Remarks at the Ross Sea Conservation Reception

John Kerry
Secretary of State
National Geographic
Washington, DC
March 18, 2013

The video below is available with closed captioning on YouTube.

Well, it’s my pleasure to follow the comedian from New Zealand. (Laughter.) I’m happy to follow two guys who speak kind of funny. (Laughter.)

What a pleasure to be here with Ambassador Mike Moore, former prime minister, who is a great person and a terrific leader. And I am so grateful to him for the leadership of New Zealand, a country I’ve had a chance to visit several times beginning way back when I was in the United States Navy; and also my friend Bob Carr, and thank you, Mr. Minister, for being here with us. I told him today I have not yet been lucky enough to get down under, but I am sure to get there very, very soon and I look forward to it.

Really privileged to have these two gentlemen supporting this endeavor, and I’m particularly grateful to the Pew Charitable Trust and to National Geographic. Terry, thank you so much for making this available tonight. Everybody’s favorite magazine; I think we all grew up with it and it just stays extraordinary. And tonight you’ll share in a film which will really underscore the importance of everything that that magazine tries to impart to all of us and has stood for all of these years.

I am a child of the ocean in many ways. From the first moment when I was a kid up at Cape Cod dipping my toes into Buzzards Bay looking for clams, literally a three or four year-old being shown the wonders of the ocean, shrimping and other things, to a time when we used to gather mussels in the evening and an hour later cook them and enjoy an incredible meal. Today, very difficult to find mussels anywhere in that area.

So I’ve watched the transition. I’ve seen it. As a senator I was privileged to bring efforts before the United Nations with Ted Stevens to end driftnet fishing, and also to try to work hard to preserve through a number of fisheries bills – I think I rewrote the Magnuson Fisheries Act at least three or four times – as we tried to get the balance right and protect our fisheries.

I’ve seen the struggle with respect to invasive species and I have seen this fragile ecosystem change before our very eyes, whether it’s a problem of acidification, a problem of pollution and development, a problem of ice melt and potential ecosystem collapse, to the rise of the sea levels, which is happening in various parts of the world more so than elsewhere, to the overfishing that takes place in almost every single fishery on the face of the planet.

We call this beautiful planet that we are privileged to inhabit for a short period of time, we call it Earth, but it could well have been called Ocean because three-quarters of it is ocean. And the oceans are responsible in many ways for life because of the cycle of rain and humidity and all of the protein and life that comes from the ocean. So we can’t be casual about it. We can’t be casual about it. And it is clear that we have an enormous challenge ahead of us as we face the extraordinary excess that we see with respect to each of those issues that I talked about: energy policy that results in acidification, the bleaching of coral, the destruction of species, the change in the Arctic because of the ice melt, and the change in the krill, the population of whales. The entire system is interdependent, and we toy with that at our peril.

So it is vital that we’ve come to this moment where we begin to see that this is not just an environmental issue. This is a security issue. It’s an economic security issue. It’s a national security issue. And it is in many ways a challenge with respect to energy security and our approach to energy policy, and ultimately it is a challenge to our commitment to science and facts and ultimately our basic sense of faith and what we believe in and our responsibility as human beings on this planet.

So climate change is coming back in a sense as a serious international issue because people are experiencing it firsthand. The science is screaming at us, literally, demanding that people in positions of public responsibility at least exercise the so-called “precautionary principle” to balance the equities and not knowing completely the outcomes at least understand what is happening and take steps to prevent potential disaster. I’ve often said to people, “What is the worst that could happen to you if you make a decision to put good energy policy in place and respond to what the science and the facts are telling us?” Well, the worst that can happen to you if you would employ a lot of people in alternative and renewable and clean energy; you would have less hospitalizations, cleaner air, more children with less asthma; and you would create an enormous number of jobs by moving to those new energy possibilities and policies and infrastructure. That’s the worst that can happen to you.

What if the other people are wrong and we are right; what’s the worst that can happen? The destruction of the ecosystem as we live with it today. So that’s really what’s on the line, and I’m here to tell you that, proudly, President Obama has put this agenda back on the front burner where it belongs, that he has in his Inauguration Address and in his State of the Union Address and in the policies he’s working on now said we are going to try to exercise leadership because of its imperatives.

So I want to thank the Pew Foundation and National Geographic for joining in this imperative. We need to try to pass the Law of the Sea. We attempted to do that earlier and we will continue to try to press for that. But most important when it comes to the Ross Sea and Antarctica, we’re not going to wait for a crisis before we take action. I think we’re making a smart choice now. We’re proud to join with New Zealand and Australia, two countries that have an extraordinary understanding of the sea and commitment to protecting it and who have been great stewards.

The Ross Sea, as we heard from Karen earlier, is a natural laboratory. And we disrespect it at our peril, as we do the rest of the ocean. The environment there is so extreme, as we know, that it’s difficult to live as a penguin or a killer whale or a seal, but they’ve adapted. And in their adaptation, we’ve learned what a remarkably diverse and productive ecosystem it is. We’ve learned from the scientists who go down there at McMurdo Station and spend those critical months trying to research it and understand it.

Now, you’ve probably never asked a waiter – any of you – for a nice Antarctic tooth fish, I suspect. You’re probably more used to ordering it as a Chilean sea bass. But American researchers working in the Ross Sea have actually discovered that the tooth fish produces a special antifreeze protein, and whenever ice crystals form in the fish’s cells, these proteins latch onto them and actually ferry the ice out of the body. That discovery has launched a whole new scientific field of structural biology, and it’s helping us to think now about other adaptations to extreme environment in new ways. It also has commercial applications. Think about perhaps fluffier bread or ice cream that stays frozen without ice crystals in it. These are real possibilities.

Another group of researchers from my home state of Massachusetts have done remarkable work studying the physiology of seals as they dive in the Ross Sea. And they’ve actually learned – they’ve helped unlock our understanding of hypoxia, which is a condition that develops when the body is deprived of oxygen. As a result of that, they have actually developed a treatment that has dealt with hypoxic newborns and saved more than 10,000 babies a year. That’s what we can learn, as well as many, many other things that we could talk about.

So imagine the possibilities of these discoveries that await us if we can encourage our innovators and our inventors to put our shoulder to the wheel and have the maximum preservation of the opportunity of that laboratory.

That’s why it is so important for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to approve our proposals to establish this Marine Protected Area – and you’ve heard all the comparisons from Ambassador Mike Moore about roughly the size of this, that, several Californias, Alaska. It’s extraordinary. It will be quite simply the largest protected area in the world.

Now, I know the value of that, and the reason I know the value of that is I was the author in the Senate of the Marine Sanctuary called Stellwagen Bank off our cape. And we have seen what that preservation has been able to do. Imagine what this would do as a baseline study for what happens to the species that assemble in that area as we preserve a component of it as a managed fishery and the rest of it as a baseline laboratory for all of this research.

We also support the important proposal of Australia, the EU, and France that they have developed for protection of East Antarctica.

So my friends, I’d just summarize by saying this to you: Antarctica is a collection of superlatives. It is the highest, the coldest, the windiest, the driest, the most pristine, and the most remote place on Earth. And it has beguiled humankind for centuries as people have sought to understand it. Starting in the 1700s, explorers struggled to chart its contours and to cross its desolation without any guarantee ever of a safe return. And still today, curiosity and sheer doggedness are what draw people from all around the world to explore its southernmost shore.

So we signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. For those who doubt the benefit of treaties, go look at what we have achieved there, not to mention so many others. The world has shown that we can work together to ensure that Antarctica remains a place devoted to peace and devoted to expanding the human understanding of this fragile planet that we live on. This is one of the last places we could do this, and I think we owe it to ourselves to make it happen.

So I thank you for coming here tonight. I noticed coming in here there were a number of empty wine glasses on the tables, so I know you didn’t waste your time completely before I got here. (Laughter.) But I hope this movie will inspire you. I hope the support of our wonderful friends who understand the ocean as well as any people on this planet and who have worked to preserve it, I hope that will inspire all of you to connect to the rest of America and the rest of the world to apply our human responsibility during this time of stewardship that we have on this fragile planet.

Thank you for being here tonight. Thank you most of all for what you’re going to do. I’d just remind you, in the 1970s there wasn’t really an environment movement in America. We didn’t have an EPA. Just think of that. We had no EPA. And it wasn’t until Rachel Carson wrote her Silent Spring and inspired people to become activists that people became aware of Love Canal and Woburn dump and places which give people cancer and kill citizens.

And all of a sudden, people decided we don’t want to live next to these places, we think there’s a different choice. And 20 million people came out of their homes on one single day. April 21st, 1970 was the first Earth Day. And those 20 million people didn’t stop on that day. They translated that day’s action into political action. They targeted the 12 worst votes in the United States Congress, labeled them the Dirty Dozen, and kicked seven of them out of Congress in the 1972 election. You know what happened? It unleashed a torrent of activity so that we passed the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and even created the EPA, which Richard Nixon, whose idea it was not, signed it into law. (Laughter and applause.)

So folks, that’s what being here is all about. That’s what tonight’s inspiration is all about. We can change everybody’s attitude about this because it matters to all of us. Thank you and God bless. (Applause.)

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PRN: 2013/0309