John Kerry has been many things as America’s special presidential envoy for climate change.
Now, at age 80, he plans to step down after three years as the nation’s top climate diplomat, a role he both seemed to relish and helped transform.
His successor will be hard-pressed to replicate his versatility, though experts say Kerry’s tenure provides a helpful blueprint on what kind of leader is needed to fill that role given the challenges ahead.
Kerry brought star power at a time when the United States needed to rebuild trust after years of climate denialism under former President Donald Trump. He came carrying knowledge from decades of climate advocacy in the Senate and State Department, and he had clout with both diplomats and executives that helped Kerry open doors and usher in reforms and new pledges.
His ties with industry also drew scrutiny, and Kerry was often the face of U.S. resistance to a system for climate damages America feared would make it legally liable for compensation given its position as the biggest climate polluter in history.
Kerry leaves big shoes to fill, but he’s also done enough to ensure that the person who replaces him will be mostly focused on implementing what he helped put in place, experts say.
In the short term, that work likely will fall to his deputies, Rick Duke and Sue Biniaz, who may step in as caretakers of the role of climate envoy until after U.S. elections in November. Whether one of them — or someone else — fills the job over the longer term depends on who wins the White House.
The future of the role itself is uncertain. It could revert back to special envoy status, which under a new rule that took effect in 2022 requires Senate confirmation. And like the presidency, the Senate also is up for grabs in November’s elections.