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Kerry Could Spearhead Bilateral Climate Change Agreements

UN-scale treaties might be dead, but who needs everyone to get on board?
January 31, 2013

In his inaugural address, President Obama claimed that he wants to take action on climate change. But he’s spoken forcefully on the issue before, only to drop it when other priorities emerge.  So we’re keeping an eye on key Obama administration nominations to get a sense of how serious he is about climate—especially given the fact that if much is going to be done he’ll need to call on his administration to help convince the public that action is necessary (see “Obama Still Needs to Make the Case for Dealing with Climate Change”).

The nomination of John Kerry, who was confirmed as secretary of state this week, is certainly in line with a push for climate change action. Kerry has long spoken out about climate change, and he led the failed effort to pass climate legislation in the Senate in 2010, after the House had passed its own version.  

As secretary of state, it’s possible that Kerry will spearhead international climate change agreements. Efforts at worldwide agreements have failed, but some proponents of climate change treaties are making the case that limited agreements, such as one between the U.S. and China, two of the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide, could have a big impact on emissions. Speaking at an energy innovation conference in Washington DC this week, Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp said, “I’m not optimistic that we’re going to have some Copenhagen-like multilateral agreement. But I do think there’s a chance of some bilateral agreements with John Kerry as secretary of state.”

As secretary of state, Kerry could be key to recognizing the costs of dealing with climate change as he travels the world and sees first-hand just how important fossil fuels are, especially to poor countries (see “Obama’s New Chief of Staff on Climate Change”). Before we commit to binding emissions goals or other climate change treaties, and ask other countries to do so as well, we need to confront the fact that dealing with climate change will come at a cost. Fossil fuels have significant drawbacks, but the availability of cheap energy has helped bring clean water, lighting, medicine, and many other benefits to the poor. Raising the price of fossil fuels will directly hurt people. It’s essential to take that into account when figuring out what to do about the effects of climate change. 

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