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Climate Envoy John Kerry is giving up the job title — but not the fight

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

John Kerry has been a U.S. senator, a presidential candidate and a secretary of state, all after receiving three Purple Hearts for his military service in Vietnam. Now, at the age of 80, he is stepping down from what's likely his last full-time job in government - the president's special envoy for climate. Biden created the position for his old friend right after taking office three years ago. And since then, Kerry has been all over the world trying to rally governments and corporations to curb the worst impacts of climate change. Secretary Kerry, thanks for joining us for an exit interview.

JOHN KERRY: I'm delighted to be with you, Ari. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: I know you have piles of figures and data at your fingertips to demonstrate the progress of the last few years, but could you begin by just choosing one number, a specific, narrow figure that you think represents some of the broader accomplishments of your time as a climate envoy?

KERRY: I think the one number is the 1.5 degrees Celsius, which has now become the North Star of the world of trying to deal with the climate crisis. The fact is that when we left Paris in 2015, having passed the Paris Agreement, the language for the aspirational goal was well below 2 degrees and try to do 1.5. But in 2018, the IPCC, the U.N. scientific panel, told us point-blank, we have 12 years within which to make and implement the critical decisions to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. And in order to do that, you have to try to get as close as you can - 1.5 or as close as you can.

SHAPIRO: And yet, right now, the world is on track to warm the planet by twice that many degrees by the end of the century. And last year, like many recently, was the hottest in recorded history. Global emissions keep going up. It would seem that although you have worked so hard to keep the potential for 1.5 within reach, the reality is far from that.

KERRY: Well, it's not far from that, but it's not that. I mean, point-blank, we are heading towards about 2.5 degrees right now. But given what we achieved in Glasgow and Sharm el-Sheikh and now most recently the UAE consensus, we now know to a certainty that if we implemented all of the initiatives and all of the targets that were set by those various meetings, we could actually hold the Earth's temperature increase to about 1.7 degrees. When I took this job on, we were headed towards 4 degrees.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

KERRY: And now, if we're heading towards 2.5, and we know that if we implement everything that we have promised to do - for instance, methane. We never talked about methane in Paris. And methane became part of the conversation when President Biden, joined with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, and together they announced in Glasgow that we're all going to be working towards dealing with methane. Methane is responsible for half the warming of the planet.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

KERRY: It's 80 to 100 times more destructive than CO2. So we've plugged a huge hole here.

SHAPIRO: I want to follow up on something you said, which is that...

KERRY: Sure.

SHAPIRO: ...Things look really good...

KERRY: Sure.

SHAPIRO: ...If we keep the promises we've made, if countries stick to their pledges. Dubai was, by you and your team, considered a great success because for the first time, the world agreed that we need to move away from fossil fuels. But at the same time, China is building more coal-fired power plants, and the U.S. emissions are not falling fast enough to meet American climate goals. And so what leads you to believe that these promises will be kept?

KERRY: I mean, yes, China has about 360 gigawatts of coal-fired power that is slated to come online or be built. And that would be catastrophic if that's what happens. But China is, I think, to some degree, hedging against the reality of what their economy needs as a backstop. But they're building, they're constructing and deploying more renewables than all of the rest of the world put together.

SHAPIRO: You think the coal plants are a just in case - break glass in case of emergency - that might never be used?

KERRY: That's what they say to us. And that's what begins to be a possibility as you look at the massive amount of renewable that's being deployed. China is looking at something like 2,500 to 3,500 gigawatts of power that's going to be created over the course of the next six years. Now, that's game changing if that happens.

SHAPIRO: I want to ask you about corporations because you've often talked about the role that private industry plays in the transition away from carbon. And just this week, the CEO of ExxonMobil, Darren Woods, told Fortune magazine that the world is not on track to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. And he blamed the public for that, saying, quote, "the people who are generating those emissions need to be aware of and pay the price for generating those emissions."

Secretary Kerry, when you hear those words coming from the head of the largest publicly traded oil company blaming the public for a lack of climate progress, how do you conclude that corporate America is marching alongside you?

KERRY: Well, I haven't suggested that everybody is. I've said to you that there are many corporations that are that are doing unbelievable things right now.

SHAPIRO: But ExxonMobil is a pretty big one.

KERRY: ExxonMobil is an oil and gas producer that has not yet joined in some of the larger initiatives that we need in order to achieve our goal. ExxonMobil did step up in Dubai. But we need them to do more. Yes, we do. And that's one of the reasons why I'm transitioning out of this particular job, because I think that now the private sector is going to be the key to our ability to be able to win this battle.

SHAPIRO: So you're giving up the job title, but you're not giving up the fight.

KERRY: Correct. I'm going to be directly involved in trying to help deploy the financing, which will accelerate this transition. All the finance reports say if you want to achieve net zero 2050, then it's going to cost about 2.5- to 4.5-, $5 trillion a year for the next 30 years. No government in the world has that money to put on the table, but the private sector does.

SHAPIRO: Let me just ask, can the push to achieve net zero by 2050 survive a second term of Donald Trump as president if he wins the election in November?

KERRY: Well, let me answer that this way. When Donald Trump was president, even though he pulled out of Paris, more than a thousand mayors in the United States kept on track to meet the Paris Agreement requirements. More than - 37 governors out of our 50 states, Republican and Democrat alike, continued to adhere to the renewable portfolio laws of each of their states. So even while Donald Trump was pulled out of the agreement, the fact is, the American people stayed in the Paris Agreement. And through those mayors and those governors and those states, we actually saw 75% of the new electricity in America during Donald Trump came from renewables.

SHAPIRO: And yet, I'm sure you believe that who is in the White House matters for the...

KERRY: Of course it matters.

SHAPIRO: ...Course of American...

KERRY: No, no, no, no.

SHAPIRO: ...Climate policy.

KERRY: Absolutely, it matters. Because you can screw up the EPA. You can put the wrong person in an interior or agriculture. So yes, it does matter who's president. But they can't stop. No one prime minister, one king, one president anywhere in the world is able to stop what the marketplace of the world is now moving towards.

SHAPIRO: You have been involved in climate and environmental efforts for more than 50 years, since at least 1970. And so what do you do when you have a day of despair or hopelessness?

KERRY: I kick myself in the a** and get rid of the hopelessness and go back to work. We can win this fight. And if we don't do what we need to do between now and 2030 - the next six years - there is no net zero 2050. And I refuse to believe that that's what we're left having to accept.

SHAPIRO: John Kerry, the first U.S. special envoy for climate. Thank you so much for speaking with us again.

KERRY: Thank you. Great to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.