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John Kerry, Biden's Pick For Climate Envoy, To Face Big Challenge On Climate Change

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President-elect Biden has tapped former Secretary of State John Kerry as climate envoy. NPR's Scott Detrow has this look at the challenges he faces.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: When Biden named a former secretary of state as his international climate point person, Todd Stern was pretty surprised. Stern held the job during the Obama administration, where he worked closely with Kerry on the Paris climate agreement and other big efforts to lower emissions around the world.

TODD STERN: It sent a kind of unmistakable signal that President-elect Biden is really serious about what he has said.

DETROW: What Biden has said is that climate change is a crisis that demands swift, sweeping action. Experts say the U.S. needs to drastically overhaul its energy producing in the coming decade, a huge economic and political challenge and a 180 from the Trump administration. Kerry spoke to NPR's Morning Edition last week about how he and Biden view the stakes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN KERRY: If we think migration was a challenge in Europe in the last years or here in America on our border, wait till you see what happens when places become completely unlivable.

DETROW: So the former secretary of state will work as a brand-name global ambassador under the likely secretary of state Tony Blinken, who used to work for him. This summer Kerry co-chaired a task force aimed at bridging the gap between Biden and runner-up Bernie Sanders on climate policy. Kerry notably began the first meeting by immediately turning over the Zoom to Varshini Prakash, the 27-year-old co-founder of the climate activist group the Sunrise Movement.

VARSHINI PRAKASH: And I was kind of taken aback. I'm used to, in spaces like that, having to fight for airtime.

DETROW: The task force highlighted some internal policy and priority differences that the Biden administration will face on climate.

PRAKASH: We definitely do have differences, and that was apparent on the task force. Sunrise believes, as we're looking at the science, that we have to move way faster than a 2050 target. And if we don't, a lot of people are going to suffer.

DETROW: One big difference between climate activists and Kerry - how they think about and deal with big energy companies. Groups like Sunrise see them as the culprits who ignored and worsened climate change. Kerry tells NPR he's on the phone with them, talking about paths to clean energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KERRY: They also understand that there's money to be made in producing the products. Anybody who has the breakthrough on battery storage is going to have the key to the future.

DETROW: Todd Stern says it makes sense for Kerry to have those conversations.

STERN: Nobody who knows Kerry would ever accuse him of being a go-slow, warmed-over centrist. That is not what makes this guy tick at all.

DETROW: Stern says the conversations are important because the to-do list on the international climate front is much different than four years ago. When Kerry was secretary of state, the main goal was crafting a big, sweeping climate accord - Paris. Now sources familiar with the Biden transition say the much more important thing will be cobbling together agreements on how to actually lower those emissions.

STERN: Things like cement, steel, plastics, chemicals - very polluting, very, very global. Could you imagine some set of international CEOs, international government leaders working together to do that?

DETROW: Another goal will be convincing countries like China to stop building new coal-fired power plants. That's an area that could affect the politics of climate change back in the U.S., too. Congressman Conor Lamb says many voters in his Western Pennsylvania district, where natural gas is big, are still more skeptical of the need to make big changes in energy production. He says there's a mindset of, what's the use if China and India are still burning so much coal?

CONOR LAMB: And those things could burn for the next 50 years. So you could do everything that the left and the Sunrise Movement and stuff - you could do everything that those people want in the United States, and it makes up, like, 15% of world emissions.

DETROW: And that gets to the bigger challenge for Kerry and the rest of the Biden administration. Climate experts and advocates agree the best way to prove to the rest of the world that the U.S. is serious about climate change again is to pass sweeping policies to lower emissions within the country's borders. And doing that means not just uniting the various wings of the Democratic Party. It likely means convincing Republicans in Congress and conservative judges on the federal courts to go along with policies that their party has long opposed. So perhaps the most important diplomacy will have to happen inside the U.S., not around the world.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER MOMMY SONG, "INSIDE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.