LIMA, Peru — The paths of two former Democratic presidential nominees will cross today at U.N. climate talks here with each pressing for an ambitious new global warming deal at next year’s negotiations in Paris.
Former Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State John Kerry have both made climate change a signature issue in their careers, but each has approached it from different directions.
Kerry will address the U.N. talks this afternoon as his nation’s top diplomat, charged with assuring the world about President Obama’s domestic climate agenda and that the United States is committed to a successful greenhouse gas agreement next year. Diplomats and activists alike have expressed high hopes that Kerry’s attendance — the first by a secretary of State at a U.N. climate meeting since Hillary Clinton visited Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009 — will resolve conflicts over how industrialized countries will support poor, climate-vulnerable nations going forward (ClimateWire, Dec. 11).
Gore, meanwhile, has become better known as a climate crusader than as a U.S. politician.
“He doesn’t have a country hat anymore,” said Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute. “He’s almost become a global citizen.”
No longer a representative of any government, Gore has sometimes criticized Obama for being too slow to act on climate change and demanded that he do more. In a 2011 Rolling Stone interview, he blasted Obama for having “failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change” and for surrendering on efforts to pass a cap-and-trade bill for curbing U.S. emissions.
His role as a climate change statesman has endeared him to participants here. Panned in his 2000 presidential campaign for being “boring,” Gore has been greeted as a rock star here. Hundreds attended his hourlong PowerPoint presentation yesterday in one of the conference’s largest halls, surging forward at the end for photos or to say a word to the former vice president before he was spirited away to his next engagement.
Gore used his talk to make the case that last month’s U.S.-China agreement on post-2020 emissions reductions — brokered by Kerry — was a genuine turning point in world efforts to contain climate change that delegates could trust and build on.
“I know both these men,” he said, standing before a two-story-high projected picture of Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping shaking hands. “I see this as one of the greatest sources of optimism I’ve seen in the last 40 years on the climate crisis.”
He touted U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas draft rules for new and existing power plants in bolder terms than administration officials usually use at home.
The new-plant proposal, which is due to be final next month, has “already effectively halted the construction of new coal plants in the United States,” Gore boasted. “All of those that were proposed, most have been canceled, most of the others are now at risk.”
Advocates who are gathered in Lima this week say the diplomat and the communicator each have a hand in driving climate action.
“Vice President Gore is obviously an iconic figure in this movement,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Kerry, meanwhile, has a vital role as a U.S. official, Meyer said. “He is not in the same kind of advocacy and encouragement role that Vice President Gore is in,” he said.
But Kerry is no less passionate about climate change, having unsuccessfully sponsored cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate in 2010 and made climate change a flagship issue of his time at the State Department.
His appearance here today shows his commitment to the process, Meyer said, though participants should not expect him to restate the U.S. position in the talks.
WRI’s Morgan said Kerry is unlikely to engage in the talks themselves. He will be in Lima only a short time and is not expected to hold many meetings.
Kerry will “reassure other countries that it is different this time, that the U.S. is implementing domestically and shifting its approach to this issue.”
Gore’s schedule yesterday included a meeting with more than 20 environment ministers and negotiators to discuss the importance of a long-term emissions reductions goal, his spokeswoman Betsy McManus said. Today, he’s convening about 300 advocates to “encourage a strong, ambitious agreement,” she said.
Ken Berlin, president and CEO of the Climate Reality Project, said Gore’s role complements Kerry’s. Gore, who is still chairman of the organization’s board, is now free to be an independent voice for progress toward an agreement, he said.
“He deals with world leaders all the time, and in the sense he does it without the constraint of being a government official,” said Berlin, who himself worked for Obama’s EPA transition team. “So you can really think about and develop the policies that you think are best and push those policies.”
Dirk Forrister, president and CEO of the International Emissions Trading Association, said he remembers Gore’s PowerPoint presentation on warming from his time at the helm of the White House Climate Change Task Force in the late 1990s.
At that time, the presentation — which would be made famous in Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” in 2006 — was done with overhead slides and charts on an easel.
“One of my colleagues used to have to stand on the chair to raise the emissions thing up high to show emissions [rising],” he said. “He wasn’t a real tall staff colleague.”
Even in those days, Gore could speak fluently and passionately about climate change, Forrister said, though he has grown more confident in front of a camera since leaving office. One of his greatest roles now is as a communicator, hosting annual daylong media events through the Climate Reality Project, which Gore founded, and running communications training sessions all over the globe.
“Some of that communication can be inspiring to leaders, and some of it, I think, they may not know what to do with,” Forrister said. “Because it does amplify the seriousness of the issue, the magnitude of the challenge. But it does reinforce the need to act.”
Gore’s presentation yesterday featured water flooding into Manhattan’s Ground Zero site as the result of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Other pictures showed devastation and carnage from storms, floods and other occurrences taken from nearly every region represented by the more than 190 countries attending the summit.
Forrister also remembers Kerry from his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he would eventually chair. The White House task force had to keep him informed since the run-up to the Kyoto Protocol.
“He’s had a deep history in this from the Foreign Relations aspect, in understanding the role of America in the world,” Forrister said. It is a role Kerry has always seen as stretching beyond security issues to environmental and economic ones, he said.
And while Kerry may not become involved in negotiation details today, he will encourage negotiators to move beyond squabbles over petty details.
“Because sometimes in the negotiations, you can feel like it’s a scuffle on the playground, and this is a grown-up,” he said. “Nobody doubts the seriousness of John Kerry.”
Paul Bledsoe, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said Kerry deserved credit for pragmatism. In spearheading the U.S.-China agreement last month, Kerry showed that bilateral engagement on climate change can help breathe new life into the U.N. negotiations rather than undermine them, as some climate advocates have warned, he said. Kerry has raised the issue in all his meetings with foreign counterparts since becoming secretary of State.
“Reigniting those bilateral negotiations as soon as he became secretary and recognizing them as the centerpiece to an effective global deal — and that was sort of his vision — was absolutely accurate,” he said.
No GOP lawmakers
The presence of these two Democratic climate change titans throws into sharp relief the absence of interest in the issue from U.S. Republicans.
There are some GOP congressional staffers at the conference, but no lawmakers.
Even Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) declined to send a video blasting the summit as a futile attempt to solve something that is not a problem, as he has done in past years. His staff said the presumptive chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee next year was too busy.
The starkness of the division between U.S. Republicans and Democrats on this issue is not the international norm, especially when it comes to the science of man-made warming.
With a few exceptions — Canada and Australia — most countries have less stark internal disagreements on how and whether to enact climate policies.
Bledsoe said that could mean the U.S. commitments in these talks depend on how the political winds blow in the next election.
“We need to be honest about the polarization over climate change in order to begin to address it,” he said. “Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t help.”