Oct 27, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: John Kerry preparing to leave Biden administration

John Kerry

John Kerry delivers a speech at the Conference of African Ministers on the Environment in Dakar, Senegal, on Sept. 15. Photo: Seyllou/AFP via Getty Images

Special climate envoy John Kerry is actively considering leaving the Biden administration after next month's COP27 summit, soliciting advice from friends and colleagues on how to stay involved in climate efforts from the private sector, according to people familiar with the matter.

Why it matters: President Biden has relied on Kerry, a former secretary of state, long-time senator and the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, to corral more multilateral buy-in for emissions cuts and keep climate on the radar despite economic headwinds and the Russia crisis.

  • He was in the thick of COP26 negotiations in Glasgow last November that produced, for the first time, an explicit pledge to move away from coal and fossil fuel subsidies.
  • But with the U.S. and China staring each other down on both trade and security issues, the prospects for further joint action with Beijing on climate have diminished.
  • Kerry hasn't made a final decision and could decide to remain in his role. "I can't stress enough: Secretary Kerry has no plans to depart, and his sole focus is COP27, period, and anything else is baseless speculation," said Kerry spokesperson Whitney Smith.

Driving the news: Kerry has been outlining his ambitions, as well as his concerns, for COP27 in Egypt, which could be his last international climate summit.

  • He is focused on tapping private capital to fund clean energy projects but fears that the big banks don't appreciate the peril of a warming planet and are still financing too many fossil fuel projects.
  • "For every $1 invested in low carbon energy supply, $1.10 is invested in fossil fuels," Kerry said in a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations on Tuesday.

What we're hearing: Kerry is motivated to leave for several reasons.

  • He doesn’t relish being hauled before his former colleagues in a potentially Republican-controlled Senate or House to defend his approach to lowering carbon emissions — including his family's private jet. For government trips, Kerry flies commercial.
  • While Kerry enjoys a wealthy lifestyle from his wife's fortune, he is interested in returning to the private sector to increase his own personal net worth. (Before entering the administration, Kerry drew a $5 million salary from Bank of America.)
  • And he's hinted to colleagues that he has achieved all that can be reasonably accomplished in the current political environment — both domestically and internationally.

What we're watching: This year’s COP summit, where participants will be closely watching the outcome of the midterms on Nov. 8, runs from from Nov. 6-18.

  • Kerry's departure could be part of a broader administration reorganization, which the White House has telegraphed.

The intrigue: In the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required all presidential envoys to be confirmed by the Senate, meaning that Biden’s potential pick could face a bruising battle to get confirmed.

  • If Biden decides to keep the presidential envoy role, rather than opt for a climate negotiator at the State Department, he will have to decide whether to replace Kerry with a high-profile former politician or a technocrat who might be more easily confirmed.

Zoom out: After passing some $370 billion to reduce domestic carbon emissions, most of the Biden administration’s focus will be on regulations and convincing the private sector — including major American financial institutions — to invest more heavily in green energy.

  • The administration is also debating how to use the World Bank to leverage investments for green projects in developing countries and has weighed removing the bank's Trump-appointed president, David Malpass, after he made comments that appeared to question if humans caused climate change.
  • At the same time, congressional Republicans are eager to grill big financial institutions at oversight hearings focused on so-called "woke capitalism," including any divestment from fossil fuel industries.

The bottom line: Kerry is both indefatigable and a little frustrated. There’s not a meeting — or a flight — he won’t take to urge other countries or companies to do more on climate.

  • "Those of us trying to create the new clean-energy economy are handicapped by the absence of concessionary funding," he told the New Yorker in a story published this week.
  • "If we had tens of billions of dollars, we could leverage this transition very quickly and get people to make smarter choices."
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