John Kerry Is Bringing America Back Into the Climate Fight

John Kerry is able to 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.

Kerry warns about the end of humankind as tourists take photos from the opposite side of the patio. 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. He will help in any way he can, as the fate of civilization depends on it. “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.”

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The lobby at Excelsior Hotel, several floors below, is alive with people and activity despite the oppressive heat and humidity. 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. A new world of system change is possibleOne sign says:

John Kerry Time Magazine Cover
Photo by Peter Hapak, TIME

While the stakes are high, Excelsior’s discussions can be petty. One conference room is full of negotiators arguing over what language should be used to describe how nations are required to submit 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 responds to each question calmly, with the hope that reason will triumph. “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. Kerry is often mentioned in conversation with legislators, diplomats, and business leaders as well as activists. 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
Michel Euler—POOL/AFP/Getty ImagesKerry with Emmanuel Macron, French President

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 is careful and does not want to go beyond his climate mandate. However, he understands what the stakes are. “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.”

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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.

The late-night trainKerry travels from Geneva to Milan late September. Long after the dust has settled, so he takes a moment out of his briefing book. Kerry follows every station stop carefully, reflecting on Alpine geography, then excitedly crosses into Italy. I am offered candy by his favourite and most visited chocolate shop in Geneva.

Kerry is an internationalist while other leaders tend to look inward. While he knows the best places to get chocolate in foreign countries, he is also a diplomat and a skilled negotiator. His father was a diplomat and he grew-up on either side of the Atlantic. He attended high school in the U.S., then went to boarding school there. “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. He has always tried to make climate change a priority in his political career even though it was still on the back burner. He traveled to Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to promote global climate solutions. He had his first serious conversation with Teresa Heinz Kerry, his wife. He was inspired by Teresa’s native Portuguese singing. While working publicly in the Senate to form a bipartisan alliance to pass legislation on climate that would have capped U.S. emission, he was also involved behind-the scenes with efforts to inform his colleagues about 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. Kerry’s tenure will be remembered for brokering the Iran nuclear nonproliferation agreement. However, Kerry is also proud of his efforts to place climate diplomacy at the center of the U.S. foreign policies apparatus. Kerry traveled the globe right away after taking office and put climate diplomacy on the agendas of all heads of government, rather than only environment ministers. Kerry made it a point to ensure that all diplomats were fluent in this issue, and included it in talking points at meetings of every size. “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.

These discussions helped create the basis for the negotiations that led eventually to the Paris Agreement. This agreement provides a framework which allows countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Even though the French hosted the negotiations, details and the structure of the agreement were created to address the needs of U.S. political politics. Kerry was present on the ground during the conference for the majority of its two-week duration, participating in discussions that most Cabinet officers would prefer to leave to their subordinates. Although a wide variety of people deserve credit for the Paris agreement, it was the product of intensive negotiations among nearly 200 countries. Kerry, however, played an integral role in steering the discussions and getting the world to an accord.

Kerry speaking at the Earthshot Prize award ceremony
Yui Mok—POOL/AFP/Getty ImagesKerry at the Earthshot Prize ceremony

Kerry began his new job right in the middle of the pandemic. After three years of rallying people around the Paris talks, he was only nine months away from 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 was, undoubtedly, the best G-20 country to follow. 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.

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Kerry, his first month as Secretary of State, set out to create a bridge with China regarding climate. While tensions raged on other issues, Kerry placed the matter at the heart of their relationship. Obama was accompanied by Kerry in Beijing when the Chinese President Xi Jinping announced plans to reduce emissions. This effectively invited other countries to join him. 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. Many international watchers who were familiar with climate politics speculated whether Kerry would attempt to duplicate that gesture in the early years of the Biden Administration. 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.”

In the end, he was looking for a less direct form of friendship and traveled to China in March to become the first U.S. senior official to travel to China since the beginning of the pandemic. According to him, his message was about creating a path for climate collaboration in spite of the cold. This reception marked a stark contrast to the joyous atmosphere of the six-year-old state dinner. Both parties issued a joint statement agreeing to cooperate, but not more. Kerry was then confronted with more tension in September after his 7000-mile journey to Tianjin. 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. He has always tried to make space for the country. “They will not get pushed,” he says. “If you publicly are trying to hash this out, it’s going to work against you.”

Others have shown more willingness to listen. Kerry made the case in April for the end of international coal financing. The South Korean government then announced that it was doing so at the U.S. climate summit. Japan was next a few days later. Kerry sent in September a delegation of South African officials to help allies put together a package that would allow the country to move away from coal. And Kerry’s joint initiative with the E.U. Two dozen countries pledged to reduce methane’s greenhouse gas emissions.

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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. He says that the private sector has the ability to either make or break diplomats’ efforts. “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. Kerry appeared on the Concordia Summit stage in New York late September while world leaders were gathered just a few blocks away at 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
Dimitrios Kambouris—Bezos Earth Fund/Getty ImagesKerry and Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder)

“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.”

Kerry is a diplomat who has visited more than 12 countries, and met more heads from different sectors. You can see that it is true. EnergyIt is frequently the first word I think of when I question officials all over the globe 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.”

However, relationships are only as good as their weakest link. Kerry has also had to combat persistent questions about the U.S.’s own climate commitments. Trump has reneged upon a pledge by the U.S. to support climate finance in developing nations. Although Biden proposed in April that the United States would contribute $5.7 billion per year, most of the rest rejected this as inadequate. Kerry repeatedly stated that he would push for Biden’s commitment to be increased in interviews after interviews. “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.

Recently, the focus has shifted to whether or not the U.S. is able to achieve its emission targets. While President Biden pledged to lower emissions by 50% in 2030, compared to 2005 levels, details about how he will achieve this goal remain uncertain. Although the spending plans currently being discussed on Capitol Hill will likely bring the U.S. closer to these targets, they are still up in the air.

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“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. Kerry faces a difficult reality, regardless of what happens in Congress. Over the past three decades, U.S. involvement in international climate efforts has fluctuated with every new Administration. No matter how well-known Kerry is on the global stage the world has doubts about how trustworthy the U.S. is and whether its system of international climate change mitigation is effective. “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 are here MilanAt almost 11 o’clock at night. Kerry and his three advisers, with one exception are the last people in the train car. Kerry pulls out his Orvis luggage, now much worse after many travels, and takes it to the station. Milan was host to the youth climate summit. It brought together hundreds of young people around the world, who came up with ideas about climate change. They then presented them to the ministers.

Kerry is joined by his counterparts at the primary convention hall the following morning. There are hundreds of young climate activists sitting in a semicircle around the stage. Even though the international climate negotiators attempted to communicate openly, there’s still anger and dissatisfaction. The Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi was disrupted by youth protestors earlier that morning. Police had to take them outside. The conference was disrupted by protestors outside who chanted and others spray painted graffiti all over the 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
Alex Wong—Getty ImagesKerry speaks to the White House Press corps

Facing the youth, Kerry didn’t turn defensive. Kerry seemed to be joining in, rather than taking sides. 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.”

Kerry asked me if he was interested in youth activists the day after. Kerry, a Vietnam war veteran, was an antiwar activist before being elected to office. “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 think I would be sitting here now, if 18 years ago. 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.”

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As the stakes on the planet are very important, so are those for U.S. leadership. Kerry has brought this up repeatedly to me, without needing my permission. “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. Kerry acknowledged that President Obama asked him to consider the possibility of penalizing high carbon imports. This would be a shift from multilateral carrot-based engagement to a stick approach. He isn’t clear on what the definition of failure might be. “If we get into not acting,” he says, climate change is “going to eclipse a lot of these other” issues.

Kerry is well known for being optimistic. Many people see Kerry as an optimistic diplomat. This personality trait can be seen in his actions and conversations. 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. The graffiti is being cleaned up by workers in large red letters, although most of the text remains legible. Climate extinctionOne says. Crime sceneOne person says the other. The COP26 sign is located in the middle of an open area, against a wall made of small cement structures. Bla blaYou can’t miss it because of its graffiti.

Kerry will have two weeks to demonstrate that talking is still important. —Leslie Dickstein reporting


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