SCOTT BASE, Antarctica — A group of hikers in red parkas approached a half-dozen seals resting on floating sea ice. The leader of the entourage — Secretary of State John Kerry — raised his arms and ordered everyone to halt.
As an ethereal silence descended, Kerry cocked his head in the stillness of one of the world’s last truly wild places.
In that moment, the frozen landscape seemed timeless, but it is actually in grave peril, as Kerry had been told by scientists only minutes before. The ice across large parts of West Antarctica may be starting to disintegrate because of global warming, and if it goes, the world’s coastal cities face destruction, too.
The presence of Kerry, the highest-ranking U.S. government official ever to visit Antarctica, boosted the morale of scientists working to understand the icebound continent. Yet the visit, at the end of last week, was shadowed by anxiety.
In his nearly four years as secretary of state, Kerry has hurled himself into conservation issues, making them a central focus of U.S. diplomacy and winning a string of ambitious deals to limit global warming and protect the oceans.
But with last week’s election results, the prospect looms that Donald Trump will rip up the Obama administration’s work — and throw global efforts against climate change into confusion.
Kerry and the aides traveling with him to Antarctica, many of them young liberal Democrats, were not expecting Trump to win. The trip began a day before the election, and Kerry had confidently predicted a Hillary Clinton victory.
He was flying over the South Pacific toward New Zealand the next day when the results began to come in. His aides rushed around the plane, shocked at some of the states Clinton was losing.
The results were not definitive until he was in his hotel room that night in Christchurch. In an interview the next evening, and in a series of chats on the trip, Kerry trod carefully, declining to offer any direct criticism of Trump.
He and his aides plan to welcome the Trump appointees who will soon run the State Department, hoping to build relationships with them and, possibly, persuade them to keep some of Kerry’s diplomatic deals.
But Kerry also made clear that as soon as he leaves office Jan. 20, he will rejoin the political struggle over climate change, speaking publicly on the issue and perhaps campaigning against members of Congress who dispute the validity of climate science.
“I’m ready to continue to fight,” Kerry said. “We’ve made too much progress.”
On Wednesday, in Marrakech, Morocco, Kerry is expected to urge delegates at a U.N. climate conference to redouble their efforts to limit emissions.
The world’s climate diplomats are intensely worried that under Trump, the U.S. will renege on its commitments, potentially leading to a collapse of the global political will to tackle the problem. Kerry can make no promises that will bind the Trump administration.
After a campaign in which Trump made little more than broad-brush pronouncements on climate and energy, the details of the president-elect’s policies remain largely unknown. But he has described climate science as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to undermine the U.S. economy, and his electoral coalition includes climate change denialists who are likely to press him to abandon U.S. commitments on the issue.
Myron Ebell, a libertarian who is Trump’s choice to lead the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency — which the president-elect has vowed to dismantle — has long dismissed concerns about global warming and has called prominent climate scientists “alarmists.” Ebell has said that the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, one of the Obama administration’s signature climate efforts, is illegal.
Kerry’s tenure as secretary of state has been the capstone of a career working on environmental protection. In 1970, as a veteran just back from the Vietnam War, he helped organize Massachusetts events for the first Earth Day, a mobilization that sent 20 million people into the streets across the country.
In decades as a senator from Massachusetts, he urged the U.S. government to tackle global warming but won only a handful of legislative goals, including tougher efficiency standards for cars.
His State Department tenure, by contrast, has featured diplomatic achievements including a deal in Paris last year to limit emissions from fossil-fuel burning and forest destruction, and separate pacts to reduce certain other greenhouse gases, limit emissions from airplanes and protect enormous swaths of the ocean.
“If global climate change keeps moving at the pace it is, there are going to be climate refugees, there are going to be climate conflicts, there are going to be food conflicts,” Kerry said.
In his years as secretary of state, Kerry turned up at obscure negotiating sessions where he was by far the most senior diplomat in the room. He cajoled the leaders of Russia, China, India and other countries.
He won cooperation from China, helping to spur the Paris deal. The meeting in Marrakech is supposed to be a major step toward putting it into practice.
As he approached Antarctica on Friday, Kerry, an experienced pilot, rode in the cockpit of the C-17 Globemaster cargo plane transporting his entourage, one of the regular flights from New Zealand to Antarctica run by the U.S. Air Force.
In the cockpit, he recounted lobbying President Vladimir Putin of Russia to help win protection, just weeks ago, for 600,000 square miles of the Ross Sea, off the Antarctic coast.
As the plane steered toward the U.S. logistics base at McMurdo Station, Kerry looked down at the stretch of ocean he had helped to preserve.
Over two days, he hiked for hours, listening to scientists explain evidence that the Antarctic landscape is undergoing profound change.
He lingered to discuss a project led by John Stone of the University of Washington, who was at McMurdo Station preparing for a journey to haul drilling apparatus into the frozen wilderness.
“What’s been observed in the West Antarctic ice sheet that’s so alarming now?” Kerry asked.
Stone showed him maps of glaciers that are being weakened by warmer ocean water, possibly indicating an incipient destabilization of the ice sheet, which scientists believe is vulnerable to collapse in a slightly warmer climate.
Stone plans to drill through the ice into rock to establish the last time much of West Antarctica melted, a potential clue to the amount of global warming it will take to cause another collapse, which could raise the global sea level by 10-15 feet.
“We know that sea level has been higher in the past,” Stone said as they gazed at the maps. “But sea level doesn’t tell you where the ice sheets were melting and what melted, and it doesn’t so easily tell you how fast it all happened.”
Kerry was also fascinated by Antarctic wildlife. On his first day, flying by helicopter to see the spectacular geology of an ice-free region called the McMurdo Dry Valleys, his group was accosted by a lone Adélie penguin. The secretary of state whipped out his phone and filmed the creature.
“Come on, walk up here, buddy!” Kerry said. The penguin hesitated, then did exactly that.
Lumbering Weddell seals — lolling about on the sea ice near Scott Base, the New Zealand government’s research facility — showed less interest. They barely lifted their heads to sniff the air as Kerry’s group approached.
Flying back to New Zealand, Kerry seemed invigorated. The task now for people worried about climate change is to create a widespread movement that politicians cannot ignore, he said. While the first Earth Day is remembered for those millions of marchers, he noted that many legislative victories did not come until the newly energized environmental movement targeted recalcitrant senators for defeat in the 1972 election.
“It was the losing of seats that moved people,” Kerry said. “You have to translate it into political fear.”