What can we expect from the new US climate czar?

John Kerry, who will serve as a climate envoy of the US and sit on the National Security Council under the Joe Biden presidency. Photo: Reuters

President-Elect Joe Biden of the United States of America recently announced his national security and foreign policy team including a significant new position of a “climate envoy” who would sit on the National Security Council, choosing former Senator John Kerry for that position. So what does this appointment mean for the US and the world and how are we to prepare to deal with him going forward?

The first thing to note is that John Kerry, as President Obama’s Secretary of State during the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), held in Paris in December 2015, was a key architect of the path-breaking Paris Agreement that came out of the conference. He was a strong supporter of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) which was advocating for the long temperature goal to be set at 1.5 degrees rather than 2 degrees Centigrade. The CVF, under the leadership of then President Aquino of the Philippines, made a major diplomatic effort to get countries to agree to change the long-term temperature goal from 2 to 1.5 degrees Centigrade against a lot of opposition not just from the developed countries but also big developing countries such as China and India. During the two weeks of COP21, we were able to persuade every other country to agree to support our goal, and the turning point was when John Kerry joined us under the High Ambition Coalition of countries midway through COP21.

Since Donald Trump became president and withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement, Kerry has continued to work on promoting action to tackle climate change in the US and was part of the coalition of mayors and governors of States who had declared that they would comply with the Agreement even if their own federal government had withdrawn.

As President-elect Biden has already declared that one of the first actions he would take when he is sworn in on January 20, 2021 would be to rejoin the Paris Agreement, it means the US will now support global efforts to tackle climate change along with other countries. However, the situation in 2020 is much worse than what it was in 2015, and much of that is due to the inaction of the US under Trump and his administration which had been trying to support coal and other fossil fuel companies to continue to extract and sell their polluting products. Hence, the US has a lot of catching up to do and has no time to waste.

The most immediate task—which comes even before Biden gets sworn in as president—is for all countries to submit their respective new and updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), where they are supposed to enhance their level of mitigation of greenhouse gases. These NDCs are due for submission by December 31, and even though the Biden presidency does not officially begin before then, his team must indicate their plans by then.

As many of us may be aware, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh in her capacity as leader of the CVF declared a campaign for all countries to submit their NDCs by midnight on December 31—called #MidnightClimateSurvival—and already, over 150 countries have done so. This is a good sign. The US must also promise to submit their NDC by that time.

The next opportunity for the US under Biden and Kerry will be to ensure that the upcoming COP26, to be hosted by the United Kingdom in November 2021, is as decisive as the one in Paris was five years ago. This will require the US to join forces with China and the UK to persuade all countries to enhance their mitigation pledges in line with the 1.5-degree target.

The good news is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the UK has already called Biden to congratulate him on his victory and they discussed how they can work together to make COP26 a major turning point in global action to tackle climate change.

However, there is another aspect of the climate change issue that is very different five years apart—the recognition of 2020 as the tipping-point year when the planet has crossed into a climate-changed world. This means that instead of pointing out that this year has been the hottest on record, we will have to note that this may be the coolest year in decades to come and we now have to deal with the negative impacts of human-induced climate change as the global atmospheric temperature has already gone above one degree Centigrade since the Industrial Revolution.

This means that loss and damage which is now attributable to climate change has become a reality around the world—from super-wildfires in California and Australia to super-cyclones in Bay of Bengal and Pacific Ocean as well as a record number of hurricanes in the Caribbean Sea. Therefore, it is going to be extremely important for COP26 to come up with a process to recognise the reality of loss and damage and the importance of rich countries providing funding support for the vulnerable developing countries beyond insurance. It is important to point out that “loss and damage” from climate change is a separate issue from “adaptation and resilience”, as was agreed in Article 8 of the Paris Agreement in 2015. Hence, the attempt by some developed countries to mix up the two will not fly.

So it will be important for Kerry to change his attitude on loss and damage from 2015, when he insisted on adding text that denied the discussion of liability and compensation from climate change when they agreed to allow Article 8 on Loss and Damage. Going into COP26, it does not necessarily require liability and compensation to be invoked as long as the developed countries agree to find innovative funding for loss and damage beyond insurance, perhaps as a solidarity fund which would be different from funding for adaptation.

Finally, it is important that Bangladesh, as the leader of the CVF, reaches out to both the US and the UK to try to come up with a solution to this contentious issue even if it is at the level of a political agreement rather than a COP decision text, which would require consensus from all countries.

With goodwill on all sides, it should be possible to solve this issue in the run-up to COP26 next November, but it will not be easy.

Originally this article was published on December 02, 2020 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).
Email: saleemul.huq@icccad.org