Remarks at the UN Foundation's Breakfast on Oceans

Remarks
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Westin
Paris, France
December 8, 2015


SECRETARY KERRY: (Applause.) Well, Tim, thank you. Thank you very much. Bonjour, all of you. Welcome to yet another spectacularly organized and important event from the UN Foundation. And Ted, thank you for this masterful idea that has produced so much in such a short period of time, although Tim may not think 15 year at the helm is a short period of time. But I thank you, Tim, for your tremendous leadership through the years and I’m very, very honored to be able to be here. Tim and I were cellmates – soulmates in the – (laughter) – in the United States Senate. And he and I and Al Gore and Jack Heinz and John Chafee, Frank Lautenberg – a group of us were all passionately committed to the environment and we all traveled together to Rio for the first conference and went different roads at various times in our careers since then. But Tim’s leadership way back when in the United States Senate – 1986, ’7, ’8, Project 88 and different initiatives – really helped to forge the path. And he comes from a state that reveres the outdoors, and he and Wren passionately pursue their affection for the outdoors by spending as much time as they can in Colorado, and I’m envious. (Laughter.)

When I was young, I spent a lot of time, as Tim mentioned, in Massachusetts, which has a great love of the sea, as you know. We are a seafaring nation – a state. And we have Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod and the great national seashore. And I used to grow up down on the – in the summers on the beach watching these biologists, marine biologists from Woods Hole Oceanographic plugging through the water, taking samples, and I thought, well, that’s really cool, and began to learn about plants and fish and mussels and the threat of pollution to the ocean at the earliest age.

And then of course, President Kennedy in his famous 1962 speech at the America’s Cup spoke of the human connection to the sea. The percentage of our blood, 98 percent or something, that is – has salt in it and it reflects our emergence from the sea and our connection to the sea forever. And we always thought as young people – I think I particularly felt – I mean, you look at the ocean and you watch it, and particularly if you’ve crossed it a number of times – and I have crossed both the Pacific on a naval ship and the ocean in the Atlantic on a steamship – and you just see the vastness of it and the power of it. And it’s hard to fathom as human beings that there is something fragile, something that needs protection. We somehow think of the ocean as a force that is all powerful and can protect itself and is so vast that nothing can really affect it. But we have learned over the years how wrong that impression is. The ocean is fragile, the ocean is an ecosystem, and the ocean requires stewardship just like every other aspect of life on this planet. And for all its size and its majesty, and it is majestic for those who’ve spent time on the ocean, it is vulnerable.

And that’s why I’m here today and that’s why you’re here today, and it couldn’t be more important. My passion for not just the ocean but for this interconnectedness of these issues is what led me as Secretary to convene the first-ever State Department-sponsored, Administration-sponsored oceans conference called Our Oceans. We held it last year. It was very well attended. We had pledges of about $1.8 billion with vast amounts of the ocean being set aside. President Obama set aside one of the largest tracks of land ever – of sea ever protected. And we began a process with commitments by other nations. And interestingly, Chile picked up the baton right there and said, “We’re prepared to do the next ocean conference,” which is what we wanted. And we immediately said, “We’re going to do the third,” which is next September. We are geared to do a massive gathering in Washington, D.C. in September, and I’ve already got President Obama absolutely committed to come, the keynote. And we will – we’re already gearing up, and this time we’re getting my counterpart foreign ministers around the world to commit to be sort of co-chairs and adjuncts in order to bring people from each sector of the globe to begin to deal with these problems. And the reason is very, very simple – next year, I might add, in Chile, EU stood up and said, “We want to do the next conference.” So we’re building something here. We’re really gaining a foothold.

And the reason why this is – and no one should – no one should underestimate how critical it is to deal with the three great problems of the ocean today: problem number one is just plain old pollution – pollution from runoff, from growth and development, pollution from the nitrates from the agricultural practices. And we see it happen inadvertently, not willfully, but nevertheless, one of those byproducts of development and industrialization and agribusiness – macro-agribusiness. So we see a huge amount of nitrates flowing into the Missouri River, into the Mississippi River, the Ohio River, down the Mississippi, coming out into the Gulf, and we have a 500-mile dead zone where nothing grows, nothing lives. And those dead zones are now expanding on a global basis, so the end result – I mean, this is a lesson, reinforcement of the notion that oxygen is pretty important, oxygen is the key to life. And the ocean is the key to oxygen and the cycle and life itself on Earth.

We can’t live without it. That’s one reason why it’s important to protect it. It has an impact on climate. It’s fundamental. The ocean currents are fundamental. And now we’re beginning to hear from scientists that as the ocean warms from global climate change, the currents may in fact change directions. And the impact of that could be absolutely unfathomable with respect to agriculture, food production, rivers, life itself – so the interconnectedness of something we all really need to recognize. And the fact that it transports much of our commerce, supplies, jobs – hundreds of millions of people depend on the ocean.

A vast proportion of the planet gets its protein from the ocean, and that brings up the second great problem. There’s too much money chasing too few fish. And we have illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing – IUU, as it is called – a massive scale. I’ve seen some of these ships in South Africa when I was down there. They’re going to port. They’re from countries way off in Asia. They never go home. They simply sit in the port, they get refurbished, and they go back out and they strip-mine the ocean literally, because some of them are illegally fishing with driftnets that Ted Stevens and I went to the United Nations to try to ban years ago. They did ban it, but there’s nobody enforcing it.

So we don’t have an enforced global system, and that is something that we announced in Chile we are going to put together. We’re putting together a system of interconnectedness on a global law enforcement and military basis, linking also with satellites, with NASA and others, in order to try to put together a regulatory mechanism that will allow us to actually watch the ocean and see what’s happening.

Then of course, beyond the issue of – by the way, the fishing. A driftnet, just so you know, is – can be thousands of miles of monofilament fishing. And sometimes these fishnets break off, and then they become what’s called ghost fishers. They – it sits there in the ocean, fish still swim into it, and then when it’s weighted down enough by the carcasses of the fish it catches, it sinks to the bottom, predators feed off it, and then it floats to the top again and goes through another cycle of fishing till a ship or something gets tangled in it with its propellers. But we banned these because almost two-thirds – 50 percent to two-thirds of the catch gets thrown overboard and wasted because it’s not marketable. So the result is that we are literally strip-mining the ecosystem of the ocean, which is, after all, supposed to be a sustainable resource. And there’s nothing sustainable about the fact that almost every major fishery in the world is in extremis – not all. There are a few places that are putting laws in place – Norway, for example, (inaudible) know is responsible fishing, Iceland, others. But there are too many places that are not responsible about protecting their fishing interests.

And the final thing is climate change and acidification. These are the three great challenges. Climate change and acidification – we are seeing coral bleaching of reefs. People said, “Well, why is that important?” Well, because it’s a habitat for fish, a spawning ground. It’s alive. Coral reefs – reefs are alive until they are dead because of what we do to them. And so we need, obviously, to deal with this question of acidification. Scientists tell us the levels of acidification are higher than ever. In Antarctica there was a regurgitation of CO2. Nobody – I can’t explain it. I’m not sure scientists can completely explain it, and they don’t completely know whether or not it’s at saturation or not. But the whole concept of the sort of precautionary principle of public life requires us not to challenge things that we don’t know how to undo, that we don’t know how to reverse, which is part of the principle of what drives us with respect to climate change itself.

So we have to stop the acidification with respect to our marine environment. And to achieve that, we have to do all the things I just said – they have to be reversed: agricultural practices changed and made sustainable, fishing practices made sustainable, and of course, with respect to the acidification challenge, that is a question of energy policy.

Now just very quickly a couple of things. President Obama has set a goal of designating 10 percent of the ocean and coastal areas as protected and his recent decision to expand the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is part of that. We’re making progress towards that goal. We need to put particular attention into those places we call sinks, which are those that absorb carbon dioxide, like mangroves and salt marshes, sea grasses that act as a shield against storm surges, and are spawning grounds for the next generation of food. And as that is being destroyed by development practices or by ocean rise, it is changing all of these dynamics in ways that none of us can pretend to completely be able to define, but in ways that are obviously just by common sense and science challenging to the highest degree.

Now, I want to just point out that at our next oceans conference we really hope to address each of these with greater commitments by countries to preserves, to sanctuaries, to marine sanctuaries, by other ideas which we could take. And particularly, we want to put the Scout Watch program that we put together for a global mechanism to track fishing. I’m importuning our own military. We transit the ocean. We have ships that go from Hawaii to the Philippines. We go – and other militaries do this also, the navies of the world. But do they stop? Do they ever take a half hour or two hours to perhaps go through an area and check on fishing and report or fish – or enforce? No. We have readymade assets at our disposal that we’re not designating to go out and do these kinds of things. So we’re trying to find creative ways with obvious resource stretching to be able to augment our capacity to be able to enforce.

We now have, as a result of Chile, some $4 billion committed to protect more than 5.9 million square kilometers of the ocean. That’s an area almost twice the size of India, and we’ve done that just in the last two or three years. It’s a remarkable step forward and I believe we can go a lot farther at the next conference, obviously.

The bottom line is that if we are going to save the ocean – I know that sounds very strange to some people, but it’s not an exaggeration. You go out in the Pacific and see that massive circle of trash, of plastic floating – ex-soda pop bottles and even containers that fall off ships, which Ted knows well are a threat to navigation and they’re – more than one sailboat has been sunk that’s racked into them. I think Robert Redford made a movie about it, as a matter of fact. It’s real, it’s out there. The junk in the ocean is a threat to everybody and we have to work together to try to deal with that.

Everybody knows that Herman Melville loved the ocean and lived in New Bedford for a period of time and Nantucket and various places. And he – there’s a movie coming out actually which very much depicts it, “In the Heart of the Sea,” which is a story of the Essex, and we were able to show it to the Australian team when they came in to have a dialogue with us in Boston on security issues, and I just commend it to you. It’s really a wonderful movie and a great depiction of the 1800s and Massachusetts for those of us who care about that. But there’s the great story of the chase of a white whale and ultimately Melville wrote of Captain Ahab to chase that white whale on both sides of land and over all sides of Earth till he spouts black blood and rolls thin out. Well, that was the goal back then. Our goal is the opposite. It’s not to see them roll thin out and spout black blood, it’s to save them and save ourselves in the doing of that. And so I think we have to pursue this mission with the same kind of vigor and the same determination, however, as he did. And that’s the lesson of that great period.

This is not small business, what we’re doing here in Paris – not small business. We spent last year on eight storms more than a billion dollars per storm. Now, I’ve undersold what that actually was. We just calculated it up and actually it was about $126 billion that was spent in total. I said more than one billion; it doesn’t mean eight billion was the total. We spent 126 billion undoing the damage from 8 storms of greater intensity than we’ve ever seen before. That’s what we did here at – here – in the United States. I was in the Philippines and I went to the place where the typhoon came through, Haiyan typhoon – Haiyan. And it just was staggering to see the wood splintered all across the mountains – splintered – water that came up above the control tower of the airport, homes destroyed in massive numbers, people living under those now too-familiar blue tarmac plastic covers.

And that’s the future, folks, unless we tame this monster that we have unleashed. And the truth is that we’re seeing the results. Ernie Moniz wisely said yesterday: I’m not going to debate the undebatable. But we have people who still deny this, members of a flat-Earth society that seem to believe that – who seem to believe that ocean rise won’t be a problem because the water will just spill over the edge. (Laughter.) It’s insane. It’s insulting to everything we learned in high school about science. I mean, we know that if you drop a pencil, it’s going to drop; it doesn’t go up, it goes down. We know that the Earth rotates on its axis. We know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It doesn’t change day to day. It’s called science, and yet we have people who just want to sit there stone-cold and refute the best science of scientists all around the world who’ve come together. It is not inconsequential that we are here at this moment with 184 countries that put in their intended reduction levels.

Two years ago when I went to China to meet with the Chinese to propose to them that we actually sit down and try to work together in order to be able to announce our intended reductions – it was a novel idea to them and to us, and it was the opposite of what happened in Copenhagen and the opposite of what happened in Kyoto. And guess what? China came to the table and President Obama and President Xi were able to stand up and make an announcement together, and since then, 182 other countries have come to the table and said, “We’re prepared to do something.”

So this is a moment. Steve Jobs famously said at one moment at Apple that: I think that what we’re doing has the ability to be able to influence the future. Well, what we’re doing here in Paris has the ability to influence the future. And while we all know we’re not going to leave Paris with an agreement that is absolutely going to make certain that we get to 2 degrees in x period of time, but what we’re going to leave Paris with, I hope, if people will do their jobs and we get this done in the next few days, is an agreement that will send such a clear signal to the marketplace. I don’t look at this as something governments are going to solve. I believe the next, whether it’s Elon Musk or Steve Jobs or some entrepreneur, someone investing today in battery storage that’s going to transform our abilities to take renewable and alternative energy and store it and then be much more competitive with fossil fuel, these are the ways we’re going to change it. And so the success is having a durable, reviewable, clear period of time – five years – coming back, knowing we’re all living by the same method of transparency, measuring our emissions, and then taking the new technologies as they emerge and defining the future.

That’s what Ted’s vision was, I think, when he put this foundation together, that’s what Tim’s vision was when we went down to Rio, and that’s what our vision is here today. This is our moment. We need to seize it. Thank you all very, very much. (Applause.)