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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Kerry: Climate is WMD

Air Date: Week of

Secretary of State John Kerry delivers his climate change address in Jakarta, Indonesia (photo: US State Department, public domain)

Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a fiery speech on climate change on February 16 in Jakarta, Indonesia, calling global warming a weapon of mass destruction. Jennifer Morgan, Director of the World Resources Institute’s Climate Change program tells host Steve Curwood that the speech shows that the United States is taking international climate negotiations more seriously headed into the 2015 UNFCCC climate treaty conference in Paris.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Obama Administration is continuing its aggressive drive on climate change. This month President Obama ordered the EPA to develop tough fuel economy rules for trucks, and called on Congress to approve a $1 billion climate resilience fund to help communities adapt to the effects of climate disruption - think droughts and sea level rise. And Secretary of State John Kerry stepped up efforts to get a strong international agreement to reduce global warming emissions during his trip to China and Indonesia. The Chinese, he said, have agreed to collaborate with the US in developing policies for a strong UN treaty to be completed next year in Paris, and the two nations have already settled on a number of key points.

KERRY: Make no mistake, this is real progress. The US and China are the world's two largest economies, we are two of the largest consumers of energy and we are two of the world's largest emitters of global greenhouse gasses. Together we account for roughly 40 percent of the world's emissions.

CURWOOD: But without the rest of the world participating, Secretary Kerry said, a climate treaty would be meaningless. Right after he left China, he went to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he spoke for 45 minutes and used stark language in his call for world action.

KERRY: Think about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It doesn't keep us safe if the United States secures our nuclear arsenal while other countries let theirs fall into the hands of terrorists. We all have to approach this challenge together, which is why altogether we are focused on Iran and its nuclear program, we’re focused on North Korea and its threat. The bottom line is this: it is the same thing with climate change. And in a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.

CURWOOD: But it's not all disaster, Secretary Kerry remarked. There are also tremendous opportunities in addressing climate change, a potential $6 trillion in new investments to be made and profited from.

KERRY: The solution to climate change is as clear as the problem. The solution is making the right choices on energy policy. It’s as simple as that, and with a few smart choices, we can ensure that clean energy is the most attractive investment in the global energy sector.

CURWOOD: In his speech, Secretary Kerry also promised Indonesia a third of a billion dollars for climate action, and agreed to a "debt for nature" swap to help conserve its tropical forests. To put Secretary Kerry’s trip and speech into context, we turn now to Jennifer Morgan. She’s Director of the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute and a frequent guest on our show. She says Secretary Kerry probably chose Indonesia as the venue for this major speech because it's central to climate discussions.
MORGAN: Indonesia is tremendously vulnerable to climate change. It’s an archipelago of 17,000 islands. It has a significant agricultural population. If you think about sea level rise, if you think about storms and think of a farming dependent rural economy, they’re highly vulnerable. At the same time, they’re the third largest emitter in the world from their deforestation, and also from their energy emissions. So here you have a country that is very vulnerable, but also a big part of the solution, so I think in some ways it’s a snapshot of all of the challenges and opportunities in one country.

CURWOOD: And I would think that he really wants to get the Indonesians on board the initiative he seems to be pushing now with China as well.

MORGAN: Yes; I mean Indonesia plays a politically important role globally because of their space in the political picture of emerging economies with growing emissions and how you can work together so they can meet their economic goals, but actually be on a positive side on the climate fight.

CURWOOD: In some respects in this speech, Secretary Kerry stepped out further than the President has been willing to go on climate change. I mean the rhetoric of calling climate change a weapon of mass destruction is kind of powerful. It almost reminds me of Vice President Biden speaking out on same-sex marriage before the President did.

MORGAN: Well, I think the Secretary put this in very stark terms and hopefully in a way people can understand. I think there’s a growing understanding and the President is certainly out there on the impacts to the United States, whether it be from the droughts, whether it be from storms, but putting this as a weapon of mass destruction I hope will provide a bigger wake up call for Americans and citizens all around the world of just what’s at stake.

CURWOOD: Now, Secretary Kerry made a strong point of saying the US can’t do this alone, deal with climate; that if everyone in the US carpooled or biked and used renewable power, if the rest of the world didn’t change, we’d still be in a lot of trouble. Why do you think he put that in his speech?

MORGAN: Well, I think there’s this debate internationally about who has to do what, and over history there’s been a very big focus in the Kyoto protocol and other treaties that had industrialized countries like the US lead and take action first. And where the negotiations are right now is trying to look at what every country can do, based on what it’s capable of doing to try and solve the problem. I don’t think, though, he can get away with the fact that the world looks to the US to see what it is doing in order to address its own emissions, and there’s still a huge amount that we can do at home that will both pave the way but also bring opportunity for the United States moving forward. So it is global, but the US is still the number one historic emitter in the world.

CURWOOD: Now, what can Secretary Kerry do in his role as Secretary of State in terms of what happens regarding climate change in this country?

MORGAN: Well, the President and the administration is moving forward on enacting regulations on the power sector and on cars and trucks. But I think what Secretary Kerry can really do is connect these dots. I mean, the United States is vulnerable. We are experiencing these impacts. We need a global agreement to solve the problem, and in order to get the United States to move forward with a global agreement, we need American businesses on board, we need American foreign policy experts on board, we need the public on board, and I think with his passion and his understanding, he can help bring the United States into a global agreement in a way that makes sense, and it’s very clear that it’s in US national interests to do so.

CURWOOD: Now, President Obama has talked about an all-of-the-above energy strategy, but Secretary Kerry emphasized the need for governments to stop subsidizing and developing fossil fuels. Let’s take a listen.

KERRY: Coal and oil are currently cheap ways to power a society, at least in the near term, but I urge governments to measure the full cost of that coal and that oil, measure the impacts of what will happen as we go down the road. You cannot simply factor in the immediate costs of energy needs. You have to factor in the long-term costs of carbon pollution, and they have to factor in the cost of survival, and if they do, then governments will find that the costs of pursuing clean energy now is far cheaper than paying for the consequences of climate change later.

CURWOOD: So, someone listening to that speech might say, on the one hand, Secretary Kerry says we need to transition to clean energy, but then on the other hand, he may well help approve the Keystone XL - that’s a project that would support the development of a particularly dirty source of fuel.

MORGAN: Well, Keystone and approving Keystone would definitely not be consistent with understanding that climate change is similar to a weapon of mass destruction. So I think there needs to be an assessment of how to be consistent across the board and a moment of leadership is coming.

CURWOOD: Which way do you think the Secretary might be leaning on Keystone with such forceful language about climate?

MORGAN: Oh, good question. I think it’s going to be a deep personal dilemma for him, having such a deep understanding of what’s at stake and yet having this big decision in front of him. I hope that he listens to his heart.

CURWOOD: Now in 2015, the global climate negotiations are expected to come up with a major deal, a major agreement to address climate change and I guess a meeting at the end of this year in Peru as part of the preparation for that. How well prepared is the United States to deal with these negotiations at this point?

MORGAN: Well, the US interestingly just last week tabled its version of what it thinks this agreement should look like, and the core elements of that agreement. I think that the US is actually pretty well prepared on thinking through the key issues. I think the additional piece that’s needed is really to be thinking about where the economy needs to go after 2020, which is what this agreement is about. How do we build in a low-carbon economy that has growth in renewables and energy efficiency so that we can send a signal to the world that this is the pathway that the US is going and that they should join in.

CURWOOD: By the way, how important are these upcoming negotiations in your view?

MORGAN: I think these negotiations, they are very important. In some ways, it’s a bit different than it’s been in the past though. You have one key component, which is - every country needs to bring forward their offer of what it will do after 2020 to tackle climate change. And then on top of that, you have a negotiation about what architecture does that get plugged into? How do we build an agreement that can spiral up ambition moving forward? And I think from a multilateral perspective, this is just a fundamental moment and hopefully can be a turning point where the world’s countries can come together and show that they really understand what’s at stake.

CURWOOD: Jennifer Morgan is Director of the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute. Thanks for joining us, Jennifer.

MORGAN: Thank you.



Watch Kerry's speech here

Jennifer Morgan, World Resources Institute

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