, so too are the stakes for U.S. leadership on it and the entire multilateral system that organizes relations between countries and people. On multiple occasions, Kerry brings this up to me without my prompting. “This is what we built after World War II, a community of nations engaged with each other,” he told me in Naples. “And we’ve done lots to try to live up to that… We’ve pushed frontiers of solving problems. And here’s the biggest problem of all, and we have not pushed the frontier sufficiently at all.”

It’s hard to know exactly what comes next if the multilateral system doesn’t come together at this moment. The world has had a little taste of how climate change will hit us, and it will only get worse; rampant climate migration and increasingly deadly crises don’t bode well for international collaboration. In conversation, Kerry acknowledges that the President has asked him to look at the possibilities of a penalizing high-carbon imports, a turn from carrot-based multilateral engagement to a stick-based approach. But still he keeps vague any speculation about what failure would mean. “If we get into not acting,” he says, climate change is “going to eclipse a lot of these other” issues.

Kerry is known for his optimism. People often portray him as the hard-charging diplomat, determined to get the deal and certain in his ability to deliver. That personality trait is evident watching him in action and in conversation. But it’s just as clear, when listening to him grapple with the science, that he doesn’t see another option. “I think you have to be an optimist to continue the fight,’’ says David McKean, who served as Kerry’s chief of staff in the Senate and later in a senior role in the State Department under Kerry. “So, I think he’s an optimist, but first and foremost, I think he’s realist.”

When I leave the conference center in Milan, where I had just wrapped up what I knew would be my last conversation with Kerry for this story, I take a walk in the nearby park—a pristinely landscaped public space that abuts a shiny shopping center. Workers are scrubbing the graffiti in big red letters that adorn the space, but most of it remains legible. Climate extinction, one says. Crime scene, says another. In the center of a wide open space, on the wall of a little cement structure, COP26 bla bla bla is graffitied, impossible to miss.

Kerry has two weeks to show that talk still matters. —With reporting by Leslie Dickstein

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Write to Justin Worland/Naples. Italy at