John Podesta’s elevation to become the US’s top climate diplomat has been welcomed by environmental groups but the stakes, as well as the scope of the job itself, are set to be enormous.
Podesta, the veteran Democratic party strategist, has been chosen by Joe Biden to lead his administration’s international climate policy efforts, replacing John Kerry, the US climate envoy who will step down at some point this spring.
Kerry’s successor appears ready-made. A seasoned Washington operator well versed in the politics of the climate crisis, Podesta has, since last year, headed the White House’s effort to implement the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate legislation that funnels billions of dollars to proliferate renewable energy projects and electric vehicles.
“John Podesta is uniquely qualified to lead the nation’s climate diplomacy in this critical moment,” said Manish Bapna, chief executive of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “He knows the people, the politics and what must be done to confront the existential challenge of our time.” Patrick Gaspard, chief executive of the Center for American Progress, a liberal thinktank founded by Podesta, praised the strategist’s “unparalleled” work ethic and passion for shifting the world away from fossil fuels.
Podesta, a spry 75-year-old and avid cook, was raised in Chicago and has a political career that stretches back to 1972, when he worked on George McGovern’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. He co-founded a Washington lobbying firm with his brother, Tony, and went on to become chief of staff to Bill Clinton during his second term as president, where Podesta started grappling with climate change issues.
The association with Democratic heavyweights continued after Clinton left office, with Podesta becoming Barack Obama’s climate adviser, before being named as campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton’s ill-starred attempt to win the White House in 2016. This latter role, infamously, saw Podesta’s emails be hacked and leaked by WikiLeaks, which led to a baseless conspiracy theory that the emails contained coded references to a pedophilia ring centered upon a pizzeria in Washington.
The White House said that Podesta would be Biden’s voice on climate overseas and that he would dedicate a “significant amount of time” to climate diplomacy. However, Podesta will also retain his role in driving forward the domestic clean energy rollout, which is arguably a full-time job in itself.
Podesta will remain in the White House, rather than move to the state department, with his role officially being international climate policy adviser to the president, rather than climate envoy, in order to sidestep a potentially fraught Senate confirmation process.
With a US presidential election looming in November, Podesta will probably travel abroad far less than Kerry, who zigzagged across the world trying to forge agreements with other countries to cut emissions, and will be expected to highlight the climate efforts of Biden, who has struggled with younger, climate-conscious voters.
“He’s going to do everything he can in the campaign to be able to make [climate] a key issue, and I’m going to do everything I can to help the president be able to be re-elected,” said Kerry, who is leaving his role to work on Biden’s campaign.
Podesta’s dual role has prompted fears from some climate activists that he will be more focused on the effort to beat Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, in November rather than work with other countries to press forward last year’s Cop28 agreement, in which governments agreed to “transition away” from fossil fuels.
The appointment “casts a shadow of doubt over the United States’ commitment to global climate leadership”, said Harjeet Singh, a veteran climate campaigner who predicted that Podesta will “tread even more cautiously on the international stage” than Kerry.
Both at home and abroad, the challenge faced by Podesta is immense. Oil and gas production in the US hit a record high last year, amid a surge in new fossil fuel projects planned around the world. This year has a good chance of being the hottest on record, eclipsing a record just set in 2023, and scientists warn the world is barreling beyond agreed temperature limits, risking worsening heatwaves, floods, droughts and other impacts.
Environmentalists have sought to warn Podesta that time is running short. “Podesta needs to take the baton from Kerry and lead the US on a furious sprint to end oil and gas expansion while we still have time to prevent the worst climate catastrophes,” said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program.