Former Kerry aide named to NSC climate post

Source: By Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Melanie Nakagawa will become the top climate staffer on the White House National Security Council, working on everything from the U.S. return to the Paris Agreement to President-elect Joe Biden’s objective of integrating climate change into all aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

Like many of Biden’s top foreign policy picks, Nakagawa has a long association with former Secretary of State John Kerry, whom Biden has tapped for a new presidential special envoy role on climate change. Kerry will have Cabinet-level status and a seat on the NSC, while Nakagawa will hold the title of senior director of climate change and energy.

Nakagawa worked closely with Kerry both as deputy assistant secretary of State on energy transformation and, years earlier, as his lead climate and energy staffer when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“She obviously has Secretary Kerry’s complete confidence and trust and has worked with him and knows what he needs and how to help him make the achievements he wants to make, so I think it’s a good fit and a good choice,” said Alden Meyer, an independent climate consultant.

Nakagawa worked on a wide range of issues at the State Department, including climate finance. But her final role at the agency focused on bilateral and multilateral partnerships and on helping countries implement their decarbonization commitments, such as reforming their power grids to bring more renewable energy online. When the Obama administration ended, she became the climate lead at Princeville Capital, a growth equity fund, where she worked with governments to expand investment in green technology.

Those who worked with her in the Obama administration say Nakagawa’s expertise in implementation and markets issues will be particularly valuable in an era where accelerated action has eclipsed multilateral negotiation.

“The Biden team can’t just pick up where Obama left off,” said Paul Bodnar, who held the NSC senior director for climate and energy position in President Obama’s administration.

“The challenge in the next few years is not to go back and focus again on U.N. negotiations, but to use U.S. leadership to help curate a set of the most important climate action initiatives that nations can work together on,” said Bodnar, who is now managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute. “So it really helps to have someone who has kind of been working in the private sector on the practicalities.”

Ricardo Nogueira, a former senior climate finance official who worked with Nakagawa during her time at the State Department and who has advised the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund, said Nakagawa has gained substantial experience in her time working at Princeville Capital.

That included navigating government-backed banks and lending institutions such as the Green Climate Fund — which backs adaption and clean energy projects in poor countries, but with substantial strings attached on transparency and impact.

“I think sometimes people in government who haven’t had to do that understand concepts and the difficulties and the barriers theoretically. She must at this point feel it on her skin,” said Nogueira, who is senior adviser at the Pollination Group.

“If she had been selected for a role like this four years ago, it would have been a good pick,” he added. “Four years since then, with this experience outside government … it’s a great choice.”

An early test of the Biden administration will be how it plans to supply the $2 billion in Obama-era pledges to the Green Climate Fund that the Trump administration reneged on — and whether it might promise more. Early clues are likely to be in Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget, but Nakagawa would have a hand in that too.

Nakagawa also could work with Kerry on Biden’s promised summit this spring aimed at amplifying global climate ambition. And experts say she likely will play a role in mainstreaming climate change into policy and planning at the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies with missions related to foreign policy, security or trade.