It's no secret that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (ailing today in the hospital) has done an outstanding job of executing U.S. policy in no small part because she has understood so well that policy ultimately is made in the White House, not her office. The downside has been that there was no real independent voice in U.S. foreign policy for the last four years. This will change with the accession of Senator John Kerry, a strongly independent personality with a well known track record.
One area in which that difference will make a difference is climate policy. Kerry was an early co-sponsor of cap-and-trade carbon reduction legislation, and he quietly used his considerable influence in the Senate to address global warming issues however he could. Climate change is one of the issues that Kerry feels personally passionate about. Six months ago, in a small Massachusetts newspaper, he wrote that the time for U.S. action on climate change is now. Quoting the Revolutionary War publicist Thomas Paine, who called it “an affront to treat falsehood with complacence,” Kerry continued, "Yet when it comes to the challenge of climate change, the falsehood of today’s naysayers is only matched by the complacency of our political system."
At the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, where Obama and Clinton showed up only to join with the Chinese to torpedo any prospect of mandatory greenhouse gas emission cuts, Kerry gave a speech in a session parallel to the main negotiations (which I happened to attend, covering the conference for IEEE Spectrum magazine). He was visibly touched by the warmth of the reception he received from international delegates, who evidently had some appreciation of where he stood.
Like Clinton, Kerry is a major figure in U.S. politics. The importance of his arrival at State far exceeds the significance of Lisa Jackson's departure from the Environmental Protection Agency. Though there has been muttering in the press that she is leaving in part because she was unhappy about the course that climate policy took under Obama, she surely knew all along that ultimately her voice would count for little in the formulation of that policy. Kerry's voice will count for more than a little.
How will he be able to make a difference? By telling the president, again and again, that it is time for the United States to give full support to those countries that have taken the lead in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and to firmly commit the United States to taking similar action.