From 'Alarming Red Flag' to 'Something We Can Work With,' Campaigners Respond to Kerry as Biden Climate Envoy

Then- Vice President Joe Biden laughs as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry introduces him to speak during the 2016 International Women of Courage Forum at the State Department, March 29, 2016 in Washington, D.C.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden laughs as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry introduces him to speak during the 2016 International Women of Courage Forum at the State Department, March 29, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President-elect Joe Biden said Monday that former Secretary of State John Kerry would serve as his Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, an announcement that provoked a range of responses from climate campaigners—many who broadly saw the pick as encouraging and others who warned the politically moderate statesman is a troubling choice to address the planetary emergency facing humanity.

The post, which will not require Senate confirmation, is within the National Security Council and is being referred to as "climate czar."

"This marks the first time that the NSC will include an official dedicated to climate change, reflecting the president-elect's commitment to addressing climate change as an urgent national security issue," the transition team said in a statement.

The statement pointed to Kerry's background as "a key architect of the Paris Climate Accord," from which President Donald Trump withdrew and Biden has pledged to rejoin.

Green New Deal co-sponsor Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who in 2013 won Kerry's Senate seat, praised the nomination, saying that Kerry "understands that the climate crisis is the greatest national security threat of our time. I know that he will lead with courage and be a tremendous partner to the climate movement in the Biden administration."

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who earned plaudits for making the climate crisis centerpiece of his 2020 democratic presidential bid, called Kerry "an excellent choice" in light of "his deep commitment to follow science to save our planet and create millions of jobs." 

Plenty of skepticism about the announcement emerged as well.

Food & Water Action called the choice an "alarming red flag" and the group's executive director Wenonah Hauter accused Kerry of being "a long-time apologist for fossil fuel fracking and a reliable promoter of false climate solutions like market-based carbon-trading schemes."

"Kerry's proposals are tired ideas from years past that will do little or nothing to address our climate crisis, and will actually continue to place a disproportionate, unjust burden on vulnerable communities that have borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution and climate impacts for decades now," she said.  As such, "We have our work cut out for us," added Hauter.

Still, Grenpeace USA and the Sunrise Movement said there was reason to be encouraged and pointed to additional climate steps the Biden White House must take.

"The appointment is a positive sign for Biden's intention to integrate climate leadership into every facet of the administration," declared Janet Redman, Greenpeace Climate Campaign Director.

But merely rejoining the Paris accord "should be the baseline for Biden's climate ambition, not the ceiling," she said, and urged to the next administration to make "a commitment to a Green New Deal-style economic recovery plan that includes a just transition for workers and their families, not just golden parachutes for CEOs."

A futher step for Biden, said Redman, is to "empower a climate council to act on the substantive changes we need to survive."

"We deserve a world beyond fossil fuels—a world in which workers' rights, community health, and our shared climate come before corporate profits. Right now," she added, "John Kerry has an unprecedented chance to lay the groundwork."

Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director, Varshini Prakash called it "an encouraging sign of President-elect Biden's commitment to addressing the climate crisis that one of his very first staffing decisions is the creation of a high-level office to manage international climate negotiations and appointing a former secretary of state to lead it."

"I worked alongside Secretary Kerry on the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force, and know that he 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 said in a statement.

"This is an encouraging commitment, but it is not enough," she continued.

"What good is it to engage in diplomacy abroad if we're not doing everything we can at home? The next White House must also include a domestic counterpart reporting directly to the president to lead an Office of Climate Mobilization, who can marshal, convene, and push federal agencies, departments, states, local governments, industry, and civil society to use every tool at their disposal to address the climate crisis," said Prakash. 

Given likely Republican obstruction on climate legislation, Prakash said that "we need a White House that does absolutely everything in its power to act and pushes every federal department to do the same, and a creative leader with a proven track record of grasping the urgency of the crisis with a strong team to work alongside the resident to make it happen."

In addition to Kerry, the Biden transition team announced other cabinet appointees including Antony Blinken for Secretary of State; Alejandro Mayorkas for Secretary of Homeland Security; Avril Haines for Director of National Intelligence;  Linda Thomas-Greenfield for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; and Jake Sullivan for National Security Advisor.

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