From electric vehicles to deciding what to cook for dinner, John Podesta faces climate challenges

From electric vehicles to deciding what to cook for dinner, John Podesta faces climate challenges

WASHINGTON (AP) — John Podesta was two months into his new role as President Joe Biden’s top climate diplomat when he faced his first international crisis — what to serve for dinner.

He had invited his Chinese counterpart, Liu Zhenmin, over to his house but learned that his guest — perhaps not surprisingly — only likes Chinese food. Although Podesta is well known for his culinary skills, he usually sticks to cooking Italian.

“I thought, OK, well, this is a diplomatic challenge,” Podesta told The Associated Press in an interview.

So Podesta whipped up risotto with leeks and fennel, infusing a classic Italian dish with vegetables that can be found in Chinese recipes. It was a culinary compromise to smooth out an essential relationship between the world’s two superpowers.

Few other problems will be solved as simply as switching around some ingredients. Although Podesta has worked on climate issues for years, the complications and obstacles have only multiplied as scientists warn that global warming is reaching critical levels.

In the interview, Podesta said he saw opportunities to work with China to limit greenhouse gas emissions that are even more potent than carbon dioxide. However, trade disagreements between the U.S. and China have led to what he described as “a period of some friction and competition,” and Podesta said he would push China to contribute more money to the global fight against climate change.

International negotiations aren’t Podesta’s only responsibility. He’s also keeping his previous job of implementing Biden’s domestic clean energy initiatives. Podesta conceded that progress has been slower than expected on electric vehicles, but he believes there’s still momentum despite efforts by the political right to “demonize” zero-emission vehicles.

Looming over all of Podesta’s efforts is this year’s election and the threat that Donald Trump could be even more zealous in trying to undo climate progress if he returns to in the White House. Podesta warned of a “carte blanche to the polluters.”

“Those things matter,” he said. “Voters can make a judgment about whether they matter to them. They certainly matter to the planet.”

It’s high stakes for a 75-year-old veteran of Democratic politics who was recently considering retirement.

“I had one foot in the car on my way to California with my wife,” he joked.

Podesta’s plan to step away from public life changed when Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act two years ago, pumping $375 billion into the fight against climate change. Podesta had helped lay the political groundwork for the law by working with advocacy groups, and Biden asked him to oversee the implementation of financial incentives for clean technologies.

“There’s no one else in the United States that knows as many people in government and knows how to get as much done in government,” said Christy Goldfuss, who previously worked at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-aligned think tank that Podesta founded two decades ago.

Podesta’s role expanded into international politics when John Kerry, Biden’s original global climate envoy and a former U.S. secretary of state, retired earlier this year. Kerry was known for his close relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, who stepped down as well and was replaced by Liu.

Although neither Podesta nor Liu are new to climate diplomacy, “there’s more uncertainty in the bilateral climate relationship than there has been for the last three years,” said Li Shuo, an analyst at the Asia Society who previously worked with Greenpeace in Beijing.

Earlier this month, Podesta hosted Liu in Washington for their first official meeting since taking on their new roles.

“Personal relationships only go so far, but they are important in terms of building the level of trust that each side is telling the other what is possible,” Podesta said. “And I think we ended up having a good outcome of the meeting.”

Podesta described the conversations as a give and take: “He was pushing me, I was pushing him.” The U.S. and China have opportunities to improve their reductions in emissions of methane and hydrofluorocarbons, he said, and “the world is looking to us to find ways where we can work together.”

However, a sticking point will be an area known as climate finance.

Under the Paris agreement reached in 2015, wealthy countries are supposed to collectively provide $100 billion in annual assistance for developing nations to adopt clean technologies and cope with the impact of climate change. They reached the goal in 2022, two years behind schedule, according to a report released Wednesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Negotiators are supposed to set a new, more ambitious target during the November summit in Azerbaijan.

“We have a challenge where it’s not just billions or even hundreds of billions of dollars of need that’s out there,” Podesta said. “We need to mobilize trillions of dollars to transform the global economy from one that’s running on polluting fossil fuels to one that’s running on clean energy.”

China has resisted any requirements to put its own money into the pot, but Podesta emphasized that it’s the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases “and it does have an obligation to the rest of the world to contribute.”

The United States is under pressure to increase its own financial commitments, something that has been challenging with Republicans in control of the House.

Joe Thwaites, an expert on the issue at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Biden administration officials have made progress by scraping together funding from around the federal government and searching “behind the proverbial couch cushions.”

Trade concerns with China have become more prominent. Although China has boasted that its production capacity could help the world transition to a clean energy future, U.S. officials are worried about American workers being displaced if cheap Chinese electric vehicles and other green products flood U.S. markets.

“There’s no question that we’re now in a fierce competition, particularly in these clean technologies,” Podesta said. He suggested that China is supercharging some of its industries and ramping up exports to compensate for its pandemic slump and the collapse of its housing sector, an approach that he described as “anti-competitive.”

Biden recently announced higher tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles, batteries and other technologies. He’s also pushing U.S. automakers to increase production of zero-emission vehicles through regulations and financial incentives.

“We’re seeing continued momentum,” Podesta said. “It’s maybe not as quite as fast as people anticipated. But it’s very strong, very forward moving. And I think that companies are fully committed to that transition to electrification.”

Trump has criticized the focus on electric vehicles, and partisanship has colored drivers’ views of the issue, creating a political and cultural hurdle to lowering emissions from transportation.

“I think that the right has kind of demonized electric vehicles,” Podesta said.

Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that while the rules have been eased for the next few years, automakers need to increase their efforts now to ensure they hit stricter goals down the line.

“We’ve given them such a cushy first few years,” he said. “If they don’t use that time to figure out their long-term strategy, that would be extremely problematic.”

Reports by independent analysts show that the U.S. is not on track to hit the emissions reduction target that Biden set for 2030, but Podesta said he was not concerned.

“I’m confident that we can do that,” he said. “We’ve done an enormous amount already.”

He added that clean energy policies tend to be more partisan in Washington than elsewhere in the country.

“The facts on the ground are changing,” Podesta said. “As people go to work in these industries, as they take advantage of the investments that are coming to their communities and see the results of lowering pollution across the board, I think they’re very hard to reverse.”


This story has been corrected to show Podesta’s title is top climate diplomat, not global climate envoy.