John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate
World Economic Forum, Davos 2021
Mobilizing Action on Climate Change
Host Børge Brende, President World Economic Forum Geneva: I am so delighted to welcome former secretary of state and special presidential envoy for climate, my dear friend John Kerry. John has been a leader on climate change for decades. One of the crowning achievements that I saw myself was of course was his role as one of the key architects of the Paris Climate Accord. President Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the accord on his first day in office. A testament to this administration’s commitment to prioritize climate action. Secretary Kerry knows that tackling the climate crisis will require allegiances across political divides and will need to include both the public and private sector. Which is why, as we all remember in 2019, he co-founded World War Zero together with Republican Governor John Kasich to work in a bipartisan and multi-stakeholder way to tackle climate change. Secretary Kerry, John, he will serve in the President’s cabinet and on the National Security Council, showing really that the administration considers climate change as a national security concern and the need of global cooperation to turn the tide. So happy to see you. John, the floor is yours. Go ahead.
Secretary Kerry: Well Børge thank you, very, very much. First of all, thank you for the invitation. Thank you for a very generous introduction. May I say you have become a great friend and as Norway’s foreign minister, you are always an extraordinary partner to all of us. You’re a great collaborator and in your own right, a great renowned leader on climate change and ocean conservation which I personally benefited from enormously the impact of your advocacy when you came to Washington for your first ocean’s conference so thank you for that. You were literally a great tag team partner then and you brought the same determination and vision to your work at the helm of the World Economic Forum and we thank you. Congratulations on making the conference a success even during a global pandemic. The scenery has kind of changed, but I think everyone would agree that the focus is the same and you are busy breaking down the silos and bringing sectors and stakeholders together to find the synergies on critical issues.
Obviously, I think nothing fits the bill for doing that more than global climate change. It’s been at the top of your global risks report for a number of years now. Three years ago, scientists starkly warned us that we had twelve years in which to make decisions to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. Now, already, we are down to nine years left. And we are into the decisive decade for action and the evidence of urgency is literally all around us.
I know it’s easy to get a little bit barraged by it all and almost numb to the warnings. But over Christmas, I read an article by Michael Benson that ought to stop every single one of us in our tracks. He examined photographs from geostationary satellites and piecing- you could see huge plumes of smoke when you saw these pictures from Australia’s fires with I quote him “flame vortexes spiraling two hundred feet into the year passing New Zealand and stretching thousands of miles into the cobalt Pacific.” And there in plain sight was the result of a disaster so vast that it had already consumed fifteen million acres, a figure that then would rise to 46 million, and in the end Australia’s fires killed dozens of people, destroyed 5,900 buildings, and quite likely according to the best science, rendered some of the country’s endangered species extinct. Benson summed it up, “With shocking iconographic precision, that unfurling banner of smoke said, ‘The war has started, we’re losing.’”
So, in the United States, three storms two years ago – Irma, Harvey, and Maria – cost us 265 billion dollars just to clean up after them. Last year, one storm, $55 billion dollars. Yet in stark contrast, we don’t fully fund our Paris commitment of $100 billion a year mobilized for poor nation adaptation and mitigation. So, we are here now in this moment, not just because we understand the urgency, or because we understand the moral imperative, we are here because we know we can’t afford to lose any longer. And action is the one moral, economic, and scientific imperative worth contemplating.
Let me just say to you, President Biden is totally committed to this fight. He understands what we are up against. And that’s why he ran on the most ambitious and comprehensive climate platform of any presidential candidate in U.S. history. It’s why he made “Building Back Better – and investing in clean energy and clean transportation to create millions of jobs – he made it a pillar of his campaign and now a centerpiece of his presidency.
It’s the reason today, one week into the job, the president, President Biden, will sign another series of executive orders that continue to advance his climate agenda. First, making climate central to foreign policy planning and national security preparedness by creating platforms to coordinate climate action across all federal agencies and departments, by directing his administration to develop a U.S. climate finance plan, as well as a plan for ending international financing of fossil fuel projects with public money, and moving to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, and by hosting a leaders summit less than three months from now on Earth Day, April 22nd. It is also obviously why we rejoined the Paris Agreement just hours after being sworn in as President.
It’s fair to say that he knows we don’t have a single moment to waste. I think all the member of this panel understand that. He also knows that Paris alone is not enough. Not when almost 90% of global emissions comes from outside of U.S. borders as it does for most countries in the world. So domestic action cannot possibly be enough if we don’t together forge an international strategy to galvanize the world to drive greater ambition from every country, every sector and ensure that the clean energy future we need is global in scope and scale. The whole world has to come to this table to solve the problem.
So, we rejoin the international climate effort with humility – and I mean that – and ambition. Humility because we know we wasted four years in which we were inexcusably absent. Humility knowing that today almost no country, and for certain, no continent is getting the job done. But we reenter with ambition knowing that the COP in Glasgow in November all nations have to raise our sights together or we all fail together. Our goal in Glasgow is to see all major emitting countries together raise ambition – to not be content with goals thirty years from now but to lay out roadmaps with benchmarks starting this year to acknowledge gaps where they exist, but to show how we get there. Because we need technology breakthroughs and critically, we need to put forward real finance plans to bring the whole world along. Failure is obviously not an option.
That is why ambition is so important because success will actually bring enormous reward in countless measures. We have to get away from this argument that deniers and procrastinators have made that this is a choice between a quality of life or taking care of this challenge. Success means tapping into the best of global ingenuity, creativity, and diplomacy. From brain power to alternative energy power, using every tool we have to get where we need to go. A zero emissions future offers remarkable opportunity for business, for clean, green jobs, for economic growth. To use the President’s words, to ‘build back better’ from the global economic crisis.
Just a few quick examples to demonstrate what this opportunity really is. The highest-valued auto company in the world today is Tesla, and it only makes electric vehicles. Mitsubishi is building the world’s largest zero emissions steel plant in Austria. Heidelberg Cement is working on a plant in Norway that anticipates capturing all of its CO2 from concrete by 2030. Globally, the cheapest new electric power plant you can install is based on renewables which explains why it now makes up more than 70% of all new capacity. And green economies are going to generate a remarkable number of new jobs. The EU anticipates 2 million new jobs. Here in the U.S. until COVID we had 5 years of steady growth in clean energy employment with over 3.3 million workers put into jobs across our country. India has seen a fivefold increase in clean energy jobs over the same period. And that’s just a taste of the marketplace without limits that awaits us if we get serious.
The bottom line, my friends, is, I don’t think anyone can say- I mean individual countries have been serious, individual companies have been serious, but as a world we have yet to be really serious and do what we need to do. And according to most of the recent statistics, emissions globally rose over the years since Paris. And while 2020 obviously saw a small dip because of COVID, they are now again on the rise, and everybody expects a quick rebound unless much more stringent policies are put in place.
To be on track and accomplish this, even with a 66% probability of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees, we need to cut global emissions in half by 2030. What does that mean? It means we have to phase out coal five times faster than we have been. It means we have to increase tree cover five times faster. It means we have to ramp up renewable energy six times faster. It means we have to transition to electric vehicles at a rate 22 times faster. All of that is achievable if we plan, if we invest, and if we tap the forces of the marketplace. Can we do it? We actually can. But not unless we summon greater political will, not unless we harness the full energy of the marketplace, not unless we ask the private sector to help our financial institutions mobilize essential trillions in the innovation and the finance that we need.
I believe that’s achievable and like all of you, I cannot wait to bring us all together, get us together at whatever fora it is, anywhere in the world. There are many of them that are going to take place. We all have to work together, this is a matter of multilateral leadership, not any one country or any one group of people. We all are committed to working with Alok and the British and Italian presidencies and making Glasgow exactly what it needs to be where we have portfolios that add up to net zero emissions, and I can’t wait to be at it with everybody. Thank you.