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John Kerry aims to strengthen Paris climate accord when Biden administration takes power

"This is our moonshot," the former secretary of state said in an exclusive interview with NBC News.
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BOSTON — John Kerry wants to strengthen the Paris climate accord, which he helped write, suggesting a pivot for U.S. policy when he becomes the nation’s climate czar in January.

“It has to be stronger,” Kerry told NBC’s Geoff Bennett in an exclusive interview Wednesday, stressing that the multinational deal was always intended to be a first step.

“I'm confident we can get there,” he said. “The issue is, are we going to get there in time? And that's our race. This is our moonshot.”

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to re-enter the Paris accord the day he takes office, reversing President Donald Trump’s decision to pull America out of an agreement meant to provide a global response to climate change.

Kerry, a former secretary of state, senator and Democratic presidential nominee, has been tapped by Biden to lead the country’s re-entry into global climate politics via a new role designed to elevate climate change as a priority. As the special presidential envoy for climate, Kerry will report directly to Biden as part of the White House’s National Security Council.

“The climate crisis as a whole is a national security threat because it is disruptive to the daily lives of human beings all over the world,” Kerry said.

In his new role, he said, he hopes to “raise ambition” and bring in “reluctant partners” who will see the benefits and agree to participate in future summits like the one scheduled in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

Kerry said he wants companies to be net carbon neutral by 2050 and implement measurements to track their progress.

“We have to lay out a pathway,” he said. “We have to show people what countries are going to do between 2025, 2030, 2035. You can't just put a target 40 years out or 30 years out, and pretend that we have done the deal.”

Asked what Americans should be prepared to sacrifice in order to meet Biden’s climate goals for his administration, Kerry was adamant that it would have no adverse impact.

“Moving to address the climate crisis does not mean you have to sacrifice, or lose your quality of life,” he said. “In fact, we will have more jobs and better paying jobs, and I believe live a higher quality of life as a result of the changes that are here. The marketplace is moving here. This is how America works.”

Kerry said he thinks the American people will understand the need to change.

“What Americans should understand is we are in crisis, but this is an opportunity,” he said. “It's an opportunity for the United States to create millions of jobs, to move into a new, more exciting, cleaner energy base for our economy, to lead the world, to avoid the worst consequences of climate, which are already causing billions of dollars of damage.”

Kerry played a key role in negotiating the 2015 Paris accord as secretary of state during former President Barack Obama’s second term.

“I think that the American people should be excited about this journey because it isn't a choice between taking care of the climate crisis or having a job or living well," he said. "This is living well and better by virtue of new products, new innovation, new infrastructure."

When asked how the U.S. plans to partner with China on climate when the country continues to be a competitor in terms of trade and a potential threat in terms of national security, Kerry pointed to the historical natures of evolved partnerships.

“The history is full of opposing nations, nations that are competitors and potentially adversaries coming together around things that are imperative,” he said. “Climate is imperative, it's as imperative for China as it is for us.”

He added, “We will continue to try to address critical issues between us regarding trade, regarding theft of intellectual property, regarding access to market.”

Even though he once ran the department, Kerry does not think that he’ll step on any toes at the Department of State, including those of Antony Blinken, whom Biden intends to nominate to be secretary of state. Some career State Department officials have raised concerns that other world leaders will try to circumvent Blinken by going to Kerry, a worry he dismisses.

“I really respect and understand the lines that are drawn within the State Department and the administration,” he said. “Tony Blinken is going to be a terrific secretary.”

In addition to Kerry’s more internationally-focused role, Biden plans to appoint a separate domestic climate coordinator with a focus on the country's climate challenges and coordinating actions throughout the federal government, coupling executive authority with legislative options.

Questions remain about what the actual work will look like for Kerry as he travels the world to highlight the severity of climate challenges, but in creating an agenda there are areas where the U.S. can provide more than just political or rhetorical leadership.

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Examples include completing the transition from coal to clean energy around the world, and leading global efforts to deploy technologies to stop methane emissions. The most pressing task: building back a global economy in a way that hastens this transition rather than locks in the old way of doing things.

“The goal here is not to kind of rally the world on the need to address climate change ... it’s all about action,” said Paul Bodnar, a managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute who previously served in the Obama White House as special assistant to the president and senior director for energy and climate change at the National Security Council. He added that the to-do list for Kerry is not just a stack of ambitious targets but how to actually transform the global economy fast enough in areas such as the energy sector, the transportation sector and more heavy industries.

“What this administration needs to do more than anything is to help orchestrate a total reboot of the way nations cooperate on climate change to focus on the concrete tasks that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions across borders,” he said.

“We’re in a moment of crisis,” Bodnar added, saying the clock is ticking every year the country doesn't make progress.