John Podesta, the Democratic journeyman leading Biden's climate policy

Podesta will replace John Kerry as the country's top climate adviser

Presidential climate adviser John Podesta
Podesta has worked in various capacities for three presidential administrations
(Image credit: Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

John Kerry recently announced he would step down as the U.S.' special presidential envoy for climate to help President Joe Biden with his reelection campaign. The White House has decided to replace one Democratic mainstay with another, as Biden has tapped John Podesta to replace Kerry as the nation's top climate diplomat. 

While Podesta's name may not be as recognizable as Kerry's — a former secretary of state and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee — Podesta has been a longtime journeyman for the Democrats. Getting his start in various positions on Capitol Hill, Podesta worked his way up to the Clinton administration in the 1990s and has been closely involved with the Democratic Party platform ever since, including efforts to spearhead climate change initatives. What is Podesta's political history, and what will he accomplish as Biden's climate guru?

Podesta's political beginnings

John Podesta was born in Chicago in 1949 and graduated with a doctorate in law from Georgetown University Law Center in 1976. Starting in the mid-1980s, he began his foray into politics by working for a variety of Capitol Hill offices. This included a job as a high-ranking counselor to Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who served as both Senate minority leader and Senate majority leader during his tenure. 

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Podesta first arrived at the White House in 1993, where he eventually became President Bill Clinton's chief of staff in 1998. Podesta would serve in that role until Clinton left office in 2001. However, Podesta would not be done with Democratic politics, as he founded the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank dedicated to "bold, progressive ideas, as well as strong leadership and concerted action," according to its website.   

He would return to the White House in 2008 as a counselor on then-President-elect Barack Obama's transition team. Podesta worked as an official counselor to Obama from 2014 to 2015. Following this, he became the chair of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, where he memorably addressed the crowd on the night of her loss to Donald Trump. 

In September 2022, Biden appointed Podesta as his senior adviser for clean energy innovation and implementation. The president said in a statement that Podesta's "experience at senior levels of government [means] we can truly hit the ground running to take advantage of the massive clean energy opportunity in front of us." 

Biden then appointed Podesta to succeed Kerry this January. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement that Podesta will play "a lead role in restoring U.S. domestic leadership on climate, including leading the administration's implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act."

Podesta's role as climate adviser

Sullivan's statement said that Podesta is a "key architect of turning President Biden's bold vision – that tackling the climate crisis also represents the single biggest economic opportunity of our time – into a reality here at home." 

Podesta is a "passionate veteran of the federal government’s efforts to fight climate change," said The New York Times, and someone who urged President Clinton to embrace the cause during Clinton's administration. With prodding from Podesta, the Clinton White House's green initiatives included "promoting Everglades restoration, protecting vast areas of the national forests from commercial exploitation, saving redwood forests in California and establishing a dozen or so major national monuments by presidential proclamation." Podesta also continued these green initiatives when he returned to the White House with Obama, for whom, according to the Times, he was "an architect" of that administration's climate change agenda. 

In his role as Biden's senior adviser for clean energy innovation and implementation, Podesta has championed similar causes and has been tasked with the rollout of the $375 billion climate law signed by Biden in 2022. Kerry's role was specifically created by Biden to help fight climate change on a global scale, and it is likely that Podesta's role as a "green diplomat" will be similar. 

Podesta is expected to take on his new role this spring when Kerry departs. In a twist, he will not have Kerry's title. While Biden was able to unilaterally name Kerry as his climate envoy in 2021, a new law passed in 2022 now requires special envoys to receive Senate approval. To get around this, Podesta's official title will be senior adviser to the president for international climate policy.

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