WASHINGTON — Jonathan Pershing, who traveled to 21 countries to negotiate an international climate agreement last year as the Biden administration’s No. 2 global climate envoy, is leaving his position next month.
Mr. Pershing is departing at a tenuous moment for global climate action.
At a U.N. summit last year in Glasgow, nearly 200 nations reaffirmed their pledge to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). But virtually none, including the United States, have policies in place to meet that goal.
Instead, they agreed to meet again in November in Egypt, where they would commit to stronger action. China, the biggest polluter, did not agree to further limit its greenhouse gas emissions but signed a joint statement in Glasgow with the United States, pledging to work together on the effort.
Mr. Pershing, 62, a veteran diplomat who served under four presidents and helped negotiate the 2015 Paris climate agreement, was the United States climate envoy before stepping down at the end of the Obama administration to manage the Hewlett Foundation’s climate programs in California. He plans to return to the same job.
Tall and professorial with a beard that once had its own Twitter account, Mr. Pershing is known for his expansive knowledge of nitty-gritty details, able to easily rattle off details about a country’s energy data, national politics or a decade-old scientific study. His boss, John Kerry, called Mr. Pershing “a walking encyclopedia.”
In a statement, Mr. Kerry said that when President Biden tapped him as the special envoy for climate change, one of his first moves was to bring Mr. Pershing back to Washington.
“After four years of disengagement and distrust, we needed not just the A team but the A+ team to rebuild our credibility and diplomacy,” Mr. Kerry said.
Mr. Pershing spoke this week about the challenges of trying to get nearly 200 countries to work together to tackle a global problem. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why are you leaving?
A: I wanted to come in for a year. It had felt to me that in the previous four years, the system had really been disbanded, there had been nothing really left. And it felt important to me that people like myself, who’d had a prior tenure, who could come in at the very, very beginning and rapidly move things forward would be an important contribution to make to the climate change effort.
When I left the last time, I had not thought I was going to come back into government. And I came back in because it felt that this was a moment where my service could be helpful. It was not ever meant to be a permanent exercise. It was meant to be a chance to help recreate or create something new, recreate capacity, and build that back in a very short window.
Q: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment in the past year?
A: I think for all of us deeply committed to the climate agenda, the previous four years had been really a huge setback, and the climate didn’t stop changing during those four years. So for us, it was really a chance to come in and really set something in motion.
The single big win clearly is, I think, the pretty substantial step forward we got in Glasgow.
We got a significant movement from the big players. I think there was real change from China.
Q: Really? From China?
A: Absolutely. Think about where we were going in the conversation with the Chinese. China was saying, “Don’t worry, we’ve got this covered, we’ll get back to you.”
What we now got are a series of pretty detailed plans. It may not be adequate to do all the things they say, but it’s light-years ahead of where they had been a year ago.
My colleagues in the N.G.O. and the academic community, who are kind of the lifeblood of a lot of the intellectual discourse in China, they all said they feel completely empowered to now work on the details of implementation, because of the U.S.-China joint statement. And to me, that’s what you need. Because it’s not about just saying something grand at Davos, or at the U.N. It’s about how do you deliver at a technical level on all the things that are required to make this real.
Q: Countries’ targets are right now not enough to keep temperatures to 1.5 degrees. The agreement in Glasgow called on countries to return next year with more ambitious targets. But we’ve already seen some countries say, “This doesn’t apply to us.” How can Glasgow be called a success if countries are not really committing to return with more ambition?
A: We make a mistake by assuming any given moment solves the problem. This is an intractable, difficult, wicked problem. And, we’ve made a lot of progress. It doesn’t say there’s no more to do. It’s both.
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There was a report that was done by the World Bank, about 10 years ago, of what the world would look like — not at four degrees [Celsius temperature rise above pre-Industrial levels], but at three. We’re now close to a two-degree number. And we had been pretty close to a three-degree rise. That is not enough. But the difference between two and three for the global community is very close to existential for many parts of our weakest and most vulnerable people.
There is still a big gap between where we are and where we all need to get. And we have to do that additional work. But I think both of those can be held simultaneously.
Q: What’s your level of optimism that countries will limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees?
A: I think 1.5 is technically achievable, and politically really tough.
In my mind, the optimism is that there is a pathway. And the reason I say it that way, is that I look at the world, and the world is consumed by a series of global issues and other threats and political disagreements. What I also see is some willingness — maybe not yet enough, but some — willingness to set some of those aside and engage on the climate front anyway. And to me, that is huge.
Here we were, in this past year, making trips in spite of Covid. We were able to address this long-term crisis, even though Covid was a threat. And I think about the difficult relationships with the U.S. and China, or the U.S. and Russia. In spite of that, we went to China and were received in China and engaged with senior leadership. And we went to Moscow, and we engaged with senior leadership.
And the optimism comes that, in spite of that, people were prepared to sit and talk about the climate agenda in the face of those other constraints.
Q: When do you think John Kerry is leaving? And do you think the next climate envoy needs to have the same star power?
A: I don’t know. I don’t think he knows. You should ask him.
Secretary Kerry, he is, in some ways, was well suited to the moment, the moment was a need to project U.S. commitment and engagement, and his star power was essential. I think it’s still unbelievably valuable. And I hope he stays a long time and does this for a while. But I think you can have many people who could serve the function that the U.S. needs to project. I think others could do it. I don’t think anyone could do it as well as he did it. I don’t think anyone could have done it this first year, the way he did it.