John Kerry moves on

Climate Voices

John Kerry moves on

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What’s next for the indefatigable climate statesman?

President Biden’s departing climate envoy, John Kerry, had a busy week doing “exit interviews” with the media, a time-honored Washington, D.C. ritual. Coinciding as it did with Biden’s State of the Union address, Kerry’s farewells had a similar but climate-focused vibe.

The world is not well, but it’s not dead, was his frank message. New York Times columnist David Wallace-Wells wrote that for much of Kerry’s watch, sentiment has swung from the despair of witnessing the earth’s atmospheric temperature surge toward disaster to the relief that clean energy is coming online far faster than even the boldest predictions.

Three years of climate diplomacy has tried the patience of the former Secretary of State, longtime Senator for Massachusetts, and presidential candidate. Periodic bursts of progress have too often been followed by long stretches of inertia or backsliding. His positive fixes include reestablishing the credibility of America’s climate effort after Trump’s stint in the White House, negotiating an agreement to transition away from fossil fuels at last year’s UN climate conference, driving a new focus on curbing methane gas emissions and helping the U.S. stay on track to reduce its carbon emissions 50 percent by 2030.

Yet, looking back, he sounds like a flustered preacher after a Sunday sermon. “Why do people not do things that they know are good for them? I don’t understand how average folks all around the world are letting people get away with all this business as usual.”

“Why do people not do things that they know are good for them?”

Climate trinity

Like many climate activists, Kerry finds it hard to believe that more progress has not been made in climate mitigation and adaptation, given the shocking deterioration of the earth’s ecosphere. He blames the fossil fuel industry, China’s inability to look beyond its narrow national self-interest and global public apathy.

Once China’s biggest supporter in the Biden Administration, Kerry’s attitude towards the Middle Kingdom has cooled considerably despite his long personal relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua. Lack of progress with China was a primary reason Kerry is leaving now, says friend and long-time China hand, Orville Schell. Kerry told Wallace-Wells he was “deeply frustrated” by China’s continued dependence on coal. “We’ve almost had shouting matches a couple of times.”

Never exactly a man of the people or one to suffer fools, Kerry also has lost patience with the public. “The world’s inability to curb fossil fuels is like a de facto signature on a suicide pact,” he says. “Everybody seems to be locked into a place of indifference.”

Moving on  

To understand Kerry’s next move is to understand what makes him unique in modern elite circles. He is a public servant who has devoted his life to public service. That makes him very different from political opportunists and billionaires turned public actors like Mark Carney or Michael Bloomberg. He achieved financial security the old-fashioned way — he married it. That has allowed him — in that old, flinty, New England boarding school way — to be a person who has made it his life’s primary mission to serve the public good, warts and all. He really does want to save the world.

John Kerry’s third act?

Just how America’s leading climate statesman will do this will be a telling indicator of where the really smart money thinks the climate transition is headed. Kerry is apprehensive that government and private sector initiatives are not working. So, the insider speculation is that John Kerry will turn his attention to scale public and private partnerships to accelerate capital deployment to climate adaptation and resilience, clean energy, and the Global South. That can be accomplished much easier, freed from the shackles of a public bureaucracy.

Just how America’s leading climate statesman will do this will be a telling indicator of where the really smart money thinks the climate transition is headed.

Wall Street wakes up to climate opportunity

The timing is perfect. After an embarrassing ESG detour, Wall Street has woken up to what the private equity giant KKR calls the $250 trillion climate opportunity. Last week, BlackRock abandoned ESG for “transition finance.” And General Atlantic, founded more than 40 years ago by the late Charles Feeney, this century’s most outstanding philanthropist, now sees outsized growth equity opportunities in transforming the world’s physical, energy, and digital infrastructure, particularly in the Global South.

With his seniority and climate gravitas, he now stands atop the fulcrum of two great forces — policy and capital. With his connections, policy expertise, and general climate “cred,” few are better positioned to influence breakthrough policy — and financing — than Kerry.

Back to the future

John Kerry is at that wonderful moment in a person’s career when he or she can finally do what they really want to do. So we hope that Kerry, now that he is freed from officialdom, will embrace the spirit of his 1960s idealism, blend that with half a century of accumulated public service wisdom, and devote the rest of his life pushing for new ideas, new solutions, mentoring leaders — and championing creative ways to deploy capital at scale in service of the public good. “We’re in a revolution,” he told Wallace-Wells. “But we’re just not moving fast enough.”

Written by

Peter McKillop

Peter McKillop is the founder of Climate & Capital Media, a mission-driven information platform exploring the business and finance of climate change.