As Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing opened yesterday, President Obama set high expectations for his nominee to lead the State Department with a rigorous commitment to combating catastrophic climate change. But for Kerry to live up to the promises in the president’s inaugural address, he must reverse the often disappointing direction taken by the State Department on climate issues under the leadership of outgoing Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Senator Kerry has spent many years calling for more ambitious and decisive action to combat climate change, and as secretary of state he will have the chance to turn those words into reality.
His first test will be assuring that the new, supplemental environmental impact statement conducted by the State Department will fully assess the climate impact of allowing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline — an assessment that would clearly show that permitting the pipeline would be an environmental time bomb.
On Tuesday, the State Department announced that it was again delaying a decision on granting a permit for the pipeline, which would carry carbon-intensive tar sands oil from Canada to Texas refineries. During Clinton’s tenure, the pipeline debate was tainted by Secretary Clinton’s ties to a lobbyist for TransCanada Pipelines and her own premature statements backing the pipeline.
As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry signaled his commitment to assuring such a climate assessment of the pipeline. In October 2011, in response to questions about his position on the pipeline, Kerry said, “There’s a lot at stake here and I’ll do my best to leave no question unanswered including every possible economic and environmental consideration before a final decision is made.”
At State, Kerry can also revitalize the agency’s lackluster performance at United Nations climate negotiations. Since President Obama’s direct involvement in Copenhagen in 2009, the administration has been cited by numerous other countries as being disruptive and resistant to establishing meaningful limits on carbon emissions and to providing funds to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change.
Senator Kerry should make clear that as Secretary of State, he would hit the reset button on the U.S. approach to international climate policy. The world simply cannot afford four more years of U.S. obstructionism at United Nations climate talks, leading the world in a race to the bottom.
For more on Kerry’s nomination and what it means for environmental policy, here’s a Washington Post article that quotes Friends of the Earth Action president Erich Pica.