Meet America’s New Special Climate Envoy, John Podesta

A familiar figure, but one with big shoes to fill and formidable challenges ahead.

John Podesta walking in a White House hallway with people taking photos of him

Anna Moneymaker/Getty/Grist

This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

John Podesta already has a lot on his plate. The veteran political strategist has been working for the past year as a senior adviser to President Joe Biden overseeing the rollout of the Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest climate law in United States history. Now, in the wake of another landmark climate agreement at COP28, he’s also going to take over the job of representing the US on the world stage. 

Following the news that special climate envoy John Kerry would depart the role this spring, President Joe Biden announced that Podesta would take over the position, putting the latter in charge of the administration’s climate policy abroad as well as at home.

Podesta arrives in this new role at a time when the United States is facing increasingly urgent calls to step up the amount of climate funding it sends to developing countries. As he represents the US in international climate talks, he has a responsibility to follow up Biden’s domestic policy achievements with equal ambition on international issues, said Rachel Cleetus, a policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Despite important progress secured through the Inflation Reduction Act and other domestic policies, the country has repeatedly fallen short, especially on delivering climate finance for low- and middle-income countries to tackle climate change,” she said. She added that Podesta “will need to ensure international climate diplomacy is as much a priority as the domestic climate agenda.” 

Podesta has decades of experience in Beltway politics and has influenced the shape of climate policy under three Democratic presidents. As White House chief of staff to Bill Clinton, he helped Clinton hone his messaging on climate and environmental issues, and he later served as a top adviser to Barack Obama, who tried and failed to sell Congress on a cap-and-trade climate bill. When that bill died in the Senate, Podesta pushed Obama’s focus toward the executive branch, crafting a key regulation of power emissions.

After Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, Biden asked Podesta to return to the White House to help implement the landmark legislation. As Podesta told Grist last summer, this job entailed not only selling the law to companies and local governments but also getting in the weeds on complex policy questions relating to green hydrogen and carbon removal.

However, Podesta has less experience in foreign policy than his predecessor. The outgoing climate envoy served on the Senate foreign relations committee and as Obama’s secretary of state, and he has represented the United States at several United Nations climate conferences. Kerry was instrumental in negotiating the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015 and in hammering out last year’s so-called “UAE consensus” at COP28 in Dubai. The latter accord represented the first time that the world’s nations agreed to transition away from dirty fuels.

Kerry’s close relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, also allowed the United States and China to make progress on climate cooperation even amid a broader geopolitical chill. Last year, for instance, the two nations signed a joint agreement to accelerate renewable energy deployment. When Kerry gave his notice just months after Xie announced his retirement, The Guardian hailed the moment as the “end of an era in global climate politics.” 

Podesta engaged at length with China and India on climate issues when he served in the Obama administration, and he too consulted on the Paris accord. Some observers said Podesta would likely continue on the path Kerry set in the climate envoy role.

“John Podesta is certainly a steady pair of hands,” said Li Shuo, director of the China climate program at the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank. “He has dealt with the China file very extensively together in the Obama administration with John Kerry, and I am expecting a continuation of where John Kerry left.”

But other climate advocates expressed concern about Podesta’s past focus on domestic affairs, and his plan to advise Biden on domestic and international matters simultaneously. 

“This stance suggests that international negotiations will become a secondary priority, despite the urgent global necessity to drastically escalate climate action,” said Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at the environmental group Climate Action Network, in a statement. He said the appointment “casts a shadow of doubt over the United States’ commitment to global climate leadership.”

The White House did not respond to Grist’s request for an interview with Podesta before publication.

Biden’s 2021 appointment of Kerry as the first ever “special envoy on climate change” drew the ire of many Senate Republicans, who accused Biden of bypassing the normal confirmation process for ambassadors and other senior diplomatic officials. Biden has appointed at least 40 special envoys, according to Ballotpedia, far more than any previous president. These diplomats handle issues from Yemen to the Arctic to Iran’s nuclear program. 

Congress passed a funding bill in 2021 that closed the loophole allowing for special envoy positions, meaning that future climate diplomats will be subject to confirmation by the Senate, just like their ordinary ambassador counterparts. The very idea of a climate envoy is anathema to many Republicans in Congress, meaning any successor Biden appoints will face a tough road to confirmation. If Donald Trump wins another term in November, the position will almost certainly vanish altogether.

In an apparent attempt to avoid this new Senate confirmation requirement, Biden has announced that Podesta will serve as “senior adviser” for “international climate policy.” Shelly Moore Capito, a Republican senator who is influential on climate issues, said the move was an attempt to “circumvent Congress on environmental policy.”

The biggest item on Podesta’s agenda will be the “new collective quantified goal,” a fundraising target that the world’s countries are hoping to hammer out at COP29 in Azerbaijan in November. Rich countries set a goal in 2009 to send poor countries $100 billion per year for decarbonization and disaster response, but they have lagged far behind schedule on meeting it. As the next climate conference approaches, developing countries are demanding that the United States make much stronger financial commitments. 

In addition to figuring out how the US should engage with these demands, Podesta will also have to wrangle countries like China and Saudi Arabia, which weren’t obligated to donate to the funding pool established in the 2009 agreement. These countries are in a limbo zone between developed and developing, and much of the controversy around the “new collective quantified goal” has centered on how much they should be expected to contribute.

Some climate activists said the changing of the guard would give the Biden administration a chance to reposition itself in global climate talks. Many of these activists have criticized Kerry for rebuffing financial demands from developing countries—just last summer he told Congress that he would “under no circumstances” commit the United States to a policy of “climate reparations.” When rich countries launched a loss and damage fund at COP28 to help poor countries address the consequences of climate change, the United States volunteered to contribute just $17.5 million, a fraction of what smaller countries like Italy and Japan pledged.

Kerry and other US diplomats have often focused on extracting commitments from other countries at climate talks rather than making commitments themselves, said Brandon Wu, policy director at ActionAid, an economic justice advocacy organization.

“Rather than engaging in the traditional US negotiating tactics that Kerry favored—telling other countries what to do while pretending the US is a leader despite its record of failure—he needs to shift the tone and substance of US climate diplomacy altogether,” Wu said of Podesta. “It’s no easy job, but that’s the natural consequence of so many years of inaction from the world’s biggest historical climate polluter.”

The job is made even harder by the fact that the special climate envoy doesn’t control federal spending. Even if Podesta does pledge more international funding, it will be up to Congress to pass a law that makes that pledge a reality. With Congress split between Republicans and Democrats, and the outcome of the next presidential election still anyone’s guess, it will be hard for the diplomats opposite Podesta to take him at his word.

Zoya Teirstein contributed reporting to this story.

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

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