Are we insane?
We cannot afford to repeat our past mistakes. Kerry must explain how his approach to climate work has changed.
On April 22, 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Paris climate agreement on behalf of the United States with his two-year-old granddaughter Isabelle Dobbs-Higginson in his lap. The ceremony, held on Earth Day at the United Nations, marked “the first time the world's most prolific polluters, including the U.S., Europe, China and India, have all agreed to set specific, verifiable goals to reduce carbon emissions and dependency on fossil fuels.” The photo was a powerful symbol of why it was being done.
It’s now possible, and perhaps even probable, that Kerry will sign that agreement a second time—or at least perform a similar photo-op. On Monday, president-elect Joe Biden announced that the former U.S. Senator and longtime climate advocate would be appointed his special presidential envoy for climate, a new position embedded on the National Security Council. (Some people are calling it the “climate czar” position).
Internationally-focused, Kerry’s job will be “to convince skeptical global leaders—burned by the Trump administration’s hostility toward climate science and its rejection of the 2015 Paris Agreement—that the United States not only is prepared to resume its leadership role but will also stay the course,” the New York Times reported on Monday. If all goes well, Kerry might be able to recreate the historic photo-op when the U.S. rejoins the Paris Agreement after Biden is sworn in next year.
A second photo would no doubt be powerful. But it would be powerful for a different reason. Kerry and Isabelle would be five years older; the climate emergency five years more dire. This time, a photo would not only be a visible marker of the precious time lost to a climate-delusional president. It’d be a symbol of how we decided, as a nation, to make up that time: by deploying the exact same people we deployed from the start.
Insanity is often defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So the question must be asked: are we insane? The next four years represent the last, best chance we have to ensure a healthy and sustainable future—and scientists say doing so will require radical action on an international scale. Do we trust John Kerry to be an effective agent of such radical action? What has he learned? How has he changed?
Climate activists, journalists, and generally climate-concerned people should be pressuring Kerry and Biden to answer those questions in the coming weeks and months as they prepare to take the reins of the most historically powerful, historically polluting country in the world. If they are the right folks for the job, they will be happy to answer them. We gave them the power, and now they have the responsibility.
A brief conversation with Sunrise Movement’s co-founder Evan Weber
Our quest to hold the new old spidermen of the climate apocalypse accountable is just beginning. In the meantime, here’s a condensed conversation I had with Sunrise Movement’s co-founder and political director Evan Weber about Kerry’s appointment.
Emily Atkin: What do you think of the points I made on Twitter about Kerry’s appointment? Do you think they’re legit?
Evan Weber: I think they’re legit. It’s right to be skeptical frankly of anybody who is getting appointed the administration. These are people who are going to have a lot of competing pressure on them and a lot of difference ideas.
It’s also totally fair to assume that past is prologue for a lot of people. I think it’s no secret that Sunrise, for example, shares a pretty different theory of change than John Kerry does. We do not think the way we’re going to mobilize to fight the climate crisis is by listening to more of what people like John Kasich or Ernest Moniz have to say, for example. We think we should listen to those people much less, and listen to grassroots activists, scientist, and frontline communities more.
That being said, I think that there are also reasons to be encouraged by the fact that his position even exits in the first place, and that someone with the political weight of John Kerry is being put in this position on the international stage. Kerry already has relationships with top diplomats and leaders of many countries around the world.
Evan Weber: I also think he’s only grown more passionate about acting on the climate crisis since he’s left the Obama administration. Grassroots activists pushed him a lot during that time. And frankly, he’s a better public servant than he is an activist. Let him go there and let us lead the way on the activism.
Emily Atkin: There’s a case to be made that experience is really necessary for effective climate work in government. Like, we only have so much time to implement policies; we can’t have only new people in charge, because they have to build relationships and trust and understand the system they’re in, and that takes time that we don’t have. What do you think of that?
Evan Weber: If we’re gonna be in a situation where we’re depending on the executive brand to lead all our climate action, we need a lot of creativity and perspective and fresh perspective. Not people who have been running things the way they’ve been. We’re encouraged to see that Biden is creating a special domestic climate advisor position as well.
Overall, we think it’s a big testament to the growing strength of the climate movement that the White House is being restructured to center on the climate crisis by a person who previously was not exactly running on this issue. And we’re going to keep growing and demanding action at the scale that is necessary.
We’re looking forward to working with Secretary Kerry and glad he’s been listening to voices of the younger generations. Our voices are not going away.
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All We Can Save book club: Week 8
Today’s the eighth official day of HEATED’s book club partnership with All We Can Save, an anthology of female climate wisdom edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson.
The section we’re focusing on this week is “Nourish.” You can learn more about all the section’s authors in the supplementary materials section below.
Read “Notes from a Climate Victory Garden” (p. 293) to open.
Share your name + a food that nourishes you. (Circle leader should go first and model this.)
Move through 3 generous questions.
Of the many “re-” words in Louise Maher-Johnson’s poem (Ayana’s mom!), is there one that reflects how you connect with Earth’s living systems? Why?
Which solution in this section captured your attention or imagination?
Where are you catching glimpses of a regenerative future, today?
Read 1 poem or quote from this section to close.
Why is soil carbon measurement so tricky? Podcast, Reversing Climate Change, 2020.
A New Kind of Climate Leadership, Op-Ed (with Giana Amador), Scientific American, 2019.
Meet Jane, a climate scientist who fled Trump’s government, Profile, HighCountry News (Elizabeth Shogren), 2017.
Long Live Microbiomes!, Blog (with Ayana Elizabeth Johnson), Scientific American, 2019.
Soil and Seaweed: Farming Our Way to a Climate Solution, Blog (with Ayana Elizabeth Johnson), Scientific American, 2018.
Ocean Justice: Where Social Equity and Climate Fight intersect & Food & Water Justice, Podcast, Healthy Living Healthy Planet Radio, 2020.
Could Underwater Farms Help Fight Climate Change? TED-Ed (Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Megan Davis), 2019.
Camille T. Dungy
Earth Day Poetry Reading, Video, 2020.
Trophic Cascade, Poetry Collection, 2017.
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Edited Poetry Anthology, 2009.
Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman Explains Why Food Sovereignty Is Central in the Fight for Racial Justice, Interview, Vogue, 2020.
Black Farmers Embrace Practices of Climate Resiliency, Op-Ed, Yes! Magazine, 2019.
Farming while Black: How 1 mother is fighting to end racism in the food system, Profile, Today.
Farming While Black, Book, 2018.
Ode to Dirt, Poetry Reading, 2019.
Odes to the *****, Podcast, On Being, 2019.
Odes, Poetry Collection, Sharon Olds, 2016.
Judith D. Schwartz
All We Can Regenerate, Keynote, 2020.
The Reindeer Chronicles: and Other Inspiring Stories of Working with Nature to Heal the Earth, Book, 2020.
Healing Waters, Op-Ed, The American Prospect, 2019.
Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, Book, 2016.
To Talk About Power is to Talk About Shame, Interview, Southern Cultures, 2019.
The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, Book, 2012.
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Book, 1999.
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Stay hydrated, eat plants (I like bananas), do push-ups, and have a great day!
I don't share your same skepticism. It is not the same mistake for several reasons.
First, I worked as a Senior Science Advisor in the State Department when Sec. Kerry came it. The first major agency-wide directive that he sent out was to include climate in any and all appropriate negotiations and policy that State produced. That directive was acted upon by a number of offices, and I even drafted first language of two different international policies that eventually were approved by international bodies--including the Science Cooperation in the Arctic agreement that was legally binding (signed into law by Sec. Tillerson after I left State). Hillary Clinton didn't bring climate forward--Kerry did, and indeed orchestrated the entire behind-the-scenes negotiation with the Chinese to have a bilateral climate agreement before Paris was even signed. So at State, I saw Sec. Kerry forging entirely new ground, and turning the course of an entire 10,000+ person federal agency.
Second, John Kerry now is even more climate-forward that John Kerry then. He has even more of a passion and immediacy. Basically, he has learned from the past five years of climate devastation that things have to change significantly, and now. I know that you spoke to him recently, and perhaps I am overstating his climate passion as I have only witnessed it from afar, unlike his actions at State.
His vast experience, global respect, and elevated passion on immediacy are exactly the right combination to get something done--and I am not just talking about the easy task of rejoining Paris, I am talking about the more daunting task of moving most of the Paris actions forward to this decade.
This is not 2016. Compare Clinton's climate plan to Biden's 2020 plan. We've all evolved.