US climate envoy John Kerry spars in heated exchanges with House Republicans ahead of Beijing trip

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FILE - U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the U.S. Consulate General after the G-7 ministers' meeting on climate, energy and environment in Sapporo, northern Japan, April 16, 2023. Kerry defended his negotiations with China, and angrily rebuffed what he called a stupid lie that he routinely travels by private jet, during a grilling by House Republicans on Thursday, July 13, before he sets out on his next climate mission to Beijing. (AP Photo/Hiro Komae, File)

WASHINGTON – U.S. climate envoy John Kerry defended his negotiations with China — and angrily rebuffed what he called a “stupid” lie that he routinely travels by private jet — during a grilling by House Republicans on Thursday before he sets out on his next climate mission to Beijing.

Kerry leaves Sunday for meetings with his counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, the first extensive face-to-face climate discussions between the world’s two worst climate polluters after a nearly yearlong hiatus.

The questioning in Thursday's hearing by the Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee's oversight subcommittee underscored the risks for Kerry that rising tensions between the two rival countries will stymie progress in what scientists stress are essential cuts in fossil fuel emissions over this decade.

Republicans' questioning of Kerry on his climate diplomacy at times broke down into challenging the existence of the scientifically established fact of climate change and openly insulting the former secretary of state, who is a longtime target of political hardliners.

In the most heated confrontation, Republican Rep. Scott Perry accused Kerry of drumming up a “problem that doesn't exist” in global warming. When Kerry asked why the world's scientists and the 195 global governments behind the Paris climate accord would make up global warming, Perry responded, “Because they're grifting, like you are," drawing gasps from lawmakers.

But with Republicans as well as Democrats overall accepting the science underlying the warming climate, much of Thursday's criticism from GOP committee members zeroed in on the appropriateness of the U.S. engaging in climate negotiations with China. They cited China's record of human rights abuses and what lawmakers described as China's evasiveness in refusing to make bigger cuts in climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions.

“They’re not an honest broker when it comes to addressing emissions. They fire a coal plant up pretty much every day, if not week,” said Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Republican lawmakers faulted China's insistence that it was still a developing economy and should not be held to the same climate standards as developed Western economies, and China's suspected use of forced labor of ethnic minorities in making solar panel components.

Kerry responded that the clear disparity between China's claims and the size of its economy as the world's second biggest could not be allowed to deadlock global progress on cutting emissions. And as far as persuading China to hold itself to the same emissions-cutting requirements facing other big economies, "let me just be frank with you, that's not going to happen in this visit."

“But the Chinese government understands this is a growing issue of concern,” he said.

Kerry will be the third senior Biden administration official in recent weeks to travel to China for meetings with their counterparts there, after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

China broke off some mid- and high-level contacts with the Biden administration, including over climate issues, to show its anger with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's August trip to self-ruled Taiwan. China claims Taiwan as its territory. Other problems have rocked relations since then, including the transit across the U.S. of what Americans say was a Chinese spy balloon.

A stroke suffered by Xie, China's top climate diplomat, also helped stall U.S.-China climate discussions.

The Biden administration's aim with Beijing now is to achieve "stability, if we can, without conceding anything," Kerry told lawmakers.

“What we're trying to do is find ways we can cooperate to actually address the crisis” of climate, Kerry said, adding that China “is critical to our being able to solve this problem.”

Fireworks broke out again after Rep. Cory Mills, a Florida Republican, made a reference to claims that Kerry conducts his climate work by private jet, saying he hoped "it wasn’t too problematic for your operational team and your private jet to get here.”

Kerry singled that out as “one of the most outrageously persistent lies that I hear, which is this private jet.”

“I don't own a private jet. I personally have never owned a private jet,” Kerry said, adding that it was “pretty stupid” to talk about coming to Capitol Hill by private jet from his office at the State Department.

He said in his 2 1/2 years as climate envoy he had flown entirely on commercial air, with the exception of five military flights, and recalled no flights on private jets in that time. A family jet belonging primarily to his wife had been sold, he said, but did not say when.