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What John Kerry Could Do on Climate as Secretary of State

J. Mijin Cha

Given his long record of climate advocacy, John Kerry’s nomination for Secretary of State is a sign that climate change may receive more attention in the second Obama Administration. In addition to co-sponsoring a cap-and-trade bill in the Senate, Kerry made it a point in his presidential campaign to deride the Bush Administration’s lack of belief in climate change. Elevating the importance of climate change at the State Department could result in more significant climate policy than a similar move at the EPA.

For one, the EPA has been under constant attack from the GOP and any action taken is subject to scrutiny and delay tactics. Plus, the EPA has not been great about enforcing existing regulations on greenhouse gases, prompting NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and six other attorneys general to sue the agency for failure to address methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Moreover, climate change is a truly global issue. With global temperatures rising, every country will face adaptation challenges and mitigation must be a global effort.

While the lack of action from Doha left many climate advocates deeply disappointed, there is reason to be optimistic that a strong climate advocate as Secretary of State can help move international negotiations. If climate negotiations can follow the path of the Montreal Protocol, which banned ozone depleting chemicals, meaningful international climate policy would be adopted.

Richard Benedick, the force behind the Montreal Protocol, writes a fascinating in-depth account of the process and the role he played as the lead state department negotiator. The parallels between CFCs and greenhouse gasses are considerable. While not as ubiquitous as oil and gas, at the time, CFCs were in thousands of products and processes, billions of dollars were invested in its use, and hundreds of thousands of jobs were involved. Not to mention, technological alternatives did not exist or were considered too costly or unfeasible. And, there was no firm evidence of either the predicted ozone layer depletion or of any harmful effect. Yet, Benedick and others were able to negotiate the only treaty that has universal ratification and 25 years later, the ozone layer is well on track for complete recovery.

Another interesting point in Benedick’s reflection was that DuPont, the world’s largest producer of CDCs, stated that it could develop substitutes without about five years but that, “neither the marketplace nor regulatory policy… has provided the needed incentives,” but once the incentives were in place, DuPont chose to cease all production of CFCs and halons. This is a basic tenant of our economic system—companies need reasons to change their behavior, whether it is through market changes or in response to regulation. The public good is never reason enough to change behaviors.

One of the first challenges Kerry will face is whether or not to approve the Keystone pipeline. If the pipeline is approved, I think the chances of meaningful climate action decrease significantly. But, if the pipeline is rejected, there is a real chance for a climate Montreal Protocol moment. Let’s hope Kerry stays true to his climate advocacy record.