Remarks at the Atlantic Council

Jonathan Pershing
Special Envoy for Climate Change 
Washington, DC
October 25, 2016

Remarks as Prepared

The South Ferry-Whitehall subway station lies at the southern-most tip of Manhattan, where it offers access to the 1, N, and R lines. On October 29, 2012, 15 million gallons of saltwater poured into the South Ferry station from New York Harbor. Saltwater, mixed with raw sewage and debris, completely inundated and destroyed that station’s power system. The storm submerged the station under 80 feet of water, wrecking every mechanical system in the structure, including escalators, turnstiles and signal equipment.

The flooding of South Ferry station was one of the consequences of Superstorm Sandy, which largely immobilized the New York City subway system in late October of 2012. Nine of the city’s fourteen tunnels beneath the rivers flooded, unable to withstand the overwhelming 14-foot storm surge. The nation’s largest transit system in our largest city was crippled by a storm that, up until that point, few believed was possible. And the cost of the repair work to rehabilitate and reopen the South Ferry station will top 600 million dollars. Repairs continue to this day as the MTA and local and federal officials install removable flood control covers, raised concrete protective stairwell platforms, and inflatable plugs to prevent large-scale future inundation.

The New York City subway wasn’t built with Superstorm Sandy in mind though in fact New York City was better prepared for major storms events than most cities in its hemisphere, having devoted years of research and millions of dollars to bolster its resilience to a 100-year-flooding event. But Sandy represented a once in 700-year storm. And when it arrived, every vulnerability was laid bare. According to scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, climate change is partly to blame: "Warm seas likely played a role in amping up Superstorm Sandy. Additionally, the fact that sea level has risen due to climate change means that Sandy's surges were able to wash further inland."

Impacts to New York are only the tip of the iceberg of modern climate damages. Take the spread of the Zika virus. We know that mosquitos chiefly responsible for the spread of Zika – as well as West Nile Virus and dengue fever – cannot survive cold winters. Further, we know that that their reproductive cycle is accelerated significantly in warmer temperatures. While epidemiologists and global health experts are still assessing the complex factors driving the spread of Zika, they now agree that a changing climate is playing an indisputable role in the spread of mosquito-borne disease in North America. As colder regions warm and precipitation patterns shift, the mosquitos that carry Zika are increasingly able to expand their habitable range.

Of course, these kinds of events are not contained solely -- or even mostly -- within our borders. On a recent trip I took to Nigeria, officials there spoke of the impact of climate change on several of their most pressing national crises – including both the metastasizing threat of the terrorist group Boko Haram and land conflict between farmers and ranchers. In both cases, drought is the culprit. In the northern and central parts of country, it has led to the failure of subsistence farming in many communities -- and is driving recruits to Boko Haram. And in the central part of the country, those same droughts have forced cattle ranchers onto farms and into conflict with farmers.

While the origins of these problems can’t be exclusively laid at the foot of climate change; they’ve been made notably worse by climate change. And they will become worse still as warming continues.

If these stories represent the local and immediate effects of climate, the global statistics are no less daunting: 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. The Arctic ice sheet has hit new record lows for coverage – not only an indication of rapid warming, but an accelerator of it, as the ice and snow cover that used to bounce heat back into space disappears. Sea levels have risen an average of 9 inches over the last century, and the pace is accelerating. Hurricane intensity and energy has increased by 70 percent in recent decades. Our oceans have warmed at rate of roughly one-half-degree Celsius -- or nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit -- per decade for the last 30 years.

And these statistics are only a few among countless others.

However, climate change is a problem that DOES have solutions. It will demand collaboration and cooperation across borders, as no single nation, no matter how determined its leaders, can turn back these global forces on its own. But driven by this ever-more apparent threat, the global community has begun to rise to the challenge. And not a moment too soon.

In December of 2015, 195 countries came together in the suburbs of Paris in search of common ground to help solve this problem. And by any measure, they clearly succeeded.

As the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, I’m responsible for representing the United States across a number of international climate negotiations. But I cannot claim the credit for our success in Paris. Credit for that is due to my predecessor, Todd Stern, who ably led the U.S. team up to and through the Paris talks last year. And in this he was following the strong lead set by President Obama and Secretary Kerry -- to whom we all, as global citizens faced with an existential threat, owe an enormous debt.

It is useful when trying to evaluate Paris to begin much earlier -- at the start of the UN climate negotiations in the early 1990s. I was present for the very first meeting where we began the negotiations for what ultimately became the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, convened by George H.W. Bush, just outside of Washington, D.C. in 1991. It was not, suffice it to say, an event with much pageantry. It attracted a relatively small number of scientists, officials and policy-makers -- and no world leaders or visiting dignitaries. No celebrities showed up. No Fortune 500 CEOs joined us to tout their climate-friendly credentials. But it did set the framework for action, calling attention to the climate problem and establishing a forum for further negotiations.

The first negotiation under the UN Convention concluded in 1997 -- the Kyoto Protocol. While the Protocol readied a collection of strong, mandatory emissions cuts, it applied them only to developed countries -- leaving the rest of the industrializing world to only pursue vague, undefined actions.

Twelve years later, the 2009 Copenhagen Accord succeeded in attracting a wide array of climate commitments from both developed and developing countries alike for the first time. That represented a major breakthrough, and one that would help set the stage for the Paris Agreement. But the session ended chaotically, and a global agreement was still not in place.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The French-led session brought together nearly 50,000 attendees, as presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs alike competed to outdo one another with sweeping announcements of new and renewed action to combat climate change.

And in Paris, we adopted a strong, durable agreement that applies to all nations and demands action from all. It’s a foundation on which we can build.

First and foremost, the Paris agreement relies on national climate goals – known as “nationally determined contributions” – to help cut greenhouse gas emissions. And virtually all countries put forward specific goals for the Paris agreement. The big players are all in:

  • China set a target of 60-65% reduction in emissions intensity;
  • India pledged to reduce its emissions intensity by 40% , and coupled this with a commitment to build 100 GW of solar power by 2030;
  • the EU set a target of reducing emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030; and
  • the US set a goal of cutting emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

And the smaller countries are in as well -- many with even more impressive targets: Costa Rica and a number of small island states in the Pacific have pledged to reduce net emissions to zero by 2030, and called for complete elimination of emissions from their power sectors.

This universality of participation is a first in the annals of the climate talks.

But it was clear in Paris that pledges alone would be insufficient, both diplomatically and atmospherically. For a deal to work, parties had to have confidence that others would meet their national commitments, and so a robust system to monitor and verify progress towards those goals would be essential. This system enshrined in the Paris Agreement provides layers of accountability and review to help match countries’ words with their deeds as we work to meet the goal of limiting warming to well-below 2 degrees Celsius.

Second, the Paris Agreement has baked-in a system to ratchet up ambition over time. We know that national climate pledges announced to date are not of sufficient strength to keep the world below 2 degree Celsius of warming. To that end, the Agreement calls for revisiting national pledges every five years. As countries achieve their targets, and as costs of solutions come down, we expect countries to make stronger and stronger pledges.

Finally, this agreement doesn’t just lay out a process for setting and revising individual national contributions-- it helps countries achieve their targets. The Paris Agreement marshals a broad array of support to help developing nations invest in the infrastructure, technology, and science needed to meet their goals, and to help vulnerable countries become more resilient in the face of climate impacts.

This is the basic architecture of the Paris agreement: national climate targets, a strong accountability system to track those targets, renewing and updating targets over time, and a framework to help support the low-carbon transition and help vulnerable countries respond to climate change.

Now that the global community has taken the step of adopting this Agreement, we’re faced with the task of implementing it - translating it into tangible action. Already we are seeing this beginning to happen

In the US, we’re hard at work implementing our own climate contribution. We’ve adopted new regulations that increase the efficiency of cars, trucks, and appliances. We’re moving to adopt refrigeration and cooling technologies that release fewer (and less potent) greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And we’ve developed, and hope to soon begin implementing, the President’s Clean Power Plan to reduce major sources of carbon dioxide emissions from the industrial sector and power plants. And it’s worth noting, that while there are legal challenges to the Clean Power Plan that are now moving their way through the court system, we are confident that it remains on solid legal footing and will soon begin to bend the curve of emissions from electricity generation. Meanwhile, since Paris, Congress passed laws providing support for renewable energy that have led to the rapid uptake of clean power. Taken together, all these initiatives represent an unprecedented whole-of-government approach to addressing climate change.

The results of these efforts are already apparent: Wind and solar energy accounted for over two-thirds of all new electricity generating capacity installed in the U.S. in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Wind energy capacity in the U.S. alone has tripled since 2008. Last year, wind power represented 41 percent of all new generating capacity built in the United States. In 2015, there were nearly 74,000 megawatts of utility-scale wind power deployed across 41 states – enough to power more than 17 million households. The U.S. solar industry now employs more people than coal mining – and one in every 78 new jobs last year was in the solar industry.

We are also in the process of developing technical projections for the longer term, mapping out how we can squeeze the vast bulk of carbon emissions out of our economy by 2050 – a so-called "mid-century strategy." The pathways we lay out, and which we plan to release in the coming weeks, will detail scenarios in which the U.S. can build a very low-emission economy that lets us play our part in helping the world achieve our long term target of avoiding dangerous climate change.

These dramatic shifts aren’t confined to the United States. Last year, an estimated 147 gigawatts of renewable power capacity was installed around the world – that’s equivalent to nearly a fifth of the entire U.S. electrical supply.

China alone has announced plans to generate 150 to 200 gigawatts of electricity using solar power by 2020, quadrupling their previous target. China also wants to sharply lift its wind power targets to 250 gigawatts by the same year. These are simply enormous numbers.

Prime Minister Trudeau, announced in early October that Canada, our largest trading partner, would be establishing a carbon tax -- starting at $10 a ton, at rising at $10 a year for the next five years.

And in just the past several weeks, the world has adopted new international agreements. In Montreal, in early October, the International Civil Aviation Organization passed a new agreement establishing a global market mechanism for international civil aircraft -- for the first time calling for them to offset their emissions. This is a sector that was excluded not only from the original UNFCCC, but from every climate agreement since. If international aviation was a country, it would rank among the top dozen emitters – and it’s growing rapidly. So this is a huge deal.

Then, only a couple of weeks later, we had another breakthrough: at the meeting of the parties to the Montreal Protocol in Kigali, Rwanda, nearly 200 countries agreed to phase down their use of hydrofluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases several thousand times more powerful than CO2. While these gases currently account for only a few percent of global emissions, in the absence of any agreement, they were expected to increase rapidly. Avoiding those emissions brings us significantly closer to meeting our Paris goals.

And perhaps most significant of all, on October 4, we passed the threshold required for entry into force of the Paris Agreement: 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions – and those numbers continue to grow. Indeed, entry into force means that we can expect Parties to follow through on what they have said they will do and abide by the provisions of the Agreement. As I already outlined, those provisions are critical for putting us on a trajectory for meeting our common goals, and for ramping up global ambition over time in a transparent and accountable manner.

Emission reduction efforts reflect only one part of our implementation agenda. A second is in the arena of mobilizing climate finance.

The International Energy Agency estimates that the climate pledges made targets announced in the lead-up to Paris could lead to $7.4 trillion in global investment in renewable energy in the next two decades. Many banks and sovereign wealth funds don’t yet understand how these technologies and development pipelines function, or how best to finance and back-stop such projects. Their dollars are presently sidelined, while they wait for more aggressive actors to move the market and create a template for action. However, if we can attract those presently-inactive funds from the banking sector, it could trigger a flood of new U.S. investment in this growing sector of the economy. One-third of all developed country debt currently pays a negative interest rate – meaning the bondholders are paying governments to hold 7 trillion dollars’ worth of their money. This is an astonishing capital environment that’s crying out for new, broad-based technology markets.

It is in this context that developed countries have pledged to jointly mobilize 100 billion dollars in low-carbon finance in annually by from public and private sources annually by in 2020, and new analysis from the OECD shows that we’re on a trajectory to meet that pledge.

However, we know that developing countries will need more support in the future – and that public money will never come close to the level required to meet this challenge. The Green Climate Fund, set up in part to support action called for in the Paris Agreement, is using both debt and insurance products to minimize risk and encourage the movement of private capital. The World Bank, the Regional Development Banks and the world's bilateral development finance institutions are on a similar course -- seeking to strategically deploy public funds to increase leverage ratios and incentivize more private sector investment.

Finally, our implementation pathway must encompass a major effort to build resilience and adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate that we already face -- and that will become more severe as we move to higher temperatures. Even if we were to halt the rise at only 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the damages will be severe. Two percent of the world's population lives at one meter or less above sea level -- and we anticipate that the oceans may well rise this much by the end of the century. That means nearly 150 million people will need to move -- double the global number of today's refugees from conflict and persecution.

We need to consider how to manage increasingly severe drought: the impacts I mentioned earlier will not go away, and affect communities around the world. We need to look at building resilience for more intense storms -- including hurricanes and typhoons -- that ravage our coasts. We need to consider how to manage increasing temperatures -- not only for their human impact, but for the changes in disease vectors and agricultural productivity. We need climate-resilient planning for a climate-resilient global economy.

All of these issues will be taken up next month in Morocco at the 22nd session of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, called COP 22, which runs from November 7th to 18th in Marrakech.

I have earlier detailed some of the progress we have made, ranging from entry-into-force of the Paris Agreement to the conclusion of an amendment to the Montreal Protocol. One consequence of the former is that the Marrakech session will be the first meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement. I anticipate that at the session we will endorse an accelerated timetable for completion of the work called for in the Paris Agreement. Where we may once have thought countries would take years to set the Agreement in motion, the urgency expressed by the rapid completion of national efforts to join mean that we need our technical experts to keep pace -- and to accelerate their work accordingly.

In doing so, we need to guard against the re-negotiation of the Paris Agreement. In the parlance of the negotiation, we do not want any "backsliding". This means that we will not countenance any undermining of the basic principles that governed that Agreement: we moved beyond a bifurcated world in which developed and developing countries are in two buckets, set against each other.

Increasingly, the annual UNFCCC climate meetings are becoming broader in scope, going beyond the negotiations to include a wide array of activities by businesses, sub-national governments, and civil society from countries around the globe. This offers a high-profile annual venue for spotlighting what works in the real world – in terms of both technology and policy – so that we can all learn key lessons and deploy them with all possible speed. We need to utilize that venue to engage not just chief sustainability officers but also CEOs and mayors and governors, and not only environment and climate ministers but also foreign ministers, and ministers of energy and agriculture and finance – and the media and through them the public writ-large. I invite you to help us think about how to do this most effectively. The grand challenge presented by climate change demands continued engagement across the board.

We know that in spite of the difficulties in making the transition to a low-carbon economy, the opportunities it presents are enormous. We also know that the risks in failing to address climate change are untenable. Simply put, this isn’t a choice. Action comes with demonstrable upside potential, while inaction carries with it terrible downside risk.

We now have definitive proof here in that the U.S. that we can lower our emissions while simultaneously growing our economy. Between 2000 and 2014, U.S. emissions have fallen 6% while the economy has grown by 28%. And it’s not just true here at home: for the second year in a row, global GDP grew in 2015 while global carbon emissions stayed flat. We know that dozens of nations around the world have successfully ‘decoupled’ economic growth from carbon pollution – their economies have expanded while their emissions shrank.

We’ve already made significant and historic progress this year alone. At the climate conference in November in Morocco, we have a chance to mark further successes, as we work to implement the Paris Agreement and build new rules for transparency, finance, adaptation, and a whole host of other items.

I want to close by turning back to Superstorm Sandy. Though I grew up in New York City, most of us don’t live there, or use their subway. But the threats that Manhattan faces are now common to us all, to everyone around the world. While we cannot freeze time and halt all further impacts of a changing climate, with the Paris Agreement, we now have a mechanism in place to marshal our will and collective purpose to do something -- and do it now.

This is a call to action. It’s a call to action that we need the world to heed.

Thank you.