The Corner

Politics & Policy

I Don’t Know What the World May Need . . .

Former Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a campaign event in support of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden in North Libery, Iowa, February 1, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

. . . but I’m pretty sure it’s not John Kerry.

Many conservatives believe that there isn’t much to be done, or that should be done, on climate change. If that’s you, set aside your own beliefs for a moment and put yourself in Joe Biden’s shoes. Biden has announced he will name John Kerry as a special envoy for climate issues. On one hand, naming a special envoy is a way to signal that the issue matters, and because the most influential Democrat-aligned environmentalists take a fundamentally moralistic and quasi-spiritual view of climate issues (sin, penance, redemption) this probably will be politically useful. It’s a cheap way to buy off the greens while giving an old Senate ally what he wants most: a chance to feel important.

As a practical policy matter, the Kerry appointment is a terrible decision, and the kind of terrible decision — unimaginative and lacking the liberated boldness that a man very likely to be a one-term president should enjoy — that we can expect Biden to make more of.

Kerry’s approach to climate is, essentially, a foreign-policy approach, to “work with our allies and partners, alongside rising young leaders in the climate movement,” i.e., he’ll attend a lot of conferences and get his picture taken with Greta Thunberg. But if the Biden administration wants to do something meaningful on climate on the world stage, it is going to have to do something in Washington, because any meaningful commitment would require a treaty with Senate confirmation and wide buy-in. The failure of the Paris Agreement should make that much plain.

The consensus to get that done does not currently exist, and John Kerry is the wrong man — maybe the wrongest man — to try to forge such a consensus. Biden would have got a lot further with someone like James Baker or Christine Todd Whitman.

The Trump administration had many of the wrong ideas and wrong goals, but, even with that it mind, it is worth understanding that it was a failure on its own terms: no big beautiful wall paid for by Mexico, no smaller trade deficit with China, etc. Biden is positioning himself to end up in the same situation. If all he wants to do is to be president — and that may be it — then presidential-envoy dog-and-pony shows are fine. If he actually wants to get something done, he’ll have to take some risks and try some new things.