Press Roundtable in Anchorage, Alaska

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Anchorage, Alaska
August 31, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thanks. And listen, thank you all for taking a few minutes. I won’t talk long. I’ll just try to lay out a few thoughts. But first of all, let me say what an extraordinary pleasure it is to be here, and to be here with a chance to really talk about some issues of enormous importance.

I know that Alaskans have long felt that Washington and the rest of the country don’t necessarily understand the special issues that arise in living in Alaska, and this gives us an opportunity to highlight them as well as to focus obviously on the very significant impact of climate change, which is not what it’s all about, but it’s a significant part of what it’s about because it has such a profound impact on life in so many ways. I think you’ve got about 5 million acres of fires destroying – which is the size of my state of Massachusetts, an area the size of my state. But with permafrost melting and black carbon and the ecosystem challenge – the ice melting, the erosion of land – I mean, there’s just compounded problems that come about as a consequence of this gigantic change which profoundly affects all the rest of the country. I mean, if the jet stream were to change in the course of all of this, we are going to see every part of America more affected.

And since the Arctic is warming two times faster than any other place on the planet, it is more than a canary in a coal mine. I mean, it’s really the place where we’re seeing now real impacts which many of us – people like me and others – are sort of frustrated by, because I’ve been sounding this alarm bell for 20-plus years – more, since 1986, ’7, ’8, my earliest years in the Senate, when I worked with Al Gore and Tim Wirth and John Chafee, Frank Lautenberg – a whole group of us who were – who not only attended the Rio conference back in 1992 but were deeply involved in trying to move the Senate to take action on these things.

There are huge issues, obviously, real day-to-day challenges. We were in – I’ve been now – this is my third year having Arctic conferences, and I went to Sweden previously, and I’ve been to Iqaluit. And we’ve had major conferences on this through the years, but now I am the chair of the Arctic Council. And I was able to enlist the great services of former Commandant of the Coast Guard Robert Papp, who understands these issues viscerally and gives us an opportunity to really take this, I hope, to a new level, and that’s what we want to do. That’s why we wanted to come to Alaska during this period of time; that’s why the President is coming tomorrow and spending a couple of days here to reinforce all of this and to meet with Alaskans and have a chance to share thoughts.

We know that life here is more complicated. Getting a CAT scan sent from one place to another because of the absence of connectivity is highly challenging, and so you – it takes a lot longer, it’s more complicated. All kinds of things are more complicated. And now you have buildings being threatened by virtue of permafrost melt and methane releases and so on. So all of these issues are on the table. That’s why we’re here.

And I have been a powerful advocate of our ratifying the Law of the Sea Conference. I regret that when I was chairman of the foreign committee, we were not able – we failed by a couple of votes. My hope is that people will wake up to the reality that we’re only penalizing ourselves by not being a signatory, by not having ratified it. And though we live by it, we would be better served if we were able to take our own claims of our own economic zone and shelf – continental shelf – to the appropriate forum, which is the Law of the Sea, in order to resolve those issues, as we resolved the issues of Denmark and Canada, Russia obviously, and so forth.

So there’s a lot on the table. I think we’re going to have a very engaged and engaging discussion tomorrow. I look forward to it. I’m impressed that seven foreign ministers are here and principal participants, and the Russians – though Foreign Minister Lavrov told me weeks ago he was not able to be here because he had a conflict with visitors in Moscow, he was going to send a strong delegation. And Ambassador Kislyak, who I know well through the years, is indeed – will – everything that happens here will be well reported back to Russia and we will be well engaged with them.

So on that note, let me just throw it open to your questions, and welcome the chance to chat a little bit.

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

SECRETARY KERRY: You guys have a pecking order – (laughter) – or are we just --

QUESTION: I wanted --

SECRETARY KERRY: -- free-for-all?

QUESTION: I wanted to draw from what you just said about the Law of the Sea. And I am fairly confused as to why that has been – there’s been such a stalemate on that issue.

SECRETARY KERRY: Because it’s been a political problem. There are people – members of the Senate – who as a matter of doctrine have deep reservations about treaties, and particularly that treaty, for reasons that I think are incorrect. But they have them, and it became a symbol more than it was a substantive debate – a symbol for UN invasion of I don’t know what, American space and capacity to make our own decisions and so on and so forth.

There are people who oppose all treaties, you need to understand that, who reside in the United States Senate. (Laughter.) And that’s part of the problem.

QUESTION: Just following up on that, there – we haven’t even ratified the Stockholm Convention, so how – how much hope do you have to get Law of the Sea if you can’t even get --

SECRETARY KERRY: I have high hopes that people will come to understand the benefits to our country. It’s all plus, and the negative that comes with it comes from not – we lose in leadership, we lose in terms of our standing to argue certain rights and obligations under it. South China Sea is an example – China. We are diminished, most importantly, by not being at the table when the process by which it is implemented is talked about and worked on and decided. We’re not there. For the United States of America to not be advocating for our interests within that forum, since we were the primary movers of the Law of the Sea Conference – this happened under Richard Nixon, folks, if I recall correctly. And George Bush, I guess, was – even pushed for it and wanted to get it done. Both Bushes. So this is not a – it’s really – my hope is that people will recognize that there is a great benefit to doing – to being a member of it.

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. Matt Buxton, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. With the Arctic and global climate change, there seems to be a lot of – a lot of positives and a lot of negatives. There’s options for new shipping routes and then there’s also communities that are losing a lot of coastline. I guess how do you focus your attention on the one or the other? Is there a balancing act?

And then secondly, too – for Alaskans, it seems like a lot of the negatives, I guess, are what we’re feeling as far as coastline erosion and stuff like that, wildfires. What kind of benefits do regular, everyday Alaskans see of a lot of the attention up here?

SECRETARY KERRY: From – well, hopefully the – if the balance that you just talked about – it should be a balanced approach, absolutely. No question about it. Which is why the President made the decision that in some quarters is controversial with respect to the Shell Oil leases, but it’s a matter of balance, and the President was very clear about it. He has ordered – as a result of the BP Gulf incident, we have far stricter, far greater drilling requirements on drilling in the sea. We have better technology as a result of what we learned from that. And it is his view that the Interior Department and the Energy Department have required such strict application of the lessons learned that his decision reflects a balance with the reality that for the foreseeable future, we’re going to need to continue to drill for gas and oil and so forth.

How we use it is very important. It’s part of that balance. We need to move, obviously, towards renewables and alternatives as fast as possible, and recognize that in the new energy economy there’s millions of jobs to be created. But that’s all part of the balance. I think people recognize that for Alaska, there needs to be greater knowledge base, increase capacity and industry, and growth of jobs that are representative of that balance. But there’s no reason that that can’t take place.

Now, with respect to the changes taking place as a result of climate change, you’re absolutely correct. I mean, that’s part of what the Arctic Council challenge is, is to recognize that because there is new shipping capacity and fishing capacity and so forth, we have to be very certain that it’s being managed in an effective way, which is why we joined with other countries – five other countries – in announcing the unregulated fish ban, so to speak, that we’re going to live by a regulated process for fishing and we are urging other nations to join in that. And we now need to move to codify that. So that’s a part of the balance. It doesn’t mean there won’t be fishing, it means we’ve got to do it in a way that’s sustainable for everybody, and that’s particularly important to Alaskans.

So I think we can manage these things, and I’m optimistic about it, to be honest with you. I feel that there is an increased economic opportunity, but you want to make sure you don’t have disasters with it. You don’t want oil spills. You don’t want traffic crashing into each other and consequences. You want to minimize – you need to meet the increased search and rescue requirements that will occur as a result of these changes. And obviously, you need to balance carefully the security issues. Any kind of militarization would be against the principles of the Arctic Council and against our better vision for the region, and we believe that there’s nothing to indicate that it would be otherwise yet, but we have to be vigilant. You obviously have a significant Russian presence. And we need to be careful and prudent in how we proceed to make sure it isn’t abused.

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I was just – I didn’t look at this agenda, but I was somewhat amused by one of the policy tracks here. It’s building up healthy Arctic homes, or healthy homes in the Arctic. And I attended a Chamber of Commerce presentation by the new secretary of housing, and one of the questions was: How do we get the federal government to recognize that homes being built in the Arctic should meet Arctic standard? And the new secretary gave an answer – he basically said, “I will look at that.” And then there was a person who stood up and said, “But we heard that 35 years ago,” when the late Senator Stevens introduced the new housing secretary back then.

So the question is: How do we get the federal government to listen to Alaskans or hear Alaskans? And I suppose that’s why that inability to listen to Alaskans makes us feel somewhat detached from the rest of the country.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m sympathetic to it, but it’s not the only part of the country that has frustration with whether or not Washington is sometimes listening. And I’m afraid that there’s been a regrettable level of gridlock that I saw increase in my later years in the United States Senate. It was not there when I came. Ted Stevens and I were – became very good friends, and Catherine is a close friend to this day. And Ted was my either ranking member or I was his ranking member as we changed on the fisheries subcommittee. We worked very closely together. We wrote what became the Stevens – the Magnuson-Stevens Act was actually originally going to be the Magnuson-Kerry Act, but the Senate was lost and he became the chair and they did the bill and that’s the way it works. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, we’ll name a mountain after you.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, no, no. (Laughter.) No, they’ll change it 100 years later, so don’t do that. Let me just say this: that Ted was a great partner. We went to the UN together to ban driftnet fishing. He believed deeply in more science and more scientific basis for the decisions that were being made that affected fisheries. We believe the same thing in New England. We have great fisheries. Our cod fishery has been decimated, obviously, by management challenges, and through the years we’ve created sanctuaries and done various things. So I have a real appreciation for it.

So I get the frustration. I would say to you that I don’t think the President of the United States has spent three days up here and brought members of his Cabinet and done what President Obama is about to do, and you haven’t seen a chair of the Arctic Council come here in this context to tie Alaska into what we are trying to do. And I think given the realities of the challenges to your communities, I think the housing – it’s important for us to listen to people and talk about it. I mean, you’d be much more critical if we didn’t have it on the agenda, wouldn’t you?

QUESTION: Absolutely.

SECRETARY KERRY: Okay. So it’s on the agenda and you’re appropriately skeptical based on past history, and it’s going to have to be judged by what happens over the course of the next months and see where we are.

Go ahead. You want to follow up? Go ahead.

QUESTION: I was going to turn to fisheries, okay? The question is --


QUESTION: -- because since you’re very knowledgeable on fisheries, and Stevens was a great fisheries protector of opportunities for the villagers.


QUESTION: And particularly with the CDQ program where he allowed fisheries to be captured or fishing opportunities to be held by local villages, and tremendous economic impact. So the question I would have is that how – as these corporations get larger and you appropriate the international waters but with the fishery resources, how do you protect or create opportunities for local people?

SECRETARY KERRY: The management councils – look, the whole concept of Magnuson-Stevens was to have the regional communities, local communities, being able to weigh in and manage their fisheries. Some have done better than others. You have a pretty good one. You’ve managed pretty effectively. We have not, I candidly tell you, done as well. And it’s improved in the last years. It’s gotten better.

But the key is to have a commitment by the people who are on that council to balance between what local fishing people mean to the community and to communities generally and to the fabric and social structure and history of the state. We have the same balancing battle. We have lots of local fisherman, and you have differences in long liners and short liners and draggers – all these different kinds of fishing that take place. And we try to balance it out by making decisions that make sure you’re protecting and making each component of it sustainable. But you can’t turn it over just to the industry and – and frankly, there’s too much money chasing too few fish already, and that’s part of the problem in that most of the major fisheries of the world are either at limits or over and are very, very challenged in terms of their sustainability. If you don’t protect local fishing folks, I think you destroy that balance altogether.

So for my mind, it’s a critical component of maintaining the integrity of the social fabric and history of states like Alaska, like California, San Diego, different parts of our country have different kinds of fishing – Gulf states, south Florida. But for all the coastal states of our country, this peculiarity, this – it’s the wrong word – this asset is one that really needs to be protected everywhere.

MR KIRBY: We’ve got just time for a couple more. You gentlemen, then --

QUESTION: Dan Joling from the Associated Press. I guess I want to ask you about climate warming in terms of your job as Secretary of State when you have so many leaders in this country who aren’t acknowledging it, who say our – cutting our carbon emissions will be a drop in the bucket, how do you – how does the United States show a leadership position when we don’t seem to be able to get our house in order?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we are. We’re doing – you do exactly what President Obama is doing and what I’m proud to say as Secretary of State I’ve been doing, which is advocate powerfully for the Paris agreement, prepare for it by putting a team together. I went to China and negotiated with the Chinese to bring them onboard for the first time. They have agreed to setting a target. They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t take this issue seriously. But they are working with us now on reduction standards leading up to 2030 and so forth. They’ve put out their independent nationally determined targets. We’ve been urging other countries all around the world to do so. We’ve helped other countries be able to do so. We’ve worked with them. We have – the President has put together a Climate Action Plan for the country, which involves all of our carbon sources. So we’re doing things on efficiency standards for appliances, we’re doing things on automobiles and trucks. Here in Alaska, for instance, your mobile generators are a challenge because of black carbon. So we’re doing as much as we can to try to move people towards sustainable sources of energy, and the President will talk about this very much while he’s up here in Alaska. I mean, part of the reason for being here is to underscore this problem.

I would say to you that the people who don’t believe in it are an increasing minority in the country. People understand they’re living with changes every day. There are parts of the country where certain plants that used to grow don’t grow anymore. There are parts of the country where forest has been destroyed by the pine beetle, which used to die because it used to get colder. Now it doesn’t and they don’t, and therefore you had millions of acres of forest that have been lost to this beetle. You have challenges of fires. Look at what’s been taking place in California as well as here and elsewhere. You have flooding – unbelievable level – 500-year floods, not 100-year floods. But you have this dramatic change taking place in what life is like in various places, and species that are migrating north because it gets cooler. Fish likewise. We have a presence of great white sharks in Massachusetts that we didn’t have so long ago because we now have a lot of seals that are living there, which, by the way, are decimating our fisheries also.

So I mean, when you’ve got – these things are compounding in ways that people are starting putting two and two together. And the scientists are overwhelmingly now unified, overwhelmingly. You have a few outliers, yes. You have some industry paid-for analyses and other kinds of things. But those studies that are peer reviewed – and there are more than 6,000 of them that are peer reviewed – all say humankind is contributing to global climate change and causing it, and that we need to take steps to reduce the level of carbon in the atmosphere.

So I think that the President believes this is one of the most important issues we face. It is a national security issue. The President had talked about it at the Coast Guard Academy, where he delivered the commencement address. I will be speaking somewhere in the next few months again on a security basis of how it is a challenge to our – us as a nation. And I think the people who are slow to come to this table will be – will be written up by historians as having been some of the folks most irresponsible in understanding and reacting to scientific analysis.

MR KIRBY: This ought to be the last one, sir.

QUESTION: Sure. Joel Horn with National Geographic. I want to ask you about one of those peer-reviewed studies that came out in Nature a few years ago that said in order to have just a 50 percent chance of keeping that safety belt of 2 degrees all that oil in the Arctic, all the fossil fuel, all the gas, needs to stay in place. And yet we’re allowing Shell to go. Russia’s developing their Arctic oil to the hilt. Norway just set a big floater farther north in the Arctic than the Russians. How much oil can we --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there’s a certain amount --

QUESTION: -- can we afford to get out of the Arctic? And what is the (inaudible) of the Arctic --

SECRETARY KERRY: If we do the right things, if we do the right things in the balance that we talked about, we can – we still have a window. It is closing, but we still have a window to be able to meet the 2 degree challenge, 2 degree centigrade. But it’s closing. A number of things have happened that sort of are the marketplace is moving in a different direction with respect to natural gas, obviously. I think some of our hopes and efforts to move in that direction have been – what’s the word – have been slowed down a little bit just by virtue of events in the Middle East and in the world – Iraq, Syria, Iran, oil-producing countries, others, where there’s less incentive for them to buy into this sort of challenge right now because they’re facing existential challenges in so many ways and so many other ways, so it’s hard to organize people in that context. But where people are free to make choices and organize, they’re making better choices. More mayors are directing their cities in terms of building codes. Buildings represent a very significant component of greenhouse gas emissions.

QUESTION: I guess what I’m curious is just how much oil can we afford to take out of the Arctic.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t think it’s – I mean, it depends how much is being taken out elsewhere, how much do we need overall. I don’t think that – I think that if you’re putting the proper requirements on how that oil is burned and used, then you can meet standards. It wouldn’t be limited just by the amount you take out. It’s what you do with it. It’s how you burn it. It’s what requirements you have for either capture and sequestration or clean burning requirements, other kinds of things.

I mean, the President has doubled the efficiency standards and requirements for trucks. He’s increased the efficiency requirements for automobiles. So we have a very significant reduction that’s taking place in terms of our emissions as a consequence of those higher requirements. Technology itself is proving new ways to be able to use certain things and use them more effectively. That’s happening with respect to transportation. I think 40 percent of your Alaska black carbon comes from movable combustion entities; 39 percent or so comes from your wild burns and your open burning that’s taking place. So that’s just about 80 percent that comes from those two sources, and if we can have strict requirements as to what the emissions levels are that are permitted for its use, you can meet standards.

Now, the President and others have talked at length about how we have to be moving away from carbon-based sources in order to ultimately meet what we need to do with respect to global climate change. I mean, China is bringing how many coal-fired power plants on per week right now? I mean, that’s an even bigger risk. So I’ll take natural gas over coal any day of the week, and the more we can push people in the right direction, the better our chances of making it. But you can’t – you’ve got to balance it, obviously, with just the fundamentals of your economy and of basic needs right now.

That’s one of the things we’ll talk about here, is how fast can we encourage people to switch; how fast can you encourage people to make wiser choices about what their sources are for these things between wind and solar and – solar was getting actually very, very close to being competitive with oil until the price of oil went crashing down. But I think it’s going to turn around and come back, because I think a lot of requirements are going to be put in place that are going to probably raise the cost overall anyway, ultimately.

QUESTION: Carbon tax?

SECRETARY KERRY: Who knows what; I can’t tell you. But you’re hearing more and more talk about needing to price the impact of climate change into what is happening. No – not very many people – I mean, I know some companies that do it. By the way, Shell that I sat with last year and talked to their chairman about actually factors in almost a 40 percent increase in their cost because of the cost of these kinds of things. But who’s factoring in the floods? Who’s factoring in the fires? Who’s factoring in the insurance costs? Who’s factoring in the particulate diseases that are created and raise health care costs around the country? I mean, you have a whole series of non-measured impacts that would actually raise the cost if the true cost were being reflected, and perhaps that’s something we ought to talk about more.

MR KIRBY: Thank you, sir. I’m afraid we’re going to have to go, folks. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

SECRETARY KERRY: There’s a lot to talk about on all this. It’s a huge, fascinating topic. By the way, the energy market is – quickly – but the energy market is such a huge market of possibilities for the future that if we were able to move faster into the new energy components of it, which includes clean burning – I mean, coal is problematic, I think, long term, but oil, gas can be burned in more effective and smarter ways. And what we need to do is make sure that our technology is being encouraged to move in those directions more rapidly, and there’s stuff we could do, I think, probably to excite that. The President, I think, will lay out a few things. We’re doing some things in terms of the Energy Department right now to try to move in those directions.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, are you going to Seward?


QUESTION: Why not?

SECRETARY KERRY: Because I have a little thing called Iran – (laughter) – and I have to get back to Washington because I’m giving a big speech. This is news for all of you, but I’m giving a big speech on Wednesday in Philadelphia on Iran, so I have to get back to do that because we still have some people that have to be persuaded of the wisdom of this. That’s why.

QUESTION: Is that going to happen? Are they going to --

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s up to, obviously, members of Congress to make their choice. We hope it will. We think it’s critical to America’s security, critical to our credibility, critical to stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we think it’s the only viable alternative by which we do that.

QUESTION: Can you talk really quickly about --

SECRETARY KERRY: I got to run.

MR KIRBY: We’ve got to go, guys. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. We’ve gotten way behind.

SECRETARY KERRY: But I apologize.


SECRETARY KERRY: But you’ll see – we’re going to have a chance to --

QUESTION: Okay. Well, we wanted to talk about Russia, but --


QUESTION: Russia and the Arctic.

SECRETARY KERRY: I thought I did. Didn’t I talk about Russia a little bit?

QUESTION: A little, but --

QUESTION: I’d love to hear about Canada – transboundary mines.

QUESTION: Oh, transboundary mines.

QUESTION: Transboundary mines.

QUESTION: Yes, very --

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s a serious issue, and the Mount Polley tailings issue is a serious issue. And obviously, we are very concerned about Alaska, the integrity of Alaska’s rivers. We’ve raised it with the local governments, we raise it with the federal government, and we will continue to. But it’s a very – it’s a serious challenge. Downstream impacts should not be taken lightly by any country anywhere. So we’ve got to deal with it.

MR KIRBY: Thank you, folks.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all. Appreciate it.

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