Secretary Kerry Makes Climate Change Top Priority in New Policy Directive: Some key actions to deliver on that policy

Image removed.Secretary Kerry has just issued his first “Policy Directive” as U.S. Secretary of State. This new directive outlines that climate change is a central issue for the State Department and directs an “all hands on deck” approach to this issue. He rightly recognized that this will require strong action in the U.S., while helping spur global action. This is welcome sign that should ensure that all components of the U.S. diplomatic service are mobilized to help drive climate change action. His leadership will be critical on several key pending actions that can help deliver upon these new guidelines.

Working with the entire U.S. Administration Secretary Kerry can help deliver on these guidelines with a couple of key actions.

1. Reject KXL and other tar sands pipelines that will expand greenhouse gas emissions. The guidelines outline that the U.S. should: “Lead by example through strong action at home and abroad.”  Keystone XL would cause an expansion of tar sands production and the associated greenhouse gas emissions (as my colleague pointed out). And tar sands expansion is helping Canada blow past its international commitment to address climate change. In its formal submission to the U.N. Canada acknowledged that it will fail to meet its commitment to cut its emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. And tar sands expansion is the single biggest emissions growth in Canada so enabling these emissions would fail both the “act and home and abroad test” in the directive. Secretary Kerry should listen to the 2 million people urging him to reject Keystone XL.

2. Support strong domestic action to deliver on the U.S. Climate Action Plan to meet the target outlined in Copenhagen. Strong implementation of the Climate Action Plan will put the US on track to meet its commitment to cut emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020. Chief among these are the domestic actions that the US takes on power plant carbon pollution, reducing the “super-greenhouse gas” called HFCs, and methane leaks from oil and gas. Aggressive implementation of the Climate Action Plan would be a clear sign that call for “strong action at home” in the directive is on solid ground.

3. Detail a more aggressive climate target for the post-2020 period. The U.S. and other countries will outline the next round of their targets in early 2015 at the latest. These targets will build upon their commitments in Copenhagen and extend commitments to 2025 (and possibly 2030). Secretary Kerry must be a strong voice for the U.S. outlining the most aggressive effort possible. Aggressive domestic action beyond 2020 is critical to reducing the carbon pollution that is driving climate change and helps ensure that the U.S. can secure aggressive actions from other countries. 

4. Secure a global agreement in December 2015 and push for an “all hands on deck” approach to climate action. In December 2015 countries are set to agree on the next round of legal commitments to address climate change. We don’t have the luxury of “kicking the can down the road” so all countries must come prepared to make bold and decisive commitments to curb their own carbon pollution and mobilize investments in developing countries. The State Department directive recognizes this moment when it states: “negotiate a new, ambitious international climate agreement applicable to all countries by 2015 to take effect in 2020”. Secretary Kerry and his team will play a critical role in ensuring that the U.S. is prepared to act aggressively in this agreement. Countries have begun to outline some of their visions for this agreement (see Reuters on US proposals, Reuters on Chinese proposals, RTCC on EU’s proposals, and here for all of the submissions). 

At the same time, Secretary Kerry clearly recognizes that we need an “all hands on deck” approach (his recent speech referred to it as a “you name it approach”) where countries are using all of the tools and available avenues to address climate change. This principle is already evident in the U.S. effort to support phasing down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, supporting reducing black carbon reductions from dirty diesel and other sources, eliminating public funding of coal projects, and pushing for major companies to commit to eliminate deforestation from their supply-chain. Secretary Kerry can continue to lead this push, while also ensuring that the entire State Department operation is supporting climate action (not supporting more investments in climate destructive activities).

5. Help mobilize significant investments to spur climate action in developing countries. Since 2008 the U.S. has invested more than $7.5 billion in developing country efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. This down payment has proven consistently that these investments provide multiple benefits to U.S. citizens and communities around the world. We need an even greater investment from the U.S. and other countries if we are to address climate change, which is why countries agreed to help mobilize even greater resources by 2020. The Policy Directive recognizes this need when it commits to: “…mobilize and leverage billions of dollars of funding to transform our energy economies and promote sustainable land use, as well as working to limit public incentives for high-carbon energy production and fossil fuels”. Following through on this commitment will also require a “you name it approach” that mobilizes all the existing channels, while simultaneously spurring actions from the trillions of dollars that are still sitting on the sidelines.  


The Policy Directive sends an important signal reinforcing that climate change is a central issue for the State Department. Secretary Kerry and the rest of the U.S. Administration have several key pending actions that can help deliver upon these new guidelines. Only time will tell whether he acts decisively to deliver on these guidelines. I’m confident he will see the opportunity to act.


Photo credit: State Dept./Erik A. Kurniawan