Climate’s old men’s club is back.
Around the table next Tuesday — when China hosts the EU, the U.S. and other major economies via video link for one of the most important climate discussions of the year — will be a bunch of familiar, and grizzled, faces.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, 77, has returned from running an NGO in exile during the four turbulent years of the Trump administration to head international climate policy for the world’s largest economy and its second-biggest emitter. China’s Xie Zhenhua, 71, returned to the fore of climate policy for the world’s top emitter after spending two years running China’s leading climate policy lab at Tsinghua University.
Other revenants at the top table of climate diplomacy (although not expected to join Tuesday’s call) include India’s Prakash Javadekar, 70, who is back as environment minister of the fourth-highest greenhouse gas emitter after a spell as education minister. Media billionaire Michael Bloomberg, 79, and 55-year-old former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney are both now special U.N. envoys for climate ambition and finance.
The new kid on the block is the EU’s Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans, a vernal 59 — although he too has a long track record in the upper circles of global affairs.
The return to center stage of so many climate veterans reflects a new energy in the fight against climate change, and shows that the issue is of key national interest.
Bolstered by growing scientific consensus that the 2015 Paris Agreement will not be enough to avert disaster — and spurred by the election of Joe Biden, 78, as U.S. president — climate diplomacy has taken on new urgency as countries gear up to push for stricter environmental measures, or to try to weasel out of them, ahead of November’s COP26 summit in Glasgow.
Their re-elevation means it falls to this group of mostly aged men to deliver a radical step forward from the deal many of them personally engineered in the French capital six years ago. Some question whether that makes them the best people for the job, or a caste that failed to deliver enough action in the past.
Katie Eder, executive director of U.S. youth climate group Future Coalition, was excited to see the return of credible climate leaders after the Trump presidency. But she has concerns: “If we’re going to find the solutions that are going to match the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, we need to think differently. The people who need to be part of the conversation need to represent that. They need to be younger and more diverse.”
The array of familiar faces provoked a mixture of resignation, disappointment and frustration during a recent private call held between senior women in global leadership roles. “It’s old wine in old bottles,” said one.
A sense of urgency
Much has changed geopolitically, socially and with respect to scientific urgency since the group of elder statesmen last dominated the most crucial roles in steering the planet away from catastrophe.
“You could make the case they are well-positioned to make that pivot,” said Paul Bodnar, who worked on international climate efforts at the White House during the Obama administration and in Kerry’s State Department. “Or you could make the case that it’s easy to pick up where you left off.”
The evidence of a looming catastrophe is much sharper than it was in Paris in 2015. That’s forced a radical shift in stance.
“Glasgow is the last best opportunity that we have, the best hope that the world will come together and build on Paris,” Kerry said during a visit to Brussels last week. “Paris does not, alone, get the job done.”
But in the French capital in 2015, Kerry and the U.S. administration were far less ambitious than the policies he advocates today.
During the first week of the Paris negotiations, Kerry skipped out for a quick touch down in Kosovo where he championed a (now abandoned) plan for a U.S. company to build a new coal plant. Today, coal is considered a dead-end by the U.S. and Biden has ruled out overseas finance for most fossil fuels.
In Paris, Kerry’s officials played a clever diplomatic game to break up a coalition of developing countries under China’s leadership. They backed an unexpected addition to the language of the agreement: an ambition to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels that would sit alongside an absolute cap of “well below” 2 degrees.
This was a critical ask for a group of small island states; scientists were warning that anything over 1.5 degrees meant sea level rise, coral death and permanent exile. They were forcefully backed by the European Union.
But behind the scenes Kerry’s lieutenants — chief climate envoy Todd Stern and his deputy Jonathan Pershing — made it absolutely clear to the world’s vulnerable nations that while Washington was happy to include the 1.5-degree goal, it did not consider it realistic.
“Every now and then we used to have chats and casual conversations,” said Amjad Abdulla, a diplomat from the Maldives with more than 20 years of climate-talks experience who led the small-island negotiating bloc in Paris.
In one of those chats, Abdulla said, Stern and Pershing told him that stopping warming at 1.5 degrees — an existential number for Abdulla’s homeland — “would be too difficult.” (Stern said it was “entirely possible” he’d expressed that view.)
On the other side of the Paris negotiating table, China’s Xie and India’s Javadekar were pushing hard for their countries to be subject to weaker rules as a developing countries. Javadekar was “hard-line,” said one European diplomat who negotiated with him.
The inclusion of the 1.5-degree target helped Kerry win the Paris round. It split the most vulnerable countries away from China’s developing country group, ultimately landing a deal with a common set of rules for the biggest polluters with concessions to the small and poor (Xie would later work to unpick this during talks in 2017 and 2018).
“It was a tactical decision to put 1.5 in,” said Nick Mabey, CEO of the E3G think tank. In Abdulla’s view, Kerry’s diplomats assumed it was a gift with no cost. “They never thought that they would be obliged to [meet the target],” he said.
“I wouldn’t characterize it like that,” Stern said. “We thought it was a very, very difficult target. But … as the thing you’re shooting for, it was a good idea.”
That tactical U.S. victory has now taken on an entirely new meaning. In 2018, a scientific report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed a 2-degree rise in temperature would be catastrophic, while 1.5 degrees was a little more doable than previously thought.
The report added another note to the chorus reassessing the targets agreed in Paris.
In the years since, a new brand of political activism has emerged, demanding exactly the kind of radical action Kerry’s diplomats had dismissed in 2015. With Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg, the Fridays for Future movement and the U.S. Sunrise Movement, a new generation has taken to the streets to protest. Many of them appealed to world leaders to remember they were also parents and (in the case of many of the climate negotiators) grandparents.
On the surface, that message appears to have sunk in. Timmermans rarely misses a chance to invoke “a climate our children and grandchildren can live in.” On Tuesday, Kerry told an online conference that 1.5 degrees was the only target “available to us.”
The U.S. and EU are promising to act by bringing in net-zero targets for 2050 (India is reportedly also considering this goal), or in China’s case, 2060. But there is a huge diplomatic effort underway to raise those goals ahead of COP26 in Glasgow.
Tuesday’s ministerial meeting is the last major summit the U.S. and China will attend before Washington announces its new 2030 emissions goal in April. The U.S. and EU are pushing China hard to peak its emissions by 2025, but earlier this month Beijing signaled it has no intention of doing so.
The mega European Green Deal policy package will be rolled out through 2021, including Brussels’ threat to raise a carbon border tax if others don’t step up. India is being lobbied to raise its 2030 goals and set a date for emissions to be net-zero. It is widely hoped that if these big economies move, the rest of the G20 countries that account for around 80 percent of emissions will follow.
Back in the saddle
That search for a collective global step forward has brought the graybeards back to the table to see if they can build on what they accomplished in Paris.
Last week, Kerry and Timmermans dined together at the European Commission in Brussels. (The pair are old friends who, as foreign ministers of the U.S. and Netherlands, first bonded over pro cycling and the Boston Red Sox while working on a nuclear security summit in the early 2010s.) Xie chatted online with Timmermans this week. Diplomats in Europe see the key to negotiating climate with India as reaching beyond Javadekar to his boss Narendra Modi, as Obama did in 2015.
Since taking over China’s climate diplomacy in 2007, Xie, a career politician, had slowly turned his country from a belligerent defender of its right to develop its economy into a prickly partner in quelling emissions. Despite some early hiccups — “those Chinese fuckers are trying to rat-fuck us,” was Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s assessment of Xie’s approach to the disastrous 2009 Copenhagen climate talks — Xie has developed lasting bonds with many of his fiercest adversaries — Rudd included.
Kerry and Xie have been at it for more than 20 years. Last month Kerry called his Chinese counterpart a “believer.”
“We know each other and have respect for, I think, each other’s efforts thus far,” the U.S. envoy said. The pair have “been in touch,” according to the State Department.
Their return brings a mixture of hope and apprehension for the climate movement. Success will hinge on their relationships and experience but also their willingness to break from the rusted-on positions they have maintained for years.
Their participation is “a nice signal of the willingness to reach agreements,” said Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Teresa Ribera, 51, herself a climate affairs veteran. “At the same time, it is also true that it’s going to be very important to show the capacity to look forward.”
Ribera said it was crucial that they hire staff who could bring new ideas. “Otherwise we risk getting trapped in a club of new, old friends that becomes the same people talking to the same people,” she said.
‘A bunch of old white men’
Clearly, there is a representation issue — and many younger or female activists have been happy to point it out.
Like all of climate’s old men, Kerry is freighted with the history and contradictions of power. He uses private jets — although the State Department qualified that was only on “rare occasions” as a private citizen. “If you offset your carbon, it’s the only choice for somebody like me who is traveling the world to win this battle,” he told Icelandic media in 2019 after flying to Reykjavik to attend a summit where he received a climate leadership award.
This makes it hard for young people, women and really anyone who flies coach to see themselves represented in the issue that will define much of the next century. “The climate crisis is at the point where we need people who are directly affected” in leadership roles, said youth activist Eder.
Most crucially, say activists, this is the generation that could have acted sooner. Some climate activists ask whether the choices would be so hard if their positions were filled by younger people? Open, egalitarian societies that elected women leaders did better managing the COVID-19 crisis. Would that work for the climate crisis? We aren’t going to find out this year.
“These elder statesmen are at the center of global climate negotiations [because] they reflect the structures in our society,” said Shuo Peskoe-Yang, a climate activist who has worked with environmental groups Climate Mobilization and Corporate Accountability. “That’s why it’s a bunch of old white men, to be honest.
“We need to change the power structure,” he added. “These guys are generally good and we’ve been basically gaslit these last four years, so any morsel of hope is fantastic. But to be frank, we need a lot more ambition than these people are offering.”
Kerry’s spokesperson said the veteran envoy believes there was a “tragic irony in the fact that his generation has not yet solved a generational issue.” Elevating “young and diverse voices” is “certainly on his mind,” but Kerry “also understands the value of putting to use his decades of diplomatic relationships at the highest levels to help address the climate crisis, while the world still has time.”
Bloomberg and Carney get even less sympathy from the activist community. When the former mayor of New York is in a room, so too is the collected GDP of a few dozen of the world’s most vulnerable countries. Yet despite a long history of climate activism, it raised eyebrows when U.N. boss António Guterres gave a plum U.N. job to the man who had spent millions bankrolling the U.N.’s climate body.
Many youth activists are also deeply skeptical of capitalist, market-based institutions and policies, claiming those ideas have contributed to the runaway emissions threatening the planet.
Carney kicked that hornet’s nest last month when he suggested Brookfield, the $600 billion asset management firm he works for, had a net-zero emissions portfolio. In reality it holds shares in various high-carbon ventures (a fact faithfully pointed out by reporters who work for his U.N. colleague Bloomberg).
Others, however, see such players as interlocutors — people of the private sector who are genuinely serious about climate change and can persuade banks, companies and regulators to do the same.
“These guys are the sort of the kings of capital, but Carney has been leading the charge of getting global financial institutions to wake up and smell the coffee,” said Sam Ricketts, co-founder of environmental group Evergreen Action, formed as an offshoot of Washington state Governor Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign.
This contest between experience and representation masks the reality that was so apparent in Paris: Beneath the fuzzy gauze of global cooperation, climate change politics is a hardcore contest of national interests. Xie, Kerry, Timmermans and Javadekar have been chosen because they are considered their countries’ most potent agents.
“Kerry and Xie are two towering figures in global climate affairs,” said Li Shuo, a policy expert with Greenpeace in China. “They have been champions for climate action and multilateralism. At the same time, they both are patriots … How should they balance their deep commitment to climate action and their respective national interests?”
Success this year requires a joint movement from the largest economies — not only on emissions, but on supporting developing countries with enough cash to cope with climate impacts and clean up their industry. It’s the same fight these men (and others like them) have been waging against each other for decades.
But the distance between their old positions and demands of the moment has grown.
Responding to the changing political, scientific and economic calculus will be “the ultimate test of their careers,” said Li. “Accelerating domestic action while making sure their countries move toward the same direction will be the most important legacy they leave for their countries and the rest of the world.”
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