Remarks at the Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement, and Resilience (GLACIER) Conference Opening Plenary

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

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good morning, everybody. Thank you very, very much, Admiral Papp, for a very generous introduction. I have to tell you that I’m surprised that on an Irish ship in St. Petersburg any sailors were able to talk at all. (Laughter.) I mean, sailors are sailors, and when you get to port, you don’t talk.

But I really want to thank Admiral Papp. I have to tell you, he’s been a blessing to this enterprise. And over the last year as the U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic, he has already seized the reins and done a rather remarkable job of helping us to set, yes, an ambitious agenda, but one that is, after listening to each of the speakers thus far, I think everybody here would agree is necessary to the challenge. And the challenge is real.

Admiral Papp was literally one night away from retirement as commandant of the United States Coast Guard after a brilliant career in the Coast Guard when I telephoned him and I said – I’d met him in the course of our work, me in the Senate and work we did on fisheries and narcotics trafficking and other things. And I knew this was the man for the job, and I asked him to continue his service to our country and indeed to mankind. And believe me, without hesitancy, the next day he was in the office, we met, and he picked up this baton and he has been running with it ever since. And he has a deep, deep commitment to the Arctic, to the challenge of climate change, and I think we are all blessed to have somebody who is prepared to give up the emoluments of the private sector and of retirement to continue in this role. And I’m very grateful to you, Admiral, for being willing to do that. And maybe someday I can make up to you the thwarting of your retirement plans. (Laughter.)

I want to congratulate each of the other speakers that we heard her today. I sat there, as I think most of you I’m sure did, and when I listened to Chief Stephan talk about 10,000 years, and I think of the Industrial Revolution since the late 1800s, which is, after all, at the heart of sort of how we produce things and how we live and how we travel that is creating this challenge of climate change. You see the contrast pretty starkly. And it struck me that this is the right place to be. This was the right site to come and discuss this issue. Because just by being here, just by listening to Mayor Berkowitz, to Mayor Joule, to the Lieutenant Governor and his tunic and his tribute to his mother, we all have a better sense of the human dimension and of the history, and indeed, even the moral challenge that we face as leaders in our countries and as leaders in the world with respect to this challenge of climate change.

So I’m particularly grateful to all of them and I’m grateful to John Holdren, a resident of my state, somebody I worked with for years as a senator, who helped me early on to come to understand the science of climate change. And we very much look forward – all of you here – to participating today and building, we hope, a record, an agenda, a roadmap, if you will, for how we go out of here to lead into Paris, where we have a critical negotiation in December, but which is not, as the video said, the end of the road. It’s really the beginning of the most important part of our responsibility to meet this challenge.

I particularly want to thank my coterie of colleagues, my counterparts who have come here from each of their countries, my distinguished colleagues who work so brilliantly on this issue and on others to help us to find common ground. The foreign minister of Iceland, Gunnar Sveinsson; the foreign minister of Norway, Borge Brende, who has been a great partner in so many efforts. Margot Wallstrom, the foreign minister of Sweden. Bert Koenders, the foreign minister of The Netherlands. Timo Soini, the foreign minister of Finland. Kristian Jensen, the foreign minister of Denmark. And finally, Yun Byung-se, the foreign minister of South Korea. And we’re very grateful to each of them for having traveled so far at a time that is particularly busy leading into September and the United Nations General Assembly meeting.

I’m grateful to the other heads of delegations, all of you sitting here around this table. The European Union, the United Kingdom, Spain, Singapore, Russia, Poland, Japan, Italy, India, Germany, France, China – all of you who are part of this – Canada. Canada is part, obviously, of the Arctic Council, and the foreign minister is not here, but we’re grateful for all of your participation here and for all of the other delegations. Many of you have traveled very, very far to the largest state in our country, as you heard, and certainly one of the most beautiful states in our country, as you can see for yourselves.

The motto of Alaska is “North to the Future.” So I think it’s particularly fitting today that men and women from every corner of the globe have come north for the future. Because what we can decide here – and not just here but what we make real in Paris and beyond – will profoundly impact the future of life on this planet.

I have struggled for years, as I’m sure many of you have, with how you adequately take an issue of this magnitude, this kind of challenge, and put it in terms that average folks can really grab onto, where it isn’t so intimidating that people walk away and say, “Well, there’s no way I can deal with that.” Where people somehow feel that there are individual steps you can take even as countries, states decide to come together and stake – and take the larger steps.

But what we discuss here today is important not just for the Arctic, it is important for the rest of this planet. Everywhere I travel, leaders and average folks talk to me about the impacts of climate change and what they feel and see is happening to their lives in one particular part of the world or another. And the Arctic is so important for us to visit and understand because the Arctic is in many ways a thermostat, a computerized system, if you will, where we don’t even understand fully what the algorithm is, and yet we already see is having a profound impact on the rest of the planet. The temperature patterns, the weather patterns, what happens in the ocean in the Arctic can, in fact, we know – though we don’t completely understand the ways in which it will happen – but we know it has this profound impact on habitat everywhere, on breeding grounds everywhere, on the ecosystem itself.

And one of the beauties of what we heard today from each of the speakers who spoke a few minutes ago is this notion of balance. The balance between our activities – we, having the power of reasoning and choice over all of these other living species, what we choose has this profound downstream impact. Dr. Holdren just painted a very straightforward, purely scientific, actually absolutely factual picture. And it’s hard for people to digest that fully. Some people just want to write it off as a natural change, notwithstanding that at the end of the 19th century a Swedish scientist actually first described the impact of global heating and of the greenhouse effect itself. And we all know that were it not for the existence of the greenhouse itself, life itself would not exist on this planet because it is the greenhouse effect that has held the temperature at a steady average of about 57 degrees for life to be able to exist.

Now we know the Arctic is warming at this pace that was described today, twice as fast, four times in certain places, glaciers now melting three times faster than the rate observed in the last century, and as they melt into the seas the level of sea level rises. But in the figures that we saw regarding Greenland there is cause for greater concern, because the ice sheet on Greenland sits on rock, not in the ocean. Therefore it doesn’t displace water, it only adds to it. And as that level of ice melts, that is a magnitude greater of increase in the rate of sea level rise. And as we saw from Dr. Holdren’s presentation, in the most recent days the gigatonnage, billions of level of meltdown, is significantly greater than it has been at any time in the past, giving greater cause for concern.

We see the permafrost melting, which is releasing methane, and methane we all know is anywhere from – it’s about 30 times on average more damaging than CO2. And sometimes, in the short term it’s 86 times more damaging, but over an average of about a hundred years 30 times more damaging. But 30 times more damaging than something that we’re already having trouble getting control of is a threat to everybody.

We’ve seen 5 million acres of fires in Alaska alone, equal to the size of my state of Massachusetts, in this last year. And on top of that, we see significant challenges to life itself as it invades the communities that have been built, not just in Alaska, but in other parts of the world – low-lying nation-states in the Pacific and others that are increasingly facing this challenge.

The bottom line is that climate is not a distant threat for our children and their children to worry about. It is now. It is happening now. And I think anybody running for any high office in any nation in the word should come to Alaska or to any other place where it is happening and inform themselves about this. It is a seismic challenge that is affecting millions of people today.

Villages in Alaska are already being battered by the storms and some have had to move, or will. As the permafrost continues to thaw, the infrastructure is beginning to be challenged. Houses and other buildings are literally collapsing into rubble. Already this is happening.

There’s a village a few hours northwest of Anchorage called Galena. In 2013, Galena and a number of other villages in the state faced terrible hardships after an ice jam caused the Yukon River to flood. And because natural defenses had melted away, 90 percent of Galena’s buildings were completely destroyed.

The Arctic has never been, we know, an easy place to survive let alone to raise a family or make a living. The story of Arctic communities is inherently one of resilience, adaptation, and survival from one generation to the next. But global climate change now threatens life in this region in a way that it hasn’t been threatened for all of those 10,000 years that Chief Stephan talked about. And unless the global community comes together to address this challenge, the dramatic climate impacts that we’re seeing in this part of the world will be a harbinger for every part of the world.

And we as leaders of countries will begin to witness what we call climate refugees moving – you think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival.

So over the course of this conference, we will discuss all of this. And the many opportunities that are actually staring us in the face right now to be able to respond to this challenge and, ironically, respond to it in a way that creates millions of jobs, improves our economy, improves health, improves our ability to respond to the environment, does all of the plus-ups that you search for in public policy without the long-term damage and costs that we’re witnessing by not taking those actions.

The energy market, because energy policy is the solution to climate change – and the energy market, if people make the right choices, is the largest market the world has ever seen. The market that drove the great wealth creation in the United States of the 1990s was a $1 trillion market with 1 billion users: technology, computers, personal computers, et cetera. The market that’s staring at us today is already a $6 trillion market with 4 to 5 billion users, and it will grow to 9 billion users as the population of the planet increases in the next 30, 40 years. It is the biggest market ever, and it’s waiting to be grabbed.

So we need to move to reducing carbon pollution, including emissions of short-lived climate drivers like soot and methane, and begin to factor carbon dioxide and its cost into the actual accounting of business and of our economies. We need to explore the need for greater collaboration to develop affordable and reliable renewable energy options in the Arctic communities. And let me underscore we have a number of impressive case studies from which to draw inspiration.

For instance, a small Alaskan village, Igiugig, men and women are using clean energy now, wind turbines in particular, that helps to feed their community. And through a partnership with the Ocean Renewable Energy Company they’re generating a third of their energy needs using a river-based hydrokinetic power technology.

These are the kinds of creative solutions that will enable Arctic communities to endure and to thrive in the future without having to rely on dirtier and ultimately destructive sources of power. And more broadly, today we can discuss what we can pull off in Paris, looking ahead to December when we’ll try to come up with a truly ambitious and truly global climate agreement.

Now our hope is that everyone can leave this conference today with a heightened sense of urgency and a better understanding of our collective responsibility to do everything we can to deal with the harmful impacts of climate change.

Over the course of the day we’re going to discuss efforts to expand resiliency in the region and to provide effective stewardship of wildlife and ecosystems that make the Arctic such an extraordinary place. We’re going to talk through ways that we can better prepare for the spike in human activity that is taking place in the increasingly open Arctic seas that were described earlier. Commercial fishing operations, which are not yet taking place in the central Arctic Ocean but they may begin to ramp up soon, and we’re not going to be able to manage fishing in that area effectively unless we gather more scientific information.

That’s why the United States is proposing an international agreement to prevent unregulated fishing for the time being. In addition, as more and more people begin to take advantage of the new shipping lanes and the potential of exploration of resources, there is obviously a heightened need to be able to expand open water search and rescue responsibilities and capabilities and also to define the rules of the road.

So we have a lot to cover today, and there is no question that the stakes could frankly not be much higher. And that’s why I’m so grateful for such a display of interest by so many countries coming here today to be part of this discussion. I know that when you consider the enormity of what we’re up against and the serious risks and overwhelming uncertainty that people are already experiencing, this seems like a pretty high mountain to climb. Well, I can assure you, as I have described, in fact, if you step back and look at it, it is not.

We are hardly the first generation in human history to face uncertainty about the future. Seventy-five years ago, our predecessors faced a world that was literally engulfed by strife, where seemingly all of Europe was overrun by evil, and civilization itself seemed to be in peril. We had leaders then who rose to that occasion, and we have all seen a world that is better for what came out of it with the United Nations and multilateralism and commitments to humanitarian and other missions.

The threat posed by climate change is obviously entirely different in character. But it is not different in its global reach or its potential to do harm. And the urgent need for global cooperation, for global commitment, for global choices is exactly the same as it was in the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s. If only we fully grasp that, if we commit ourselves to climbing this mountain together, then I am absolutely convinced that we will meet the obligation that we have to future generations, we will meet it here in the Arctic, and we will meet it for the rest of the world.

So I thank you very, very much for being part of this. I hope we have an extremely productive and rewarding day here at GLACIER, and I hope that GLACIER is a stepping stone to our meetings in New York around UNGA, and then afterwards in Paris, and afterwards to getting the job done. Thank you all. (Applause.)