Remarks on Climate Change and National Security

Remarks
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, VA
November 10, 2015


SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very, very much. Thank you. Thank you so much. Good morning, Old Dominion University. Or what are we now? Yeah, it’s still morning. (Laughter.) I am really delighted to be with you today and I very much appreciate the warm welcome. Let me just say right at the top that the work that ODU is doing with respect to sea level rise and climate change is work that every university should be doing, and I am deeply grateful for the commitment of this university to that effort.

Mr. Harnage, thank you very much for welcoming me here. I appreciate it. I want to thank Congressman Bobby Scott, a friend of mine, all of the state and local leaders who are here, who have joined us today. I want to thank the men and women in uniform, the students, the faculty of ODU, and everyone else who has come throughout the Hampton Roads community. And certainly, I want to thank my friend and former colleague – Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa is here. And I don't know what you’re doing here, but – (applause) – he’s been my partner on these issues for many, many years, and I’m really delighted to see Tom here.

It’s special for me to be here in Norfolk, which a place where – for centuries – America’s fighting men and women have prepared for the missions of defense of our country and obviously for the advancement of our ideals. And I am particularly glad to be here on the eve of Veterans Day. As we were sadly reminded just this weekend, when two U.S. contractors doing police training in the Middle East were killed in Jordan, Americans remain on the front lines in many areas of the world and they put their lives at risk every single day to protect our interests and to defend our freedom. And tomorrow, as we pause to honor our courageous veterans, I hope everyone will say a prayer of thanks for the men and women of our armed forces and a prayer, as well, to keep them safe. (Applause.)

On that note, let me say a special word of thanks to America Luna – herself, as you heard, an Army veteran, two tours of duty in Iraq and also a student here at ODU. And I’m very grateful to her, first for her generous introduction. But I’m also really much more grateful to her for her commitment as a result of her service to help fellow veterans do the transition as they come out of the service and work through either issues or work into the private sector.

I was a few years younger than Ms. Luna when I joined the Navy. And being here in Norfolk – and frankly, earlier this morning over at the base – took me right back to that time, which you can tell from the color of my hair obviously was many years ago.

But this morning I had the privilege of helping the Marines assembled aboard USS San Antonio to celebrate the Marine Corps birthday, 240 years. It is a great day for the United States Marine Corps. (Applause.) A little tough for me to see the same number of candles on their cake as I’ll see on – no, I’m joking about that. (Laughter.)

I am very, very proud of my time in the Navy. I learned a lot. I owe the Navy a lot for what it taught me. On my first deployment to Southeast Asia, I served on a guided missile frigate in the Gulf of Tonkin. And I spent my second tour in Vietnam skippering a patrol boat in the waterways of the Mekong Delta. Obviously, it was a complicated time, but I remember being struck by the incredible natural beauty of the rivers and of the delta, as well as the constant movement of people and goods along it. And despite the war, the Mekong was a center of commerce and a focus of daily life. It remains that today, in much the same way that the grand harbor of Norfolk is, in fact, central to life here.

Now, during my first year as Secretary of State, I returned to Vietnam, and specifically to the Mekong. It was an incredible experience, obviously, on a personal level. And while I couldn’t help but recall some of the past, the principal purpose of my visit and my tour of the Mekong was the future.

And today, I am here to underscore a point that I also made on that trip: The future of that region and others – and particularly places near the water in every part of the world – will depend on whether we, as a global community, can come together to address the challenge of climate change.

Now, I make something – (applause). I say this very clearly, because I’m proud of it: I am an environmentalist. I came to the table as an environmentalist long before I became lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, let alone senator. I’ve been an environmentalist all my life.

But the reason I have made climate change a priority in my current role as Secretary of State is not simply because climate change is a threat to the environment. It’s because – by fueling extreme weather events, undermining our military readiness, exacerbating conflicts around the world – climate change is a threat to the security of the United States and, indeed, to the security and stability of countries everywhere.

When we talk about climate change, we’re not just talking about the harm that is caused to the habitat for butterflies or polar bears – as some people try to mock it – as serious as those effects might be. We are talking about the impacts on people – people everywhere – of severe droughts, rapid sea level rise. We’re talking about the impacts on whole cities of unpredictable and uncontrollable extreme weather events. We’re talking about the impact on entire countries of fundamental shocks to the global agricultural system.

And when you factor in all of these things, my friends, you can see why, when we talk about the impacts of climate change, we’re not just up against some really serious ecological challenges. We also have to prepare ourselves for the potential social and political consequences that stem from crop failures, water shortages, famine, outbreaks of epidemic disease, which we saw a near brush with Ebola in three African countries last year. And we have to heighten our national security readiness to deal with the possible destruction of vital infrastructure and the mass movement of refugees, particularly in parts of the world that already provide fertile ground for violent extremism and terror. Long story short, climate change is not just about Bambi; it’s about all of us in very personal and important ways.

Now, those who paint climate change as just another partisan, political issue actually don’t like to hear that line of argument. Last year, when my friend Chuck Hagel, our Secretary of Defense at the time, argued that climate change and security were closely linked, the editors of one major newspaper actually labeled him a “tree-hugger.” And before that, when I made the same argument, one prominent politician called on me to resign.

Now, believe me, I wish I were wrong about this. It would be better for all of us if I was exaggerating the urgency of this threat. But the science tells us unequivocally: Those who continue to make climate change a political fight put us all at risk. (Applause.) And we cannot sit idly by and allow them to do that.

I’d also underscore I have been focused on this challenge of climate change for a long time. I was at the second UN Earth Summit, held in Rio way back in 1992. Even then, the call for action on pollution and clean energy was coming not just from environmental activists but also from scientists and private sector entrepreneurs. And today, Americans advocating action on climate change come from all walks of life and both sides of the aisle. The list includes economists like former President George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who called climate change “a crisis we cannot afford to ignore.” It includes diplomats like Ronald Reagan’s former Secretary of State George Shultz, who says that on climate change, “We have to be a leader.”

And it certainly includes military brass. Last year, a group of 16 retired three-and four-star flag and general officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, who make up the Center for Naval Analysis, CNA’s Military Advisory Board, released a report on the accelerating national security impacts of climate change. Attached to the report is a letter, signed by all 16 officers, imploring readers to look beyond the polarizing public discourse and understand the severity of what, I quote, “so many believe to be a salient national security concern for our nation.” As they put it, “Time and tide wait for no one.”

Decades of science tell us beyond any reasonable doubt that human beings are directly causing and accelerating climate change, and that unless we take bold steps now to transition away from a carbon-based economy, we are facing irreversible damage to our habitat, infrastructure, food production, water supplies, sea levels, and potentially to life itself.

Now, there are some – there are some running around this country campaigning even now – who refuse to acknowledge the human cause and effect on climate change because they say they themselves are “not scientists.” Well, a lot of us went to high school and learned that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and the Earth revolves around its axis, and we believe it but we’re not scientists. (Laughter.) And these people, even as they ignore the conclusions of 97 percent of the peer-reviewed scientific studies – several thousand studies – that have addressed this issue.

Others claim to accept the science that proves how and why climate change is occurring, but they refuse to give the same credence to the same science and scientists who are outlining the potentially dire consequences if steps are not taken to address it. Complete disconnect. Now, that may be a convenient way to view the challenge, since it absolves us of responsibility, but it happens to also defy common sense.

As any sailor, marine, soldier, airman, or coastguardsman will tell you: You don’t have to wait until you’re 100 percent certainty of an imminent threat before you take action to prevent it. And no one in the United States Military would hesitate. Some skepticism, I’m sure, is understandable. It’s even important. But at a certain point, folks, if it causes you to wait too long or to ignore reality altogether, it becomes very dangerous.

You certainly don’t need to be a scientist to see that our climate is already changing.

How many of you are under 29 years old here today? Raise your hands. Under 29. I know a lot you want to, I’m sorry. (Laughter.)

But while those of you with your hands in the air, I want you to know – you can put them down – I want you to know you haven’t lived through a single month that was cooler than its 20th century average – not one. Think about that. It means that what used to be normal no longer is.

The past decade was the hottest on record. The one before that was the second hottest on record. The one before that was the third hottest on record. You beginning to get it? Three decades in a row.

Nineteen of the 20 warmest years in recorded history have occurred in the past two decades. And this year, my friends, is on track to be the warmest of all.

In recent years, what we used to think of as extreme weather has started to become plain-old weather. In some places, the kind of flooding that happened every 500 years or so is now expected to happen every 25 years. Americans living in California are currently experiencing one of the longest, most severe droughts in their state’s history. And it’s hard to even to turn on the news without hearing about a record-breaking storm, drought, or wildfire.

And it’s well known by now that these kinds of events are expected to become more frequent as our planet warms and our glaciers melt, as our seas rise.

In other words, this is going to be like Mother Nature on steroids.

And that is going to have very real impacts on our communities, on our economy, our military, and it will exacerbate the development challenges that we already face.

Now, the physical security implications are really pretty straightforward. I went to Tacloban in the Philippines, not too long after Typhoon Haiyan, just – what was it – in 2013 after I had become Secretary. No words can do justice to the level of the destruction that they experienced or that I saw: an entire community leveled; water up to the second floor of the airport’s traffic control tower; cars, homes, and lives turned upside-down. And as we flew in, we saw trees scattered like toothpicks along the mountainside. And most devastating of all, the storm killed more than 5,000 men, women, and children.

The cost of rebuilding after a storm like that is astronomical. Last year in the United States, there were eight extreme weather events that came with a price tag exceeding a billion dollars. That is a billion dollars – or more – spent to rebuild and reinforce after each individual event – eight billion. And we’re struggling to find three billion for the Green Climate Fund for the talks in Paris.

And when extreme weather leads to natural disasters and humanitarian suffering – guess what – our military responds and they respond bravely and with great skill, but it takes our troops away from work on other important missions.

Which leads me to another major factor and another major reason that climate change is a security threat: It has a direct impact on military readiness.

Now, of course, this is something that folks in Hampton Roads know pretty well. Norfolk Naval Station is the biggest naval installation – not just in the United States, but in the world. And the land it is built on is literally sinking.

Local sea levels are rising twice as fast as the global average. The waters have already crept up a foot and a half since the 1920s. The streets now flood when there’s a rainstorm at high tide. And the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has projected that if the current trends hold, the sea in Norfolk could rise by five and a half feet or more by the end of this very century. That’s within the life expectancy of a newborn child today. Think about what that could mean for this base and this community – and for the 28 other military facilities in the Hampton Roads area. Think about what that could mean for the U.S. Navy fleet – 20 percent of which is home-ported nearby. I just left one of the ships, the USS San Antonio, where I was briefed on what’s happening and sea level rise on the East Coast. This region, next to New Orleans, is the most impacted. And they talked to me about the preparations they have to make and are making now in order to try to deal with this.

What’s causing most of this sea level rise is the one-two punch that is mandated by the laws of science – not politics – science: As ocean water warms, it expands. But that’s not all: As the atmosphere warms, ice all over the world melts. Now, we’re seeing this dramatically in the Arctic – from the glaciers of Alaska, which President Obama and I visited to try to point this out during this last summer, to the massive Ice Sheet of Greenland. Now, it may sound kind of flip to some of you, but what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Make no mistake about it: Arctic ice melt is contributing to sea level rise right here in Norfolk now. And the national security implications of a changing Arctic were a key factor in my deciding to make addressing climate change a central element in our current chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

Now, ice that is in the Arctic, as all of you know from your science, displaces water. And so as it melts, it doesn’t have the same impact except for that above surface, et cetera. But ice on Greenland is on rock. It is not currently displacing anything. And you can look there in the summer and see a torrent, a river racing underneath that ice out into the ocean as it melts away. And you can look at graphic images, digital, of that shrinking ice mass year by year over the last years. Just go Google it, look it up; you’ll see it.

If our military vehicles are unable to move anywhere in the region here or elsewhere because they’re up to their axles in water and all the roads leading into and out of the base here are flooded, that affects military readiness. Similarly, if the high risk of wildfires prevents our troops somewhere from training with live ammunition, that affects readiness. If the permafrost our Alaska bases are built on begins to thaw out, as it is in some places, and then becomes less stable, that affects military readiness.

And the direct impacts on our military’s ability to defend our nation are not the end of the peril that climate change could pose to our national security; they’re just the beginning. This is a point my friend and former Senate colleague from the Commonwealth of Virginia, Senator John Warner, made eloquently and repeatedly. He was also, by the way, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and secretary of the Navy. And John said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’ making worse the problems that already exist.”

And we’re already seeing that happen. For example, in Nigeria, climate change didn’t lead to the rise of the terrorist group Boko Haram. But the severe drought that that country suffered – and the government’s inability to cope with it – helped create the political and economic volatility that the militants exploited to seize villages, butcher teachers, and kidnap hundreds of innocent school girls.

Similarly, it’s not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record. As many as 1.5 million people migrated from Syria’s farms to its cities, intensifying the political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region.

Again, I am not suggesting that climate change was the primary reason for the crisis in Syria – obviously, it wasn’t. The war was launched by a brutal dictator who began attacking, torturing, and barrel-bombing his own people. But the drought that devastated communities across the country exacerbated instability on the ground and made a bad situation worse and forced people to migrate, so you had a mixing in a very sectarian place, where, at a sectarian time of definition, where people were exploiting that sectarianism, that made a ready pool of recruits.

Just last month, a study was published indicating, quote, “the combination of high temperatures and humidity could, within just a century, result in extreme conditions around the Persian Gulf that are intolerable to human beings, if climate change continues unabated.” Scholars suggest that access to air conditioning could well mean the difference between life and death in such hot spots as Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE.

And the prospect of a hotter, drier climate throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia will place even more strain on the most precious and essential resource of all – fresh water. We’ve already seen tensions rise around the basins of the Nile River in Africa, the Indus River in South Asia, and of course, the Mekong River in Southeast Asia.

Consider that almost every country with land borders shares some international river basins with its neighbors. Historically, this has led to more cooperation than conflict. But if the water starts to disappear, and climate change is expected to significantly alter both access to and the availability of fresh water, imagine the tensions that can rise. There have been books written about war over water. Pressures and demands will steadily increase, and the future may look very different from the past.

Our future national security strategy is going to be affected also by what’s going on in the Arctic. The melting of the polar cap is opening sea lanes that never before existed. The potential there is already there for a global race to exploit the resources of the region. Everybody knows Russia planted a flag on the North Pole bottom. Other countries are up there, China and others, with their ships, mapping out the exploitation of resources, including oil, natural gas, fish. Economic riches tend to attract military interest as nations seek to ensure their own rights are protected. And we know, because we track it, that these countries – like Russia, China, and others – are active in the Arctic. China is modernizing and expanding its navy. The United States believes that all activities in the Arctic should be carried out peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law.

But climate change raises the stakes, and we all need to ensure that we are taking steps to prevent competition – new competition – from leading to conflict.

The bottom line is that the impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict, especially in places already undergoing economic, political, and social stress. And because the world is so extraordinarily interconnected today – economically, technologically, militarily, in every way imaginable – instability anywhere can be a threat to stability everywhere. The kind of strife that we’re talking about is not going to be contained by international borders any more than all of those refugees pouring out of Syria are contained by the borders of Europe.

For one thing, areas facing unrest and instability and weak governance are breeding grounds for violent extremism. And we all know that to terrorist groups like Daesh/ISIL, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaida, people of all nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and sects are targets.

And then there’s the issue of mass migration itself. People who can no longer make a decent living the way their families have for generations – by farming, fishing, herding – will have no choice but to seek other opportunities, mostly in other places. And those other places may not have the capacity to support them either.

What about families who can’t afford to buy food for their children because the prices are skyrocketing because of shortages? What about supermarket shelves that could be empty in various places where they don’t have the kind of delivery system that we’re blessed to have in our country? Those people too could become desperate and begin looking for other means to survive.

Human beings are just like any other species in that regard. When our environments no longer provide us for the things that we need to survive, we will do everything we can to find a new place to live. And history has shown that, documented through the centuries.

As I speak, we are in the middle of one of the worst refugee and migration crises in decades. And I would underscore: Unless we are able to respond to the urgency of this moment, the horrific situation that we are viewing today may deteriorate exponentially in light of more intense droughts, rising seas, and other impacts of climate change.

Now, there’s no question that this is a complicated picture, and in places it’s a grim one. But the good news is – and there is good news, folks; this is why this is so frustrating, to be honest with you – there’s nothing preordained about the course that we’re on. The challenge that we face may be immense, but – and I cannot emphasize this point enough – it is not insurmountable. (Applause.)

To start, we have to do more to prepare for the impacts of climate change that we already know are coming our way.

Climate change adaptation is a key pillar of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, and all federal agencies are currently doing their part to help improve our nation’s resilience to climate impacts.

The Defense Department has taken a number of steps to ensure that its military planning efforts take climate change into account. And the admirals of both the Coast Guard and the Navy today who talked to me about what they’re doing made it very clear about the level of whole-of-military effort in this regard. Geographic Combatant Commands now incorporate the risk imposed by current projected climate variations into their resource requirements and assessments and other operational considerations. The Department of the Navy has set a goal of producing or procuring at least 50 percent of shore-based energy requirements from clean energy sources by 2020, and they’re making steady progress. (Applause.) Just last month the department announced a 10-year agreement with Dominion Virginia Power to supply solar energy for Naval Station Norfolk.

Ensuring our military is as resilient as possible will require unprecedented cooperation at all levels of government. And the pilot program housed right here at Old Dominion University is a perfect example of the type of coordinated effort that we need to deploy from sea to shining sea, folks. (Applause.)

Now, because the Hampton Roads area is particularly vulnerable to climate change, the Defense Department recognizes that the risks extend beyond our military facilities to the roads and bridges off base that are used by military commuters, as well as the water systems, the local airports, local schools attended by military dependents, and other state and local infrastructure. So an effective adaptation strategy cannot be developed and implemented by the federal government alone. It’s going to require coordination with state and local leaders as well.

That is the idea behind the pilot project that is run through ODU’s Center for Sea Level Rise – developing a “whole of government” and “whole of community” approach to sea level rise preparedness and resilience planning. And this is going to help solve the significant challenges that Hampton Roads is facing, and can also be used as a template for communities facing similar challenges in other parts of the country. Cities and communities have to play a leading role in the global response to climate change, and I’m pleased to tell you a lot of them are. That’s why earlier this month the State Department launched a separate partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, to help connect city officials around the world so that they can learn from one another and expand the reach of good ideas.

Now, just as the Pentagon has begun to view our military planning through a climate lens, ultimately, we have to integrate climate considerations into every aspect of our foreign policy – from development and humanitarian aid to peacebuilding and diplomacy.

And that starts with getting a better understanding of the complex links between climate change and national security.

Today I am pleased to announce that I will be convening a task force of senior government officials to determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities. For example, the strategic plans our embassies use should account for expected climate impacts so that our diplomats can work with host countries to focus on prevention – to proactively address climate-driven stresses on people’s livelihoods, health, and security and to do it before it evolves into deep grievances that fuel conflicts.

Given the “threat-multiplier” effect we have already observed in many places around the world, collaboration on climate risk assessment should be part and parcel of every one of our diplomatic relationships, and we will see to it that it is.

We’re also working closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development to improve our conflict early warning and prevention capability. The U.S. Government currently employs state-of-the-art tools to help address the fragility and risk of instability around the world. By overlaying an analysis of climate vulnerability with those assessments, we think we’ll be able to better identify areas where combined risks are particularly high and where there are critical opportunities for conflict prevention and resilience before it is too late.

And here’s the upshot: If we can better identify “red flags” of risk around the world, we can better target our diplomacy and development assistance in order to enable those nations to become more resilient, more secure, and less likely to fall into a full-fledged war or humanitarian crisis.

So there are many things – there are many things that we can do and we are beginning to do in order to prepare for the changes before we’re too late to obviously stop them.

Now, the other good thing: The worst impacts are not inevitable. We still have time to transition to a global clean energy economy, and put the world on a much safer, much more sustainable path. And believe me: If we let the opportunity to do so pass us by, it may be the primary thing that our generation is remembered for. (Applause.)

Folks, I believe the solution to climate change is not some pie-in-the-sky theory. It’s not sitting in some professor’s mind or desk somewhere in the world waiting for them to pronounce it. It’s here now. We see it. We know what it is. It’s called energy policy. And the sooner we can move rapidly to a low-carbon economy and lead the world in the new technologies to do so, the sooner we will solve this problem in its entirety. It’s that straight. (Applause.)

I’m proud to say that this is a challenge that President Obama has taken head on – and thanks to the bold policies that he’s put in place, we are emitting less than we have in two decades. We’ve doubled the distance that our cars will go on a gallon of gas by 2025; we’ve tripled the wind power generation; and we have multiplied solar power generation in America 20 times over. (Applause.) The United States has cut our total carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.

But let me be clear: We can’t address this problem all by ourselves. Even if every single American biked to work or carpooled to school, used solar power panels to power their homes, if we each planted a dozen trees, and did all of this at the same time – that still wouldn’t be enough to counteract the carbon pollution coming from the rest of the world. This is a global challenge, and that’s why we are working to offer global leadership. We can only deal with this with a global solution.

But American leadership – I say to you clearly and without equivocation – American leadership is critical to global success.

And President Obama and I have made this a top priority of this Administration. As Secretary of State, I have made engaging the rest of the world in the fight against climate change a matter of the highest diplomatic priority. Every single meeting we have we raise this, leading into the Paris talks next month. And at the heart of that fight, we are seeking to reach an ambitious, durable, and inclusive agreement at the UN climate conference next month in Paris. That’s our goal. (Applause.)

Now, that’s not just talk. To that end, we have already for the last years been working closely with countries on every continent to help them change their energy mix and move away from cheap high-carbon energy sources like coal. Now, sometimes these conversations are difficult, particularly in places and states like this where it’s mined. I get it. It’s hard. But what’s a lot harder is explaining to people later on down the road why, when we had other alternatives available to us, we didn’t turn to them.

Other nation points – I hear this all the time; they point to America’s own industrial revolution, during which we were developing and growing and polluting without constraint – and, I might add, without awareness – and they argue that they only want what we had – the chance to expand their economies in the same way. And in response, we explain that the United States did not know the damage we were doing to the planet. We underscore that we did not have the smarter, cleaner, and more efficient energy opportunities that exist today. And we point out that these new technologies and practices will only become cheaper and easier to deploy as countries embrace them.

Now, I have been deeply immersed in this issue, in this international debate for decades, and the question of whether the United States would be willing to make the same tough choices that we advocate to the rest of the world – that question has dogged us from the start.

Recently, we had the opportunity to prove that the answer to that question is yes.

This past Friday, I informed President Obama of the State Department’s, my determination that permitting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is not in the national interest of the United States. (Applause.)

Now, I know all the arguments. Believe me, I know them backwards and forwards for the last year and a half, studying them very carefully. The fact is that permitting Keystone would not have been the long-term economic driver that its advocates claimed. It would not have had a measurable impact on our energy security. And it would have been basically irrelevant when it comes to gas prices for American consumers, which were already coming down, as you know.

But what it would do, or would have done, is facilitate the passage into and through our country of one of the dirtiest sources of fuel on the planet.

And quite simply, this is no time right now for business as usual. If we’re going to lead on climate change, we shouldn’t grant American legitimacy for the pioneering of a particularly carbon-intensive form of energy at a time when we should be leading the world in a different and far smarter – and frankly, readily available – direction. That’s what we ought to be doing. (Applause.)

Already, four times as many Americans – get this, four times as many Americans – are employed by renewable energy companies today than are employed by the fossil fuel industry. Clean energy job growth is happening at double the rate of the economy writ large – and the solar industry is growing at 10 times that rate. Over the next 15 years, $17 trillion is expected to be invested in energy – and the vast majority of that in clean energy. This is one of the greatest economic opportunities the world has ever seen, and if we continue to make smart choices, American businesses and American workers stand to benefit enormously. With this in mind, last month I convened the Secretary’s Climate and Clean Energy Investment Forum with 300 of the world’s top investors, energy innovators, and public policy experts, all focused on expanding clean-energy development around the world.

Make no mistake: America’s choices matter to the rest of the world. I was privileged to be in Beijing last year when President Obama stood next to President Xi jointly, side-by-side, to announce our respective, ambitious post-2020 mitigation targets. That didn’t just happen. We’d gone over there the year before and sat with the Chinese, who were opposed to what we were trying to do in Copenhagen and in Kyoto. And we talked them through it and pointed out how this is opening markets for all of us. That moment brought new hope for the potential of landmark progress leading into the Paris negotiations. And I am pleased to say that as a result of China and the United States standing up and announcing together that we would together announce our intended national determined contributions to reductions – INDCs, as they’re called – by doing that, today I can tell you that more than 150 other countries – representing nearly 90 percent of the world’s emissions – have now announced their own targets. That’s leadership. (Applause.)

Today an effective global climate agreement is within reach. I can’t tell you that it will be got, but it’s within reach. And everyone in this room – everyone in every room, for that matter – has a stake in putting the right pressure on their leaders and the global community to reach this goal.

I’m not going to tell you that a global climate agreement is going to be the silver bullet that eliminates the threat posed by climate change. But the truth is we won’t eliminate it without an agreement in Paris.

And the kind of agreement that we’re working toward is one that will prove that the world’s leaders finally understand the scope of the challenge that we are up against.

It will give confidence, above all, to business leaders, to the private sector, who are uncertain about our collective commitment and therefore in many places hesitant to invest notwithstanding all the investment I talked about, some sitting on the sidelines. And they hesitate to invest in the low-carbon alternatives because they’re not yet certain that this is the direction that leaders in the world are going to move in.

If we can do this in Paris, we will send that message to leaders in the world. We will send that message to citizens, to mayors, to governors, to people all around who have to make the choices. And it will help officials at every level of government to know that they are part of a worldwide commitment to build sustainable economies. And most important, it will put us all on a path toward a cleaner, healthier, and – yes – safer and more secure future. (Applause.)

Now, let me be clear. If we didn’t – if we don’t act with greater boldness now, it could be the single-most profound betrayal by one generation of another or of others in history. But we have to prevent that. And obviously, you can hear, I believe we can. It’s not too late to curb emissions, to limit the damage, to seize the environmental and the economic and the security benefits of a cleaner, greener energy future.

The United States is the world’s greatest innovator. We are proud of that. And in Paris, we intend to send a clear message to the rest of the world that we are committed to solving this problem. And thanks to America’s private sector ingenuity, we are seeing enormous breakthroughs in battery storage, new frontiers of renewable energy. In the military, we’re seeing important developments in the way renewable technologies are being used. For example, our military was the first to deploy solar panels to the field in Afghanistan in order to reduce the reliance on fuel convoys.

This is a military town. And when I was in the Navy we used to have a saying, and I’m certain it’s still used today: “Ship, shipmate, self.” Putting the greater good above one’s personal interests is second nature to most of our military men and women. And that sentiment has to guide our effort to overcome this global threat.

I’ll just tell you folks – Tom Harkin will ratify this. I mean, if we got – or Bobby Scott. If we got one really good public benefit to come out of some of the choices you have to vote on sometimes, that was a big deal. Hard choices sometimes. This is – should be a no-brainer because the benefits we get are living up to our legacy and living up to our obligation to be caretakers of the planet given to us, incidentally, by the scriptures of every major religion and every major philosophy of life.

This is our responsibility. So we’d live up to that. We’d create millions of new jobs. As I told you, the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. We would provide better health for people, less particulates in the air, less cancer. Greatest cause of children going to the hospital in America during the summer is environmentally induced asthma. It costs us billions.

So how many benefits? Health, environment, legacy, security, energy independence – all of these things come with the benefit of doing this. And if we were wrong, we’d still have all of those benefits. But if the naysayers are wrong, catastrophe.

It shouldn’t be a hard choice, folks. We have a moral responsibility to protect the future of our nation and our world. That is our charge. That is our duty. And for our ship, for our shipmates, all of us, and for the generations that follow in their footsteps, we have to get this right.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)