John Kerry’s Swan Song at COP22

Yesterday in Marrakech, John Kerry made the climate case to Donald Trump. It shouldn’t have gone as well as it did.
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waves to the crowd following his speech at the COP22 climate change conference on November 16th, 2016 in Marrakech, Morocco. (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite a presidential election result that imperils their efforts, the Obama administration has defied deflated expectations by pushing hard on climate at COP22. On Wednesday, this push came to its climax, with the appearance of Secretary of State John Kerry. Until now, the star of the White House’s surprisingly aggressive strategy at COP22 had been the quick-tongued, brave-faced United States Climate Envoy Jonathan Pershing. But as hundreds of COP-goers descended upon a stuffy tent under a midday Moroccan sun on Wednesday afternoon, it was Pershing’s boss who stole the show.

Though it was billed as a general address on the state of the talks and progress since Paris — and often delved into upbeat pronouncements about how far the world has come on climate — its dual purpose was clear: Here was America’s diplomat-in-chief extolling the virtues of a document that he helped forge, all for the benefit of this volatile president-elect, who’s vowed to rip it to pieces.

Known for his Europhilia and tendency to recite the occasional Thomas Jefferson epigram in French, Kerry might not be your first pick to play the world’s ambassador the Trump. Yet with President Barack Obama’s hands tied making nice with the transition, Kerry found himself working to persuade Trump of the value (and especially the economic advantages) of maintaining U.S. climate commitments.

Not that he ever named Trump outright, speaking (as is typical) in more of a suggestive code. “For those in power in all parts of the world, including in my own, who may be confronted with decisions about which road to take at this critical juncture,” he said in one such bit, “I ask you, on behalf of billions of people around the world: Don’t take my word for it. Don’t take just the existence of this COP as the stamp of approval for it; I ask you to see for yourselves. Do your own due diligence before making irrevocable choices.”

The speech—Kerry’s last climate speech as secretary of state—took a dozen different gambles, but, to a sympathetic ear, each one landed. An early Winston Churchill reference, a sure sign of stuffiness, veered into a charming anecdote about Churchill’s little-known love of painting Moroccan landscapes, especially in Marrakech, the better to absorb their beauty. A World War II reference involving Franklin Roosevelt somehow turned into a meditation on watching the sunset over the Atlas mountains — and the importance of drinking scotch.

Woven throughout were calls not just for countries, but for individuals as well to do more, and to make the climate personal wherever possible. And for Kerry, who divulged at one point he’d met his future wife at the first major environmental conferencein Rio de Janeiro, the question of climate is a very personal one.

The most powerful parts, though, seemed to implore Trump to remain within the climate accord, even as they encouraged an independent and well-informed judgment. “Examine closely what it is that has persuaded the Pope, presidents, and prime ministers all over the world,” Kerry continued, in an emphatic passage about the importance of green policies for the strength of the U.S. economy. “Talk to the business leaders of Fortune 500 companies and smaller innovative companies, all of whom are eager to invest in the energy markets of the future.” At another point, Kerry suggested that his intended listener “speak with the military leaders who view climate change as a global security concern, as a threat multiplier,” or with the farmers and the fishermen for whom weather patterns mean they can no longer make a living. Above all, though, he urged “leaders” (read: Trump) to talk with scientists who, in Kerry’s words, “have dedicated their entire lives to expanding our understanding of this challenge, and whose work will be in vain unlesswe sound the alarm loud enough for everyone to hear.”

It’s a strange feeling to have waited in line and squeezed into a tiny tent to hear a man speak only to realize halfway through he isn’t talking to you. “Some issues look different when you’re actually in office as compared to when you’re on the campaign trail,” Kerry said at one point. “The thing is that climate change should not be a partisan issue in the first place.”

Then there were the times when diplomacy fell away. After inviting our new president to explore climate science with an open mind, Kerry abruptly drew his own conclusion, resolving that those who investigate properly can “only come to one legitimate decision, and that is that they act boldly on climate change.”

If boldness is the measure, on Wednesday Kerry certainly did his part. Giving advice to the famously egocentric Trump involves walking a dangerously narrow line, especially when it comes to climate. The president-elect ran a campaign overtly hostile to climate policy, and since the election his team has showed no sign of changing position. Still, some in Marrakech are encouraged that at least Trump has not issued any public statement during COP22 that would directly undercut its legitimacy.

It’s a tragically low bar of course. But no word is good word when it comes to the Paris accord and Trump.

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