The Significance Of The New US Special Presidential Envoy For Climate

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John Kerry’s upcoming position as US special presidential envoy for climate is big news. The “climate czar” is expected to guide the US back into the Paris climate accord, shape US goals for zero emissions by 2030, and recommit the US to global climate cooperation after 4 dismal years of the Trump presidency. No longer will repeated climate denials, dismissals of science experts, and systematic rollbacks of environmental policies be the federal response to the climate crisis.

Embracing Environmentalists Who Made Climate Action a 2020 Election Issue

Environmental activists have commended Biden on his choice of Kerry as the special presidential envoy for climate. Varshini Prakash, executive director of the youth Sunrise Movement, said Kerry “is committed to engaging and listening to young voices — even when we might not always agree — and ensuring we have a seat at the table.” Prakash served with Kerry on a joint task force to help shape Biden’s climate planning.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, called Kerry “one of the world’s most effective climate champions.” Krupp recognized that, as Secretary of State in 2015, Kerry helped negotiate the Paris Agreement on climate change, making him “the ideal person to restore U.S. global climate leadership now – while also ensuring that climate is integrated into all aspects of national security and foreign policy.”

Kerry brings “diplomatic and political expertise” and “knows better than anyone how to ensure this crisis receives the international attention it so desperately needs,” said Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“The president’s powers to address climate change through an emergency are very, very large,” declared Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, which is lobbying Biden’s team to act on the climate crisis. “This is No. 1 on the list of things the Biden administration should do.”

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Tacking the Climate Crisis with the Language of War — A Good Approach for the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate?

With a first-ever seat on the US National Security Council, it seems that Kerry will draw in the tenor and goals of the bipartisan initiative, World War Zero, that he co-founded to combat the climate crisis. The organization’s title is consistent with the perspective of many defense leaders, in that the climate crisis is a “war.” They warn that advancing temperatures and rising seas create a perfect storm of national security challenges, including mass displacement, political instability, and food scarcity.

The synopsis to the book The Secure and the Dispossessed, by Ben Hayes and Nick Buxton, offers a specific and hegemonic world view of World War Zero. “With one eye on the scientific evidence and the other on their global assets and supply chains, powerful elites are giving increasing thought as to how to maintain control in a world gradually reshaped by climactic extremes.”

When militaristic and/or fatalistic language is used to describe climate action, public reaction can be inertia — the topic is too much for many people to handle, and they shut down. Research suggest that most media tend to present environmental issues as short-term and occurring suddenly, rather than presenting the long-term accumulation of complex anthropogenic factors. When biology is presented as culturally freighted and aimed at restoring ecosystems to a mystical pre-Columbian period, dissonance can occur.

Kerry can embark on emissions-reduction initiatives without heavy militaristic imagery. The World War Zero site asks followers to “enlist, engage and mobilize” as they engage in climate action. Instead, he can emulate the same kind of compassion that made Biden so appealing to voters — Kerry can reach out to the human casualties of climate change without calling on value-laden, social constructions that simplify realties of vulnerable communities into binaries and militaristic discourse.

In a 2019 paper, Thomas and Warner cite how numerous vulnerable communities are suffering from the climate crisis. Certainly, many disparate reasons come into play that contribute to the toll taken on vulnerable communities, but “much of it can be attributed to the dominant securitization discourse that has eroded an international system of climate refugee protection,” the researchers remind us. Moreover, there’s been stark recognition within the Black Lives Matter movement that climate affects the most vulnerable groups in society, which Harry Belafonte reinforced this year. Petroleum pollution affects African Americans in huge numbers, but is often an untold story.

First Nations organizers argue, too, that climate justice and race justice are inextricably linked. Pollution, extreme heat, and sea-level rise often affect minority, indigenous, immigrant, and poorer communities first, affecting daily life through food and other essentials. Many Native peoples are tackling the climate crisis using local knowledge, such as embracing clean energy, creating their own climate plans, sparking innovation through areas like microgrids — all of which point to areas of energy democracy to which Kerry as special envoy for the climate should attend.

Climate action discourses that use more pragmatic approaches aligned with changing ecosystems can provide healthier pathways to climate action gestalt. Would caution in language evoking militarism and fatalism bring in a broader diversity and representation of voices and necessary community agreements on difficult climate concessions? It more likely that Kerry, as special presidential envoy for climate, will galvanize public support for the steps needed to address the climate crisis with a language of closeness and inclusivity.

Kerry’s own comments about his appointment transcend the World War Zero modernism and generate hope. They frame representations of climate action to our allies and to the general public without reductive militaristic tendencies and with broad coalitions of knowledge communities.

“Mr. President-elect, you’ve put forward a bold transformative climate plan. But you’ve also underscored that no country alone can solve this challenge. Even the United States, for all of our industrial strength, is responsible for only 13% of global emissions. To end this crisis, the whole world must come together. You’re right to rejoin Paris on day one, and you’re right to recognize that Paris alone is not enough… Failure is not an option. Succeeding together means tapping into the best of American ingenuity and creativity and diplomacy, from brain power to alternative energy power.”

Messages conveyed by linguistic choices and language use of those in power do have direct correlation between narratives that include the citizens as part of the solution and the success of the policies put in place to undermine the effects of the climate crisis, which includes both world governments and the general population. Becoming one with others around the world is an approach that brings people together rather than spurs insensitivity to environmental issues. Kerry can reject climate action discourses that are predominantly framed as “urgent,” “defending enemy lines,” or “fighting a losing battle,” as is typical of militaristic reductionism.

special presidential envoy for climate

Final Thoughts about the Special Presidential Envoy for the Climate

John Kerry’s efforts to forge ahead with US policy to mitigate the climate crisis will encompass most facets of human life — from the way we heat and light our homes, to the materials we use in production and the ways we are mobile. Necessarily, this means the move away from fossil fuel energy generation and, as a result, the loss of jobs in those fields. These are addressed in Biden’s climate platform.

Kerry will also have to continue to cultivate the confidence of disparate progressive environmental groups. Prakash and the Sunrisers also argue that Kerry’s new role “is not enough” and  needs to “establish an Office of Climate Mobilization and appoint a director that reports directly to the President to coordinate an all-government mobilization to confront the crisis, just like we mobilized to address the existential threat of Nazi Germany in WWII.”

Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity environmental advocacy group, welcomed Kerry but noted “it is important somewhere in Biden’s administration,” particularly in climate, to see “not just the same people and actors we have seen before on these issues.”

Wenonah Hauter of Food and Water Action condemned the appointment, saying that Kerry’s record was far too tepid on limiting fossil fuels: “Kerry’s proposals are tired ideas from years past that will do little or nothing to address our climate crisis.”

Perhaps a middle ground such as Jake Schmidt, who manages international programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, is the prudent way to think of Kerry’s new role as special presidential envoy for climate. “To have a former secretary of state as your climate envoy is a massive step up in terms of the signal it sends to leaders around the world about how this administration cares about this issue,” Schmidt said. “Having somebody who has been in the belly of the beast, who knows the levers of government, will be critical to making sure the US steps up its effort in the coming years.”

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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