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Kerry’s green side takes center stage

John F. Kerry with (from left) Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Senator Richard G. Lugar after a meeting on climate change. John F. Kerry with (from left) Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Senator Richard G. Lugar after a meeting on climate change. (Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / November 13, 2009

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John F. Kerry is known for his expertise on matters of war and foreign policy, and for his failed 2004 presidential bid.

But when he arrives in Copenhagen next month for international climate talks, the world will see a less familiar but perhaps more ardent side of the Massachusetts senator: the green Kerry.

After a quarter century in Washington, Kerry is emerging as a critical environmental dealmaker. He is leading the US Senate delegation that will try to broker a worldwide climate change agreement and is chief sponsor of a massive global warming bill in the Senate, a measure that was all but buried until Kerry forged an unlikely partnership with Republican Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina last month.

Now, with virtually no chance of getting climate legislation through Congress before the end of the year, Kerry is still hoping to make enough progress toward a bipartisan deal to demonstrate to China, India, and other major greenhouse gas producers that the United States is serious about lowering emissions that are heating the Earth.

The challenge is enormous. Even if Kerry manages to find some consensus among Senate Democrats and Republicans in Washington before he goes, the task of setting binding emissions targets for industrialized and developing countries is unlikely to be achieved next month in Copenhagen. But the senator remains hopeful.

“What we have to do is listen to people, work with people, and fight very, very hard to get this job done,’’ Kerry said in a recent interview with the Globe. “It is not going to be easy, but every day we are moving the ball forward.’’

Though Kerry doesn’t have a strong track record as a conciliator in Congress, his biography can only help him, say his supporters. A bit of a wonk on climate science, he has been attending United Nations global warming summits since they began in Brazil in 1992. And he’s respected in diplomatic circles, as shown by his involvement in resolving the election crisis in Afghanistan last month.

“There is no one better positioned in the world than Senator Kerry’’ to get an international climate deal, said Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program and an authority on international climate policy. “He has had an interest in these issues a long time. He is coauthor of the climate legislation. He is chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.’’

The environment is so woven into Kerry’s life, friends say, it served as the backdrop to the courtship of his wife.

The senator was first introduced to Teresa Heinz at a 1990 Earth Day rally. Two years later, after Heinz’s first husband, Senator John Heinz, died in a plane crash, Kerry met the African-raised Heinz again at the summit in Brazil. Soon, the two found themselves moving in the same circles, often around environmental concerns. They married in 1995.

“I didn’t set out to marry a senator. I married someone who had a lot in common with me who happened to be a senator,’’ said Heinz, who heads a foundation that is one of the nation’s leading donors to environmental causes.

Kerry traces his green leanings to his mother, a passionate gardener who started the first recycling program in Groton when the family lived there and to “a good New England Emersonian . . . healthy respect for our environment.’’

That respect made him dogged about some environmental issues, starting early in his political career. When former Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis delegated acid rain responsibilities to his young lieutenant governor, Kerry carved out a national name for himself on the issue. His work helped lead to the first international agreement to curb the toxic rain and served as a blueprint for reauthorization of the Clean Air Act in 1990.

In fact, Kerry was in Germany’s Black Forest, painstakingly inspecting yellowed tree boughs and browning pine needles caused by acid rain, when he learned that former US senator Paul Tsongas was about to announce his retirement because of cancer, clearing the way for Kerry to run.

Kerry, of course, would go on to win Tsongas’s seat, and during his five-term Senate career he has often immersed himself in the nitty-gritty of vexing environmental problems. But by the 1990s, environmentalism was not the cause it was in the ’80s - or is today, some environmentalists say. Kerry’s identification with environmental causes faded as he became known for other work.

“In the 1980s, Kerry was part of a troika of a new mold of environmental legislators [that included] Al Gore and Tim Wirth,’’ said Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research and advocacy group, and Wirth’s legislative director at the time. “Through the ’90s he had other interests. But now, he’s flexing muscles that he has been developing over decades.’’

On March 24, Kerry hosted a dinner in his Georgetown home.

The guests included some of the nation’s movers and shakers on climate policy: Todd Stern, Obama’s special envoy for climate change; Energy Secretary Steven Chu; climate policy chief Carol Browner; science adviser John Holdren; and US Environmental Protection chief Lisa Jackson.

“We wanted to get everyone thinking about this impending moment of opportunity’’ in Copenhagen, Kerry said. They clearly also wanted to avoid any hint of what happened in 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol, the first binding worldwide agreement to lower greenhouse gases, was signed by the United States but never ratified by the Senate. At the dinner, the group mapped out a plan to get strong climate change legislation passed so they could go to Copenhagen ready to make a deal.

Kerry ramped up behind-the-scene meetings with policy makers, scientists, business leaders, and fellow senators from both sides of the aisle. He traveled to China to discuss the international climate talks. He held a hearing to make the case that climate change was a national security issue. And in September, he and Senator Barbara Boxer of California introduced their Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act. An earlier House version, coauthored by Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, narrowly passed in June.

Because both bills propose to put a price on emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, Republicans and even moderate Democrats have expressed sharp concerns about the cost to businesses and consumers. Those objections, combined with Congress’s focus on the health care debate, delayed action on the legislation.

Then last month, Graham and Kerry penned an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times proposing a bipartisan way forward. To offset Republican concerns about phased-in caps on carbon emissions, there should be more nuclear power and clean coal research, the senators wrote. And a compromise was needed on oil and gas drilling, including offshore.

The climate change bill began being noticed. Last week, after Republicans boycotted a key committee vote on the Kerry-Boxer bill, Kerry, Graham, and Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut began work on a separate measure that would be palatable to both parties. And this week, after meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Kerry said he hoped to come up with a “framework’’ for Senate legislation in time for Copenhagen.

Environmental groups are watching hopefully and warily, concerned that too much compromise could result in a bill that won’t result in meaningful emissions reductions. And key Republicans, notably Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, have said they do not see a climate deal happening in the near term.

“It’s not going to be easy,’’ said Dukakis. Still, “it says a lot for John that he is reaching across the aisle and teaming up. . . . It is Kennedy-esque and important.’’

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.