Remarks With UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change Michael Bloomberg at Our Cities, Our Climate: A Bloomberg Philanthropies-U.S. Department of State Partnership Working Luncheon

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
October 8, 2015

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: Thank you. It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to the State Department today in honor of Our Cities, Our Climate – an initiative between the State Department and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

We are here to recognize and honor global city leadership on a topic of great importance – climate change. At the State Department, this is at the top of our agenda, and we are thrilled to partner with Michael Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies, who share these goals and have consistently been on the vanguard of this issue.

At the center of the State Department’s public diplomacy is the mission to connect the United States with the world to foster creative and powerful networks of citizens around the world to build common understanding. As we look to climate change and the significant steps needed to address this challenge, the opportunity to bring a global cohort to the United States to discuss these issues was invaluable.

It is an honor to have mayors from the United States and around the world with us here today. Will all the mayors in the room please stand to be recognized? (Applause.) You are all champions of climate action. Thank you for your critical work. We are also pleased to have 19 sustainability directors from 18 countries that have just traveled on an exchange program to San Francisco, Boston, and now Washington, D.C. The sustainability directors had the opportunity to see some of the best innovation in the United States and discuss how U.S. cities are overcoming hurdles to address significant problems that contribute to environmental damage.

Bringing mayors and city leaders together, our goal is to showcase the ways in which national governments, corporations, and cities around the world can and are working together to make an impact.

Thank you all for joining us. It is my honor to introduce our two keynote speakers, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Michael Bloomberg. As UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, Michael Bloomberg has been a leading voice on the value of cities in executing cutting-edge changes that improve everyday lives and our environment. His immense expertise, vision, and passion have put city leadership at the forefront of innovation. We are grateful for his partnership on this initiative.

At the State Department, we are proud to have Secretary Kerry as our champion on climate change issues. Secretary Kerry has elevated this critical issue. He has made climate change a critical part of U.S. foreign policy and a key component of our bilateral relationships around the world. His level of engagement on this issue is unprecedented at the State Department. And it’s not a new issue for him. He brings with him an almost 30-year commitment to fighting climate change. He has been focused on this issue since it first became a public issue and was involved in convening some of the first hearings on climate change in the Senate.

He was present at the first UN Conference of Parties on Climate Change in Rio in 1992, and has been at nearly every major gathering on climate change that has taken place since. He’s on the frontlines and his leadership in this battle is the inspiration for this program, Our Cities, Our Climate[1]. We are so honored to have him here with us today. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Secretary of State John Kerry. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Evan, thank you very, very much. Welcome, everybody, to the Ben Franklin Room. Welcome to the State Department. Distinguished colleagues and members of the diplomatic corps, partners in the U.S. Congress, mayors especially, we are really thrilled to have you here today. International U.S. mayors, we’re really grateful for your leadership. All the sustainability directors, thank you for being here, and other officials who are working hard to fight the effects of climate change around the world and also to address the challenge of climate change.

I particularly want to thank the fellow standing behind me to my right – your left. He is passionate about this issue. He has been for a long period of time. And when he had the privilege of being the mayor of New York City, one of the great cities of the world, obviously, he took steps – creative and imaginative, important steps – to address this issue, and is continuing on now as the UN Special Envoy for Climate Change and Cities. And I want you all to join me not only in saying thank you but welcoming Mike Bloomberg here to the State Department. (Applause.)

When he was mayor, he implemented policies that helped to cut New York’s emissions by 20 percent. And he understands that climate change is a policy challenge, really in many ways unlike many or any that we have faced before as either individual cities or as a community of nations. And he has long approached the global challenge with the sense of urgency for the responsibility that it demands from all of us. And I am very grateful to him for his partnership in this endeavor.

Decades ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to our states as “laboratories of democracy.” Today, more and more of our cities are becoming “laboratories of leadership.” Most city governments are smaller; they’re more nimble than their federal counterparts. So city leaders are, frankly, uniquely positioned to experiment with bold new ideas in all kinds of policy areas.

And at the State Department, we understand the very valuable role that cities can play in addressing a wide range of challenges. And that is why we’re working directly with cities like Detroit, which is opening up its first-ever Mayor’s Office of International Affairs. And it’s why this week we are launching a long-term Cities@State initiative to enhance our coordination with cities in the space where foreign policy and urbanization meet on issues ranging from economic opportunity to security.

But cities have a particularly critical role to play when it comes to climate change. And I have said many times as Secretary, beginning with the day of my nomination and into my confirmation hearings, that foreign policy is economic policy and economic policy is foreign policy. And in today’s world, climate change is economic policy – energy policy above all. And it presents us with the most extraordinary market we have ever known on the face of this planet to be able to grow jobs, modernize our societies and our opportunities, and just embrace this challenge in a way that actually solves the problem while being – doing good at the same time.

And the reason for that is simple: Cities are obviously on the front line of the storm that is coming at us. Consider that already – for the first time in history – more people are living in urban areas than are living in rural areas. By 2050, a full two-thirds of the world’s population is going to live in cities, and that is a steadily growing population.

Now, consider that nine in ten major cities are situated along inland or coastal waterways, making them particularly vulnerable to climate-driven sea level rise and violent storm surges.

And just last week, I saw a study projecting that by the end of this century what we used to consider the kind of flood that would hit New York City once every 500 years could now be expected every 25 years. And for New Yorkers like Mike, who remember well what Hurricane Sandy did to that city, that prospect is obviously devastating.

Just a small factoid but not an unimportant one: If you’re 29 years old in America today, you have never lived with a month that was cooler than the average of all the months of the century preceding. That’s what’s happening. Every year we hear that that year was hotter than the year preceding, and we see the effects. And the bad news is that cities will be particularly hit if we don’t take meaningful action to fight climate change. The good news is – and there is good news – that the steps that cities themselves take in the coming years can actually tip the scale toward a successful global response to this challenge.

And here is why. The answer to climate change is not a mystery. It’s not some pie-in-the-sky policy that we haven’t discovered yet. It is staring us in the face, folks. It’s called clean energy. It is that simple. And we’re simply not going to get where we need to be unless we move rapidly towards a global, low-carbon, clean energy economy.

And today, the world’s cities account for more than two-thirds of all global energy use. That’s one of the reasons why cities are important. Cities are responsible for 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And if we change the way we power our cities, then we will change the way we power our world and, in the process, we may well save it.

The United States and China – two of the world’s largest emitters, number one and number two – we used to be number one; now we’re number two. China has surpassed us. And we fully understand this, which is why, in the early days of my stewardship here at the Department, I went to China and we began the process of changing our relationship, and President Obama ultimately was able to negotiate an agreement with China geared specifically to bring the less developed world to the table. And that’s what we’re doing, so that we hopefully head into Paris in December able to achieve a global agreement that can help to send a signal to the marketplace that the world is serious.

That’s also why we came together for the inaugural U.S.-China Climate Leaders’ Summit in Los Angeles last month. More than two dozen cities, states, provinces, and counties from our two nations signed the U.S-China Climate Leaders Declaration. And the signatories committed themselves to establish ambitious targets to cut emissions, and also to establish climate action plans so that we could report regularly on the progress that we’re making.

And that event showed how influential change that originates at the local level can be. Consider that the emissions coming from the Chinese cities and provinces represented in Los Angeles are roughly equal to those coming from the entire nation of Brazil.

But it’s not only U.S. and Chinese cities that are taking important steps to reduce their carbon footprints. Cities in every corner of the globe – including many represented here in this room – are doing the same.

In fact, more than 100[2] cities globally – more than 50 here in the United States – have signed the Compact of Mayors, which Mike helped launch in an effort to galvanize clear commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

Now folks, I’ve served in elected office for a little more than 28 years – actually more than 30 years if I include the lieutenant governor period. And I saw a lot of choices – and I know Mike feels the same way about this – that we have to make in public life. You’re lucky if you get a one-for-one, make a hard choice and you get a really good payback for that one hard choice.

Climate change, the math is so simple. On one side, you’ve got the cost of the initial investments, which is relatively small. And on the other, you have the cost of not doing anything, not acting to reduce carbon, costs which include agricultural and environmental degradation, remediation, which would cost hundreds of billions of dollars; damage to public health, people who die and go to the hospital, kids – largest cause of children hospitalized in the summer in the United States of America, environmentally induced asthma, costs us billions, tens of billions – damage to communities from record storms and flooding; and ultimately an enormous drop in the value of coastal real estate and businesses. That’s just one part of the ledger. That doesn’t even start to account for the cost of the disease, the cost of jobs, all the other things.

So compare those downsides to the upsides that come with this decision – living up to your environmental responsibility; creating, literally over the period of time, with $17 trillion currently geared to go into investment in energy, millions of jobs, tens of millions of jobs. Huge wealth can be created, even as you make people healthier, reduce the sickness that comes from particulates in the air and the cancer that comes with it. Run the list, folks. This is a pretty easy balance sheet to come out on.

More and more city leaders are coming to that conclusion. And that’s why Jakarta just launched the first Bus Rapid Transit system in Southern and Southeastern Asia. It’s already helping to reduce congestion on the roads and pollution in the air. It’s why Berlin created a campaign to plant 10,000 new trees along the streets by 2017. It’s why Buenos Aires launched Argentina’s first bike-sharing program. And it’s why Vancouver set a goal of obtaining 100 percent – 100 percent – of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.

The fact is that some of the most promising, innovative, effective climate solutions are coming directly from mayors around the world and around the United States.

Now, obviously, no two cities are alike. But many have the same goals and they face the same challenges when it comes to de-carbonizing their local economies, and that’s why the State Department and Bloomberg Philanthropies created the Our Cities, Our Climate Exchange for city officials across the globe: because we want to create a platform for urban leaders to share their individual successes and to exchange ideas about those future projects that can make a difference.

Sustainability directors from 19 different cities have spent the past 10 days discussing ways to transport people using less fuel, keep people warm using less oil, recycle materials with less waste, and much more. And if you ask any of the participants, I expect that they will tell you they did not come here to talk about theoretical solutions. They came here to be practical and to find practical actions that they can take. And all of this matters because the actions that leaders are taking at the local level will send a timely message at the global level.

Now, I am not here to tell you that a global climate agreement is going to be the silver bullet that eliminates the threat that is currently posed by climate change. What we accomplish in Paris is not going to get the total job done, it is going to set the stage and be a major jump-off point for which the marketplace can begin and the private sector can begin to take a cue from all of these governments setting their targets.

The kind of agreement that we’re working toward will prove that world leaders finally understand and accept responsibility for the scope of this problem.

It will give confidence to business leaders who are uncertain about our collective commitment and hesitant to invest in low-carbon alternatives that we need because of that perceived hesitancy by governments.

It will help leaders at every level of government on the globe to know that they’re part of a worldwide commitment to build sustainable communities.

So please tell everyone – the business community, the public, your partners in government – tell them all how critical it is that the world come together in Paris and have an agreement. Failure is not an option.

This is a time of extraordinary urgency, incredible possibility, and together we have the rarest of opportunities to change – to change not only our cities and our countries, but the entire world, all of which bears responsibility.

I think the Holy Father in his visit here could not have made it more clear to us in poignant and meaningful ways that perhaps no politician has the ability to begin to touch why this is so important and how we all bear personal responsibility to help deal with it. So I look forward to working with all of you to help get the job done, and there could not be a stronger, better, more committed partner – a more courageous person who’s willing to act on what he believes no matter what brickbats come his way – please welcome with me, if you will, the former mayor of New York and the current special envoy, Mike Bloomberg. (Applause.)

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: The height doesn’t quite work for me, John. Sorry about that. (Laughter.) Tall people, I’ve pointed out to John before, have a real --

SECRETARY KERRY: Doesn’t always work for me, either.

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: No, no, no. They have a distinct advantage. They know when it rains – starts and stops raining quicker than the rest of us, but short of that – anyway, Secretary Kerry, John, I just wanted to thank you for that kind introduction and thank you for hosting us today, and seriously, thank you and the President for your strong leadership on climate change. Everybody expects you to come up with a solution overnight that will be painless and cost-free. You haven’t done that, but you certainly have moved the goalposts, and we appreciate everything you’ve done. And it’s up to the rest of us to continue the battle – a battle that we absolutely have to win.

America is best when she leads from the front, and I think you and the President deserve enormous credit for bringing the full forces of American diplomacy – American diplomatic might to bear on the challenge. And I also want to thank you for recognizing a fundamental truth that was overlooked for too long: We cannot address climate change effectively without putting cities at the center of the agenda. Now, the fact is cities account for more than 70 percent of global greenhouse gases. People are always talking about getting to the root of the problems, and in this case, it’s not complicated. Cities are the root of this problem.

But cities are also the source of the solution. And now, thanks to Secretary Kerry and other leaders, the voices of cities are being heard.

When the United Nations Climate Summit convenes in Paris in two months, there’s going to be a different dynamic than there was at past conferences in previous decades. Those conferences failed to produce a truly global agreement. But since then, cities have stepped onto the stage and, without a lot of fanfare, they’ve become – begun forming their own global alliances. They’ve acted because the stakes are very high, higher than they are for national leaders, and the incentives are also stronger.

And let me briefly explain what I mean by that. When a hurricane fueled by warmer oceans and rising sea levels and destroys homes and businesses, people turn to their local leaders for help and answers. When air pollution sends children to the hospital, as John pointed out, with asthma attacks, parents don’t turn to the members of Congress; they demand that the mayors do something about it.

Around the world, national legislators tend to see climate change as an abstraction and a long-term policy issue. Mayors see it as an immediate economic and health issue. People’s lives and people’s livelihoods are at stake. This is a public health and environmental issue. If you want to worry about 2050, I think you should, but if you really want to go home and look your family in the eye and say I did something today so that you, my kids, my spouse, my companion are going to have a longer, healthier life, that’s where you really have to focus – doing things that improve the climate right now.

Keep in mind, when a city has cleaner air more people want to live there and more companies want to do business there. And that’s why, surprisingly, Beijing is shutting its four biggest coal-burning power plants. And they’ve also put a smoking ban in Beijing and, I might point out, the Chinese Government owns the cigarette companies and yet they’ve done this. Why? Because the people of Beijing and the people of China, just like the people of Washington, D.C. and all the cities in America, want to be able to live longer, healthier lives.

Now, climate – carbon pollution carries a heavy economic cost that cities bear the brunt of, so attacking climate change and promoting economic growth really do go hand-in-hand. Mayors understand that and they have the political incentives to act. Global challenges used to be the exclusive domain of heads of state, but this challenge is different. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that climate change may now be the first global problem where success will depend on how local services are delivered, such as energy, transportation, and waste disposal.

Just by acting on their own, cities can singlehandedly reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by four gigatons over the next 15 years. That’s like eliminating a quarter of all of the coal pollution that exists in the whole world today. And the good news is mayors are eager to take this challenge on. They’re not dragging their feet or debating the science; they’re rolling up their sleeves and they’re working together to spread the most effective solutions. Why? Because when the mayors talk to their constituents, the constituents, unlike what you read in the paper from members of Congress or anybody else – the constituents of all of the mayors in this city know that something is happening, they’re scared, and they want a fix.

I would suggest if you go to North or South Carolina right now, you probably won’t find very many people who say climate change isn’t real. Now, all of a sudden, the debate has changed – well, it’s not manmade. I don’t know if it’s manmade or not; science can only speculate. But the bottom line is no rational person should sit there with a risk that’s so serious that it literally is life-threatening and not try to do something to ameliorate that risk and prevent problems down the road.

And that’s why we’re here today. It’s great to have so many mayors and city officials joining us. I know that many of you have spent the last week crisscrossing the country as guests of the International Visitor Leadership Program. And I’ve seen firsthand what works when one city usually holds valuable lessons for many others. Each city has its own unique culture and its own unique needs. But the principal nuts and bolts of mass transit, parks, sanitation, and the power grid tend to be pretty similar. So the more we help mayors and city officials innovate and collaborate, the more progress we can all make.

And I might point out that pollution that comes from one place hurts everybody. It doesn’t matter where you make the efficiencies, where you make the improvements – we all benefit. And the contrary is also true – if anybody else pollutes, we all suffer.

And that’s the purpose of the new partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies and the State Department. It will build on the work that our foundation has been supporting for years. Some of that work has been through the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which now has more than 80 members, and some of it has been through the Compact of Mayors, which commits cities to publicly detail their goals and using a common yardstick for measuring their performance, which allows the public to hold them accountable. Mayors are always held accountable by the press and by the voters. What mayors do you can measure, whether they do it or they didn’t do it. And the voters, when they get to the polls, reward or punish those that don’t do the right thing.

Two hundred cities have now signed onto the compact, and we’re happy that the White House is pushing for a hundred more U.S. cities to join by the end of this year. This new partnership with the State Department will complement the work and help spread it around the world. Our Cities, Our Climate Initiative will connect mayors and policyholders all around the world. It will recruit international sustainability experts and NGOs to help cities share best practices, coordinate their efforts, and implement the most effective climate actions.

Cities are anxious to lead, and more – the more they learn from one another and they borrow from one another, the more progress the world can make on climate change. So as you have explored Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, I hope you’ve been taking good notes and keeping an eye out for ideas you can borrow and improve on. And having the State Department enlisted in that work is going to make a very big difference, and we’re grateful to Secretary Kerry for making this partnership possible and for making this issue such an important priority.

One of the benefits of this work is that it also helps to embolden national leaders to make more ambitious commitments by providing them – by proving to them just how much progress is possible. In Kyoto back in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009, national governments didn’t have a good sense of that, and they certainly didn’t have any data on it. Now they do. Now they know just how quickly cities are moving. And when they sit down this year in Paris this December, they will have something else that they didn’t have before: They will have a model for action. The cooperative networks that cities have created and the commitments that they have made and the reporting systems that they have agreed to provide a template for an international agreement. Cities are proving that this model can work, and that’s why all of us have good reason to be more hopeful about this summit than the previous one.

Now, of course, cities can’t do it alone. National leadership remains essential, and I applaud the Obama Administration for its clean power plan and also for its new rules on methane. Cities will never fully displace nations in the global fight against climate change any more than they can singlehandedly reduce global poverty or expand global trade or improve global security. But cities can be full and equal partners in all of this work, and I think Secretary Kerry will attest heads of state will be happy for the help – and they’re going to need it.

So let me once again thank Secretary Kerry. You have been right, John, declaring that addressing climate change is only possible with a strategy that, as you said, transcends borders, sectors, and the levels of government. Today’s gathering proves this effort is already well underway, and I want to thank each of you in this room for that important role that you’re playing.

And as part of this work, I also want to invite you to join us in Paris in December. We’re not going to have a unified solution to all the world’s problems, and certainly not to climate change. But it is a report card, it is a step, and it’s an impetus to national and local governments to understand that the public wants to lead longer, healthier lives and that we are the ones responsible for doing that. We’ll be co-hosting a cities summit with the mayor of Paris on December 4th, and the more cities that attend, the more our voices will be heard. So I hope to see many of you again in Paris.

We all have to keep up the good work. This is the future of our families, this is the future of our countries, this is the future of the planet. Nobody knows how much and how fast things are happening, but just let me point out 2014 was the warmest year in the history of the world. The first half of 2015 was the warmest six months in the history of the world. The month of July 2015 was the warmest month in the history of the world that we can measure. If you take a look in the oceans, half of all the fish species have had their populations decline by 50 percent in the last – since 20 – since 1970. Something is going on out there, and sitting around and arguing about who’s responsible and whether it’s this or whether it’s that is just an outrage. We should do everything we can, and let’s hope that it’s just a short-term phenomenon, but none of us should run the risk that it’s not.

Thank you very much, and John, thank you. (Applause.)

1 Misspoken program name corrected here.
2 More than 200 cities have signed the Compact of Mayors.