My Time as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate – United States Department of State


It has been a tremendous honor to serve as President Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.  I am sharing a few parting thoughts as I sign off.

First, what we do this decade to address the climate crisis globally will reverberate for the rest of this century.

Today’s “new abnormal” – droughts, wildfires, floods, extreme heat, and other climate impacts – is just a mild preview of what we will face if we cannot dramatically cut global emissions and boost climate resilience in the critical years ahead. Without ambitious action, the world may be rapidly approaching tipping points in Earth system that will have untold impact across the globe.

Our actions will shape lives, livelihoods, security, and geopolitics, at home and abroad, for generations to come.

If we succeed in this mission – in fact when we succeed – we will preserve decades of hard-won gains in development and prosperity. We will save hundreds of billions of dollars in future disaster response, humanitarian funds, and rebuilding efforts. We will increase energy access and security. We will advance U.S. competitiveness in multi-trillion-dollar markets. And we will show our allies and adversaries that the United States can be counted on to lead the world in solving its biggest challenges.

Just this month, the International Energy Agency reported that in 2023, total CO2 emissions from energy combustion in the United States declined by 4.1%, while the economy grew by 2.5%. Those who claim we are putting our economic security at risk by taking action to cut pollution could not be further from the truth, or the science.

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry on a stage holding hands with five individuals in front of a banner that reads COP28 Summit on Methane and Other Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases. [State Department photo]
[State Department photo]

Second, we have made incredible progress in three years.

In his first week in office, President Biden called on us to put the climate crisis at the center of our foreign policy. And I am grateful to Secretary Blinken and his team for the progress we have made under the Modernization Agenda to better muster the talent, training, and tools required to do just that. We now have 20 dedicated climate Foreign Service Officer positions in the regional bureaus and in key overseas posts. With the Foreign Service Institute’s leadership, we are ramping up our curriculum to build the climate literacy, capacity, and expertise of our personnel. And we are giving officers in the field access to relevant analytics to advance a data informed agenda.

On the diplomatic front, on Earth Day in 2021, we held an historic leaders summit in the East Room of the White House. And President Biden reconvened that Major Economies Forum twice more afterwards to continue to raise the climate ambition of the world’s largest economies. We secured successful outcomes at COP 26, COP 27, and COP 28 – and I’m convinced Dubai will be judged one of the most significant COPs in history.

We also made enormous progress toward the President’s ambitious climate finance goals, raising our support for developing countries from $1.5 billion in 2021 to $9.5 billion in 2023 — the largest such increase, ever. And this year, we intend to finish the job. We launched marquee initiatives on adaptation, methane, forests, clean energy, and so much more. And most importantly, we have given the world a fighting chance to keep a safe future within reach.

We could not have done this without our tireless and passionate commitment to this work, across the Department and the world.

President Biden and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry surrounded by people with a banner behind them that says United Nations Climate Change Conference. [State Department photo]
President Biden and John Kerry attending the U.N. Climate Change Conference in 2021. [State Department photo]

But there is much more to do.

Even in light of this progress, the hardest work has only just begun. We need the world’s major and emerging economies to slash planet-warming pollution at unprecedented speed and scale. We need to build the climate resilience of half a billion people under PREPARE, the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience. We need to innovate and deploy new solutions and technologies at scale. We need to unlock trillions of dollars in climate-friendly investment. And I am confident we can sustain and continue to strengthen the diplomatic alliances that will make all of this possible.

And we have only just begun the project for a new generation of foreign policy leaders tasked with responding to the emerging effects of the climate crisis on America’s role in the world. New climate security threats are emerging, disrupting stability and defense in real time. Rapid impacts to oceans, forests, and biodiversity are quickly becoming global priorities. And intersecting issues, from health, to migration, to tech and AI, to trade, will affect and be impacted by this unfolding crisis in real time.

That’s why, as the best and brightest of our country’s diplomats, we need your help.

I am leaving this work in the incredibly capable hands of Rich Verma, John Podesta, and a dedicated and capable team. But it will be just as true for them as it was for me that we can’t get the job done without you.

Every job in this Department is tied to the realities of the climate crisis in some way. My parting wish is that all of you dig deep to do everything you can this decisive decade to “keep 1.5C alive” so we protect peoples’ lives and livelihoods and ensure greater global stability and prosperity for the rest of the century and beyond.

Secretary Blinken talking with John Kerry with a U.N. flag behind them to the right and a logo on the wall that reads COP28 UAE [State Department photo]
Secretary of State Blinken and John Kerry at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in 2023. [State Department photo]

A final thought that is not about an issue or an office, but about what all who embrace public service contribute.

I love the State Department. I was a Foreign Service kid with a dad who served overseas. I was 10 when I was issued my first diplomatic passport, and seventy years later, I am turning in my most recent one with a whole lot more stamps, miles, and memories.

The next time you look at the State Department seal, remember that Harry S Truman turned the eagle’s head away from the arrows of war and towards the olive branches, because he wanted everyone to remember that we are a nation dedicated to peace.

John Kerry also served as the 68th Secretary of State from February 1, 2013 – January 20, 2017.


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