Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) pledged yesterday to make climate change a top priority as secretary of State as he sailed through a mostly genial confirmation hearing before the committee he still chairs.

Testifying before his Senate Foreign Relations panel, Kerry sidestepped a question about his views on the controversial $7 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline project. But he jumped at a chance to swat down a Republican senator who declared carbon constraints a threat to the U.S. economy, and he defended the need to abate climate change as a jobs and security imperative.

"Climate change is not something to be feared in response to. It's to be feared if we don't," Kerry said, citing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data showing more than 3,500 U.S. communities shattered heat records last year and noting the billions spent mopping up disasters from wildfires in the West to Superstorm Sandy in the East. Meanwhile, he said, America has barely begun to tap the $6 trillion global clean energy market.

"I will be a passionate advocate about this, but not based on ideology. Based on facts, based on science. And I hope to sit with all of you to convince you that this $6 trillion market is worth billions of American jobs and we better go after it," he said.

Kerry's testimony came on the heels of a loud call by more than half the Senate demanding the Obama administration quickly approve the Keystone XL pipeline project that would ship about 700,000 barrels of crude daily from Canada's oil sands to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. It also comes as President Obama himself promises renewed attention to climate change.

A longtime champion of climate action and an intense observer of the U.N. treaty process, Kerry said in no uncertain terms yesterday that he will make global warming a priority. While security issues from Iran to Syria dominated the three-hour hearing, Kerry also wove climate, food security and competition for scarce resources into a broad new narrative of diplomacy.

"More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy," Kerry said. "The world is competing for resources and global markets. Every day that goes by where America is uncertain about engaging in that arena ... is a day in which we weaken our nation itself."

Vague comments about Keystone
Addressing the threat of rising global temperatures would be a central part of his efforts, Kerry said, arguing that foreign policy is "not defined by drones and deployments alone" but also by humanitarian aid, fighting disease and promoting freedom. "It is defined by leadership on life-threatening issues like climate change," he said.

When Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a leading climate skeptic who opposes restrictions on carbon pollution, argued that the administration could harm the U.S. economy by enacting new regulations particularly given the skyrocketing emissions of China and India, Kerry was quick with a challenge.

"The opportunities of energy policy so vastly outweigh the issues that you're expressing concerns about," he said. "We've got to get into the energy race. Other countries are in it. This is a job creator. I can't emphasize that strongly enough."

When it came to Keystone, though, and the decision he likely must make about whether to approve the pipeline, Kerry offered only vague comments about the "ongoing statutory process" and legal consultations.

"It will not be long before that comes across my desk, and at that time I will make the appropriate judgment about it," he said.

Meanwhile, a seemingly technical aside between Kerry and Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) about executive agreements could have implications for the climate debate.

Risch tried to get Kerry to agree that congressional executive agreements -- which need only a simple majority of both chambers to pass rather than the two-thirds of the Senate required to approve a treaty -- are inappropriate attempts to avoid Congress. Kerry, though, noted that Republicans and Democrats alike have entered into such agreements and said there are times when it's necessary -- like when "ideological restraints" block action.

Some climate experts have touted the idea of a congressional executive agreement rather than an international treaty, given the difficulties in getting Senate approval.

Climate analysts said they were buoyed by Kerry's general comments on global warming and said they are hoping to see him take a more personal interest in the U.N. treaty negotiations.

A different stylistic approach
"Putting climate change much more at the core of American foreign policy is really in future Secretary Kerry's interest," said Jennifer Morgan, climate and energy director at the World Resources Institute think tank. She called for the United States to develop an international energy strategy and to put climate change and clean energy at the center of new bilateral agreements.

Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, praised current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's track record on climate but said he thinks having a secretary who has attended several U.N. climate meetings will make a difference. Countries have agreed to develop a new international agreement by 2015 that will demand carbon cuts from all emitters, including the United States and China.

"I would expect that he will take more of a front-row seat," Light said. He also pushed for Kerry to use his role to make a case for an international climate agreement to the American public -- something the State Department has so far rarely done.

"One of the things that should happen is that the climate envoy's office should be expanded so that's in their portfolio," Light said. "They really don't have anyone doing a lot of that. They spend more time doing shuttle diplomacy to different capitals than they do doing shuttle diplomacy to different state capitals to get people and the business sector engaged in what can be gained from an international agreement."

Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, said he doesn't expect new U.S. positions at the international negotiations under Kerry but does expect to see a different stylistic approach.

"I think the tone will change; because of his knowledge of Congress and his knowledge of the countries, he's going to be willing to get out there and speak his mind and find a middle ground," Helme said. "This is a personal thing he truly cares about, and that makes a difference."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500