John Kerry on Climate Change: The Fight of Our Time

The secretary of state discusses the challenges that lie ahead at the United Nations Climate Summit

Secretary of State John Kerry outside the U.S. Embassy in Paris a few days after the attacks in November. Credit: DOMINIQUE FAGET/Getty

On a rainy day in mid-November, Secretary of State John Kerry stood on the bridge of the USS San Antonio, a state-of-the-art ship designed to deliver up to 800 Marines ashore via helicopters and landing craft. From the bridge, Kerry had a commanding view of Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world: aircraft carriers to the left, battleships to the right, a panorama of military power – and one that is rapidly sinking beneath the rising waters of Chesapeake Bay.

As Navy officials told Kerry in an informal briefing aboard the San Antonio, the base was highly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Already, roads connecting the base to the city of Norfolk, Virginia, flood during major rainstorms. At high tide, water surges over the sea walls, threatening key infrastructure and inundating buildings. Kerry, dressed in a sharp blue suit and pink-orange tie, asked the officers about the life expectancy of the base. "Twenty to 50 years," Capt. J. Pat Rios told him.

There was a slight but perceptible pause among the naval officers and State Department officials on the bridge. It was an extraordinary moment in the annals of American military history: A U.S. naval captain had just told the secretary of state that this strategically important base, home to six aircraft carriers and key to operations in Europe and the Middle East, would be essentially inoperable in as little as 20 years. Yes, they could shore up the sea walls for a while. Yes, they could raise roads. But without the massive influx of billions of dollars to fortify and elevate the city of Norfolk, as well as the roads and railroads that connect it to the surrounding region, the base was doomed.

Kerry asked a few follow-up questions about what was being done now to buy more time, but he hardly seemed perturbed. Part of the reason for that may have been that this daylong tour was a brief diversion from his larger nightmares in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, which were underscored three days later by the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people. But a larger part of the reason was that the troubles at the naval base were hardly news to Kerry. He has been talking about the national-security implications of climate change for years. But now, reality is starting to catch up with him. Recent studies have shown that the war in Syria was likely exacerbated by drought and famine. The flood of refugees that is overrunning Europe is offering the world a glimpse of what will happen as the globe heats up. The rapidly thawing Arctic, with its fossil-fuel riches, has become a playground for Russia and China. Nobody has done a better job of adding up what all this means than John Kerry. In fact, in Kerry's mind, the troubled future of Naval Station Norfolk, the refugee chaos in Europe, the rise of Islamic terrorism and the grinding war in Syria are all accelerated and complicated by our collective failure to take meaningful action to reduce carbon pollution and minimize the impacts of climate change.

As secretary of state, Kerry has accomplished a great deal, including a historic arms deal with Iran. He has also had notable failures, including an attempt to broker a peace deal in the Middle East that fell apart at the last minute. At 72, Kerry has a stamina and appetite for negotiation that are epic. His aides like to point out he has flown nearly 1 million miles since taking office in early 2013. The patrician aloofness that sometimes kept him from connecting with crowds during his 2004 presidential run is not a problem on the diplomatic circuit. "He was born to be secretary of state," says Heather Zichal, a longtime Kerry aide who went on to become President Obama's climate and energy adviser during his first term.

In the climate wars, however, Kerry is a forgotten soldier. Al Gore won all the glory (and the ridicule), and President Obama has the muscle. But the truth is, no one has done more in the trenches of this battle than Kerry. He has been in the fight since the first Earth Day, in 1970, and has not let up since, participating in practically every climate conference and U.N. climate meeting in the past 30 years. It helps that he is from an environmentally conscious state like Massachusetts, but his interest in climate change has been anything but politically expedient – he did not shy away from talking about it when he ran for president in 2004, even when pollsters told him it was foolish. He pushed hard for cap-and-trade legislation in Obama's first term (and, despite Obama's less-than-full-fledged support, might have gotten it done had not his pal Sen. John McCain, long a supporter of action on climate change, gone MIA on the issue after he lost the 2008 election). As secretary of state, Kerry was one of the prime movers behind last year's historic U.S.-China deal, in which China agreed to significant carbon reductions and which helped break the bottleneck in U.N. climate negotiations. (I traveled for several days with Kerry in China last year while he was working on a trade agreement with the country, and was astonished by how he opened every meeting, no matter what the subject or who the Chinese officials were, with a few words about the urgency of climate change.)

After touring the base in Norfolk, Kerry gave a speech at Old Dominion University that tried to sum up the connections between climate change and national security. "The bottom line is that the impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict, especially in places already undergoing economic, political and social stress," Kerry said. "And because the world is so extraordinarily interconnected today – economically, technologically, militarily, in every way imaginable – instability anywhere can be a threat to stability everywhere." Kerry's audience was not just the several hundred Virginia dignitaries and students gathered at Old Dominion, but also Republicans in Congress who were gearing up to derail the upcoming U.N. climate talks in Paris, which both Kerry and Obama see as an important turning point in the fight against climate change. In effect, Kerry was saying to climate deniers in Congress: If Paris fails, terrorists win.

In Norfolk, Kerry and I talked in the VIP lounge at the base before his tour of the complex, and then again during his flight back to Washington, D.C., on a government-issue refurbished 757, which he shares with other top Obama officials. As we talked, Kerry took his coat off and picked at a bowl of fresh fruit, his voice hoarse after a long day. He looked exhausted, his face more drawn than usual; talking to him, it was hard not to feel the weight of the world. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, we caught up again briefly by phone while he was on his way back from Vienna and Paris.

To most people, climate change is an environmental issue. It's something that affects trees and frogs and weather. Why should Americans think about climate change as a security issue?
Because it is. Sixteen members on the board of the Center for Naval Analysis, who are all flag officers – generals, admirals, three-star, four-star, retired – have all said this is a major threat multiplier. And there are many different ways in which a security challenge can emerge. You have drought, therefore, perhaps, huge food shortages. Where there is water today, there may not be in the future. That could cause mass migrations. That creates conflict. The water itself – there are wars over water. Already, tribes are fighting in part of the Sahel and other places where water once existed, and now it's dried up. There's a history of conflict where resources are finite or scarce.

So if you look around the world, the potential for mass dislocation is rising exponentially right now. We saw massive numbers of people uprooted in Syria and moving into Damascus. The drought in the region did not cause what happened, but it exacerbated what happened. It creates greater instability.

Were the Paris terrorist attacks further evidence of the link between climate change, global instability and terrorism?
Well, it certainly underscores the global nature of Daesh. It's not directly related to climate change, but it's part of the web of global interconnectedness – and it shows how one security challenge is a challenge for everybody.

A few months ago, during the Arctic summit in Alaska, you called the refugee crisis in Europe a preview of what's to come.
Everything is a preview right now, because the course we're on has created an inevitability to X amount of warming. And we're already into the mitigation component of our efforts on climate change, which is very scary because we're behind the curve in terms of what we need to keep it to 2 degrees Celsius, which is the tipping point of allowable warming. And we're just not making it. And we're not going to make it in Paris in terms of that, but that's not the objective. We understand that.

What we will do in Paris, I hope, is gather a head of steam with a message to the marketplace that is significant enough. If 150 nations are taking it seriously and setting targets, even if they don't make them, that will generate massive investment and a huge amount of private-sector activity. And then you have to hope that somebody comes up with clean-energy technology, which makes it competitive with fossil fuel, and then, boom, you get your low-carbon economy.

What impact did the Paris terrorist attacks have on the momentum for the climate talks?
If they have an impact, it will be that everybody realizes that you gotta get things done, not talk about them. So maybe there will be a little spill-over momentum. But the bigger impact will be on Syria and the counter-Daesh coalition.

In the past, when America's been faced with major security threats, we've mobilized in big ways. Think about what we did to prepare for World War II. With climate, we have done nothing on that scale. Basically, all we've done is try to mitigate emissions, and we haven't even done a very good job of that. If climate change is such a major threat to our security, shouldn't we be doing far more to combat it?
Well, we've done more than mitigate. President Obama has set up his Climate Action Plan. It is not mitigation; it is geared to try to prevent the problem. We have a 26 to 28 percent target for reductions by 2030. We're looking at 2050 goals now. We've upped the requirements on trucks, upped the requirements on cars. We've doubled efficiency. We've got efficiencies in our air conditioning. We've got the power-plant rule.

But you're absolutely correct. We do mobilize normally when we have this kind of threat, and that's why I'm here in Norfolk: to underscore that this is a national-security threat and we need a broader response.

But given the kind of global chaos you articulated – not to mention that we can foresee the end of cities like Miami as we know it within our children's lifetimes – it seems to me that we have a long way to go in really thinking about the scale of this threat.
We have a long way to go, because we still have people in the United States Senate who even deny its existence. And how do you mobilize your government in a democracy when part of your democratic process is gridlocked and frozen and, in some cases, ignorant?

Given your characterization of climate change as a national-security threat, when you look at what the Koch brothers and Exxon Mobil are doing – as you know, Exxon Mobil is being investigated by the New York state attorney general for lying to investors about what it knew about climate change—
Absolutely. It's tobacco – it's R.J. Reynolds all over again.

Given what's at stake, do you consider Exxon Mobil or the Koch brothers an enemy of the state?
Well, I'll leave it to other people to assign metaphors or allegories. I would prefer to try to build the consensus necessary, and we don't get there if we start accusing people of things. So we need to try to bring people into an understanding. I don't think we're going to do it with the Koch brothers. But I think that Exxon Mobil stands potentially to lose billions of dollars in what I would imagine would be one of the largest class-action lawsuits in history.

And would you support that?
Yes. I would support the investigation into what happened, and, based on the facts, I'd pursue the facts. You pursue the truth in this kind of a situation. But if indeed they were ignoring internal memos and proselytizing in direct opposition to what they were being advised, there's a certain culpability in that. It would be a very serious thing.

How do you feel as a human being about a company like Exxon Mobil profiting by misrepresenting its knowledge about the damage its product is doing to the planet?
Well, if it turns out to be true, I'd be outraged, furious. I mean, I would be as angry as I was about people selling cigarettes and pretending they don't know it gives them cancer. It's the same thing. It's immoral and incredibly damaging to everybody's global interests. It's a betrayal.

Well, it's pretty clear that they've been subverting the political debate for a long time. And you know this better than anybody.
I do. They have lobbied for their interest. I just don't know if they pushed aside, falsified and turned away from clear information they were given. I've read the articles that say that they did and were, and it has to be investigated. That's appropriate. But I can't draw a final conclusion about it.

Let's talk about Syria. You were on your way to Vienna to talk about a political solution in Syria when the attacks in Paris occurred. How did the attacks change the political dynamic?
Vienna has been a very significant demarcation point. Up until Vienna, we had a nonexistent political track, because Assad wasn't willing to negotiate, and because the Russians and the Iranians weren't taking it very seriously. The actions by Daesh in Ankara, the taking down of the Russian airplane, the attacks in Beirut and now Paris have underscored to a lot of people – hey, guys, we've got to solve Syria. We worked very hard to get the Iranians and the Saudis and the Russians in the same room, and the result was we have a dynamic where everybody has agreed, they want to save Syria as a unified country. They want to save Syria as a secular country. They want to have a Syria that protects all minorities. We set a date for the political process to both begin and to end – January 1st to begin, and six months to define a road map for the future. And everyone agreed that the issue of Assad would be raised within the context of that process. So that's a huge step.

The day after the terrorist attacks, the French began bombing in Syria, and the U.S. went after oil-supply lines. Given your hope for a political solution in Syria, what's the point of immediate retaliation?
Well, no matter what, we have to destroy ISIL. The political track is about Assad, and it is about Syria. ISIL remains the enemy of everybody. Even the Russians have realized that [destroying ISIL] is not so easy. They don't want to piss off every Sunni country. So the Russians have an incentive to try to work here. And hopefully what happens is we can get a transitional government that can invite countries to come and fight Daesh – and everyone can fight Daesh in a coordinated way. It's a very simple equation.

What does victory over Daesh, or ISIL, look like?
It's like Al Qaeda. You reduce it to a nuisance, where it's not a daily threat. It doesn't have operational capacity in a lot of countries. Its core leadership has been destroyed. It's been reduced in its ability to threaten countries. Obviously, you'll have a few radicals around, but you terminate its ability to have a core, a state, as well as revenue-raising, paying salaries, hiring people, attracting people and giving orders to people. All of that can come to an abrupt end if we get our act together.


Do you feel like that's possible?
Of course it's possible. Whether it happens or not is up to Iran and Russia.

How did these attacks change your talks, and the dynamic, with Iran and Russia?
It underscores for Russia that this is a mess. Russia thought it could just go in and in two weeks they could clean it all up. But now they've lost an airplane, and they've seen attacks outside the country – I think they know their own limits a little better. And they probably have more interest in trying to resolve this. I hope. It's very hard to be fighting for Assad, supporting Iran and Hezbollah, and then turn around and say to the Sunni world, "Hey, we want a relationship with you."

A few weeks ago, to no one's surprise, you finally rejected the Keystone XL pipeline. There had been a lot of protests and social activism around the pipeline—
I didn't notice it particularly.

All those rallies and protests had no impact on your decision?
I made my decision based on what I thought was the right thing to do. I didn't talk to anybody outside of the department. I didn't call any friend involved in the environmental movement. People I've known for years stayed away from me. Everybody was very careful, appropriately; they left me my space. I just decided I had to do this one on the merits, period.

So what does that say about the importance of environmental activism, then, if the largest climate protest action in recent memory had no impact?
Oh, it's very important. I just purposefully didn't pay attention to it. If I'd been a senator, I'd have heard it, or a congressman. But I'm not. I'm not voting; I'm deciding, and I wanted to decide on the basic facts. I knew it was out there and on both sides. But I just didn't pay attention. It was a conscious choice.

Let's talk more about the upcoming climate negotiations in Paris. It's very clear that we're not going to get an agreement that keeps us under the 2C level. And it's not going to be legally binding—
That's OK.

Because of this, you're going to face a lot of skepticism about how effective this deal will be. How will you sell this to the American people as a meaningful agreement?
The reality is when you get 150-plus countries signing on to hit targets, they all have to do something. I mean, they're not going to do nothing, believe me. And 20 of them will make a major impact – the major emitter group – and that's what it takes to get the job done.

But the message to the marketplace will be very significant, and the message to the local leaders and citizens generally will be an awakening, an awareness. Clearly, it is better to do that than nothing. And we're betting on the future here. We're betting on 2020, we're betting on 2025, 2030, 2050. There's still time within that framework if we do the right things. And I'm betting that technology – some entrepreneur, the next Elon Musk, the next Steve Jobs – somebody's out there who's going to come up with the battery storage or the fusion or whatever it's going to be, a cleaner nuke; I don't know what it's going to be. But so much energy is being concentrated in the context of America's amazing allocation of capital and brilliant innovation that something's going to break out at Berkeley or MIT or wherever the hell it's going to be, and technology, hopefully, will save us on this.

Well, a lot of people would argue that we have all the technology we need, we just don't have the policies to implement it.
Well, we can't force-feed. It's the old "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." People are going to quickly see there's money to be made here. This is the biggest market in the world.

There's a lot of skepticism in general about America's credibility on its emission pledges, based on what Congress is doing to rollback President Obama's Clean Power Plan, as well as other initiatives.
We're already reducing emissions. We've already done more than any other country. We're doing it through our executive orders, and we're doing it through the marketplace, and we're doing it through what cities are doing.

But depending on how things go in the 2016 election, a lot of this stuff could be reversed.
Well, yeah, you're right. There is concern. If I let concern stop me every day, I wouldn't get through the day, right? [Laughs] There was concern we couldn't do a deal with Iran. There was concern we couldn't get chemical weapons out of Syria. There was concern I couldn't get a government out of Afghanistan. We did them all. You can't let concerns stop you; they drive you and they motivate you.

And I'm plenty motivated on this. A lot of people are. And I think that even though it's not, quote, "legally binding" in the targets, countries will be very motivated to live up to their pledges and very motivated to prove they're a serious player. I don't think people want to be embarrassed by going to Paris and then walking away from everything. We're not going to, and I don't think China will either. China has to respond to this, because they've got a population problem, political problem, quality-of-life [problem]. Their leadership is reacting to a sense of instability in the government.

So they'll deal. It may not happen as fast and as much, but I think the evidence will mount. I think next year's evidence will be more compelling than this year's, and people are going to start pushing faster.

So what is your biggest concern going into Paris?
I think [resolving the division between the] developed-and-developing-country piece is important. I think loss and damage will be complicated.

Why is loss and damage, which compensates poor nations for damages from climate impacts, such a tough issue for the U.S.?
We're not against it. We're in favor of framing it in a way that doesn't create a legal remedy, because Congress will never buy into an agreement that has something like that, after witnessing what happened in Kyoto. If you really want to get something done, don't go down that road. Not rebelling against it in terms of whether we have some responsibility or not – the impact of it would be to kill the deal. And we don't want to do that.

Another thing that clearly won't happen in the Paris summit is any progress in putting a price on carbon pollution, which most economists agree is the most effective tool to cut emissions. Early in the Obama administration, you were a big supporter of cap-and-trade-emissions trading as a mechanism to put a price on carbon. Obviously, that failed. What do you see as the prospects for cap-and-trade in the near future?
Well, you're not going to have cap-and-trade in the U.S. I mean, that got tarnished. It's tragic because other countries have made it work. And, of course, it worked here in the U.S. for sulfur dioxide [a traditional air pollutant from burning fossil fuels]. And we used it to deal with the acid-rain problem. But branding is very powerful in modern politics, and cap-and-trade was negatively branded.

So will we ever get a price on carbon in America?
There are ways of doing it that could be accepted by people, and I think corporations themselves will help step up and make it happen. But for the moment, it's outside my diplomatic bailiwick.

You have said that the decision to confront climate change should be an easy choice, given the many advantages of clean energy. But clearly it is not. You've been involved in this fight to deal with climate change from the beginning. And you know as well as anyone that, by the only yardstick that matters, you have failed. Despite 30 years of talk and climate conferences, global CO2 levels are not even slowing down – they are just going up and up and up.
Because we're trying to turn around the largest oil tanker ever built.

Human civilization, you mean?
Yeah. And that is a very big challenge. We're taking on traditional economics. We're taking on traditional vested interests. We've made a lot of progress. It's quite extraordinary, frankly, that we've got so much happening right now. The challenge is not whether we'll respond. The question is whether we'll respond fast enough.