You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Telling Answers

John Kerry Refuses to Feel “Guilty” for Climate Change

The U.S. climate envoy seemed to come unglued this week when Farhana Yamin, a veteran environmental lawyer and climate negotiator, asked him about funding for nations recovering from climate catastrophe.

Horacio Villalobos/Corbis/Getty Images
John Kerry, U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, at a meeting of the Portuguese Council of State in Cascais, Portugal, on June 28.

When World Bank head David Malpass delivered a classic climate denier’s answer this week at Climate Week in New York—hedging on a direct question about whether fossil fuels are warming the planet—many immediately called for his removal. But meanwhile, an equally scandalous sound bite the same day by someone else has somehow flown under the radar. 

At a New York Times event on Tuesday, part of the weeklong climate gatherings coinciding with the U.N. General Assembly, environmental lawyer and veteran climate negotiator Farhana Yamin, present in the audience, asked U.S. climate envoy John Kerry about whether his government intends to direct money toward “loss and damage” from climate change, i.e., helping vulnerable countries rebuild when climate-fueled disasters hit. For years, the United States has stymied efforts to establish a concrete financing facility for loss and damage. Most recently, at COP 26 in Glasgow, the U.S. pushed to squash language that would set up such a mechanism, replacing it with a “dialogue” to explore funding options. 

“What will you be doing to step up and actually put money into loss and damage? And what will you be doing to stop the inaction on legal and political and institutional wrangling which the U.S. is at the heart of, I have to say?” asked Yamin, who has been a lead author on IPCC reports, played a key role in negotiating the Paris Agreement, and worked as an adviser to the Marshall Islands in negotiating the text on loss and damage. “You can remove all of that and establish the facility on loss and damage at COP27, which is the will of the vast majority of developing countries,” Yamin said. “And all I can say is you’re bringing a lot to the table and I really applaud that. But the most important thing the U.S. can bring right now is honesty to COP 27,” the climate summit being held later this fall in Egypt. 

A visibly annoyed Kerry responded: “In all honesty, the most important thing that we can do is stop, mitigate enough that we prevent loss and damage. And the next most important thing we can do is help people adapt to the damage that’s already there. And we have a limited, you know, we’re not—you tell me the government in the world that has trillions of dollars, cause that’s what it costs.”

“I’m not going to take a—feeling guilty,” Kerry added. “There’s plenty of time to be arguing, pointing fingers, doing whatever. But the money we need right now needs to go to adaptation. It needs to go to building resilience. It needs to go to the technology that’s gonna save the planet.”

This was a pretty striking answer given recent headlines: Roughly a third of Pakistan has been underwater in the last month, after catastrophic and climate-fueled flooding caused well over $10 billion worth of damages. At least 1,300 people have been killed and 35 million displaced. Flooding in South Africa this spring claimed 45 lives. 

“I would have wanted a little bit more empathy, and there was none,” Yamin told me by phone Thursday morning. Despite a long pattern of what she described as American diplomats’ “absolute utter obstruction” on loss and damage, she was still surprised by how combative Kerry’s response was. “It was quite aggressive and quite all over the place,” she said.

Yamin immigrated from Pakistan to the U.K. as a child, and pointed in our call not just to the floods and extreme heat in Pakistan but also to recent heat waves in Britain, where she still lives. “Loss and damage is really not something you can deny anymore,” she said. “This isn’t any longer about trying to prevent something in 100 or 50 years’ time. Twenty years ago, we were still saying, ‘Let’s do more mitigation and adaptation.’ Right now we have to do all three.”

Kerry’s argument that money should be spent on mitigation and adaptation rather than loss and damage glosses over the fact that mitigation and adaptation already have dedicated financing mechanisms at the U.N. level, however inadequate. And that wasn’t the only part of his answer that might be construed as misleading. Take his gesture at the “trillions” that would be needed for loss and damage, and insistence that no country possesses such sums.

The bare numbers are as follows: By 2030, the need for loss and damage financing is projected to reach between $300 and $700 billion per year, and it will be as much as $1.2 trillion by 2060, according to the Civil Society Equity Review. Those calling for loss and damage funds have never suggested a single country should pay up. But if they were to demand it, then it’s worth noting that the U.S. does in fact have this money. The U.S. military budget is $1.77 trillion, including $36.5 billion for Space Force.  

Kerry adding, unprompted, that he refuses to feel “guilty” is also telling. Part of why rich countries have fought any mention of loss and damage at international climate negotiations, as I previously reported from COP26, has to do with fear that discussion of loss and damage would put wealthy countries on the hook for their outsize historical emissions. The U.S. has long tried to paper over language on this very issue contained in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change—the notion of “common but differentiated responsibility.”

“There’s one thing that we don’t accept and won’t accept in this agreement and that is the notion that there should be liability and compensation for loss and damage,” top Obama-era negotiator Todd Stern told reporters in Paris  in 2015. “That’s a line that we can’t cross. And I think in that regard we are in the exact same place, my guess is, with virtually all if not all developed countries.”

Yamin said she was glad to hear Kerry acknowledge that loss and damage would cost a lot. But “right now the poorest countries are picking up the trillions of dollars of bills,” she noted, while the U.S. is “doing nothing. It’s scandalous, actually.”

On Tuesday, Kerry also said loss and damage financing was politically impossible. “You can’t just set up a facility in six weeks. Let’s be serious about this. We gotta talk about how we’re going to do it. How are you going to measure it? How do you allocate? What do you allocate? Where’s the money coming from?” he said. “You think this Republican Congress where we couldn’t get one vote for this legislation is going to step up and do loss and damage? Good luck! So I’m in the zone of reality.”

There have been numerous proposals, though, to fund loss and damage internationally without relying on congressional approval here. “People [outside the U.S.] understand the U.S. political system just as well as you guys do because our fate is tied up with it half the time,” Yamin said. This week, U.N chief António Guterres expressed support for imposing a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies to fund loss and damage. Others have suggested that the International Monetary Fund—a body in which the U.S. enjoys outsize power—issue another round of Special Drawing Rights by way of meeting climate finance needs, and that the U.S. redistribute the hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of SDRs currently sitting on its books. Experts have also suggested debt-for-climate swaps, which would provide debt relief for poorer countries in exchange for their investments in climate mitigation, adaptation, and recovery.  

COP27 begins in just a little over six weeks. Yamin still hopes for the U.S. to play a more positive role on loss and damage. The same day Kerry spouted off, Denmark became the first wealthy nation to pledge money to loss and damage. 

The least the U.S. could do, however, would be to allow loss and damage conversations to take place and move forward, instead of aggressively silencing them like Kerry tried to on Tuesday and U.S. negotiators have, historically, at U.N. climate talks. “Our countries are up to our ears in debt. Our leaders are not even able to speak up because they’re depending on the next tranche of bailouts,” Yamin said, referring to poorer countries’ fear of creditor retaliation if they speak up about inequity. “The degree of insensitivity—it’s disrespectful frankly.… I’m being told I don’t understand reality. Whose reality are you pretending not to understand right now?”