Kerry: Before I Took the Job, All Climate Talks With China Were ‘Nonstarters’

By Patrick Goodenough | October 16, 2015 | 4:20 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi prior to a meeting, with climate change high on the agenda, in Boston on Saturday Oct. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that when he took up his post, all previous attempts to cooperate with China on climate change had been “nonstarters.” He was speaking two days after his predecessor in the post, Hillary Clinton, said her tenure had seen an important climate breakthrough with the Chinese.

“To be honest, when I became secretary of state, I was told that climate change was not likely to be a promising area for diplomacy,” Kerry said in a speech at Indiana University.

“And China was a big part of the reason, because we had been completely opposed to each other at the last global meeting on climate in Copenhagen [in 2009].”

Noting that the U.S. and China together account for almost 50 percent of the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change, Kerry said that “earlier efforts at [bilateral climate] cooperation were nonstarters, so shortly after I was sworn in [on February 1, 2013] … I think I went to China in late March, early April.”

Kerry said he proposed to the Chinese the start of regular, formal discussions on climate. Later (in October 2014), he invited State Councilor Yang Jiechi to his Boston home for talks “about what more our nations could do together in order to tackle the problem.”

“And then in January [sic – it was actually November 2014], after we’d laid the groundwork, President Obama went to Beijing for further talks,” he said. That visit led to a joint announcement by Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping of an agreement that saw China for the first time agree to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

Kerry, who has championed climate change for decades, described the Beijing announcement as “a dramatic moment of transformation” and a “symbolic breakthrough.”

During the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night, Clinton said that working with other countries on combating climate change is “exactly what I’ve been doing,” and then shared an anecdote about the same 2009 U.N. climate conference that Kerry referenced in his speech in Indiana. (The same story is recounted in her memoir, “Hard Choices.”)

“When we met in Copenhagen in 2009 and, literally, President Obama and I were hunting for the Chinese, going throughout this huge convention center, because we knew we had to get them to agree to something,” she said.

“Because there will be no effective efforts against climate change unless China and India join with the rest of the world. They told us they’d left for the airport; we found out they were having a secret meeting. We marched up, we broke in, we said, ‘We’ve been looking all over for you. Let’s sit down and talk about what we need to do.’

“And we did come up with the first international agreement that China has signed.”

In fact, global warming activists widely view Copenhagen – and the agreement Clinton cited – as a failure.

Obama himself, after initially hailing the accord, said just a few days later that “people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome in Copenhagen.”

The agreement touted by Clinton was not legally binding. Despite Clinton’s words it was not “signed” by China. It was not even endorsed by the participating nations, but was instead “taken note of,” in U.N. parlance.

The U.N.’s top climate official, Yvo De Boer, explained at the time that “taking note of” a document was “a way of recognizing that something is there, but not going so far as to directly associate yourself with it.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow