Secretary Kerry as a senator at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009
Secretary Kerry as a senator at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009

Earlier this year, the United States and China released a joint statement in which both countries committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Steps that are going to be taken include reducing car emissions and increasing energy efficiency in buildings. John Kerry, a former senator of Massachusetts and presidential candidate, is currently the US Secretary of State and a keen advocate of environmental policy. As the United States’ top diplomat, he has made climate change a focus of his tenure.

In a radical statement, he equated climate change to a weapon of mass destruction. A few days after the agreement with China was announced, Kerry said that climate change “is increasingly going to provide major challenges to food security, to water security, to refugee populations, which it’s going to create, to stability and instability of countries, to economies.”

The announcement with China was followed by a keynote speech in Jakarta, in which he urged that Indonesia be vigilant on the issue of climate change, as the country’s own resources and economy are put at risk by the issue. For example, raising ocean temperatures jeopardise the country’s fishing industry.

In his speech, Kerry explained that Indonesia is on the front lines of global warming. He said to the audience, “It’s not an exaggeration to say to you that your entire way of life that you love is at risk.”

While China recently overtook the United States as the world’s leader in emissions, Indonesia currently stands in third place, largely due to its deforestation practices. There is a consensus that, in developing Asian economies, emissions will only continue to surge, as millions of people gain increased access to cars and electricity.

This reality helps explain Kerry’s Asian tour earlier this month, in which he visited China and Indonesia, as well as South Korea. His trip is part of President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy, which hopes to shift American foreign policy away from Europe and the Middle East and towards Asia. Especially considering Kerry’s commitment to fighting climate change, this trip was an important event in American foreign policy.

The aforementioned deal with China is certainly a marked act of diplomacy. Climate change is hoped to serve as the driving force behind the United State’s relationship with the Asian powerhouse.

Kerry’s trip there is only one of his successful international tours as of late. Since becoming Secretary of State in 2013, Kerry has joined with Russia to pressure Syria to surrender its chemical weapons. Additionally, he persuaded Israel and Palestine to resume peace talks and has served a closing role in the ongoing nuclear agreement with Iran.

Going forward, Kerry hopes to broker an international climate treaty in 2015, in which countries around the world would commit to historic fossil fuel pollution reductions.

As a senator, Kerry advocated passionately for legislation that responded to the global warming crisis, though ultimately he was not successful. Bipartisan opposition still stands a challenge as the Obama Administration and Secretary Kerry try to push forward on the issue of climate change. Many Republicans and some Democrats choose to look any relevant legislation as a ‘war on coal’ or as not in the interests of businesses.

Secretary Kerry's congressional portrait (while he was in the US Senate)
Secretary Kerry’s congressional portrait (while he was in the US Senate)

Nonetheless, the Obama Administration has definitely focused more on climate change than any other previous administration in recent memory. When Kerry became Secretary of State, this commitment only grew stronger. Many speculate that part of Obama’s attraction to Kerry is his hope to make climate change a legacy issue. In other words, if Kerry is successful in his campaign to reduce emissions globally, Obama can finish his presidency knowing that he made a significant impact in this arena.

However, President Obama has received much criticism from environmentalist groups in America for being too complacent regarding climate change. A major point of concern is the Keystone XL pipeline, whose construction cannot be finished until the US Government submits its official approval. Both President Obama and Secretary Kerry have stayed mum on the issue – and whether or not Obama will allow the pipeline to be completed – which many perceive to be hypocritical in the face of their campaign to reduce emissions abroad.

Though Kerry equated climate change to a W.M.D., thus elevating the issue to the seriousness of crises in Iraq and Syria, he has done little in regards to the United States’ own contribution to climate change. (To be fair, his position is one of foreign – not domestic – policy.) His advocacy of a 2015 global treaty is compromised when one realises that the standing emissions reductions treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, was signed in 1997 by 191 states, though never ratified by the US.

Despite, or perhaps in spite of, the pipeline controversy, Kerry and the Obama Administration have certainly made a strong show of effort with regards to climate change. In addition to his remarkable diplomatic dealings in the Middle East, Kerry has harnessed his political might to join forces with Asia’s strongest economies to help make an impact on the global emissions front.

Photo: WikiCommons

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