New York Times Energy for Tomorrow Event

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Paris, France
December 9, 2015

MR FRIEDMAN: It’s a treat for us to have you here this morning. We really appreciate your taking time.


MR FRIEDMAN: And I want to dive right in. Are we going to get a deal here in Paris, and why will it be important?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, I hope we do. We’ll see a new text around noon today, and then we’ll be able to begin to measure where the potential derailers really are, or aren’t, after a lot of work. Obviously, my hope is and I think everybody’s hope – I hope everybody’s hope, and certainly the people assembled in Paris – is that we get a deal. And look, it’s not just important; it’s critical.

We’ve been at this for a long time. I was in Rio. I’ve been in successive COPs, including Kyoto, managed Kyoto on the floor of the Senate in a senate that would do nothing unless China were deeply involved, which is one of the reasons why I went to China two years ago to try to get China involved. And I think that we wouldn’t have 186 countries with INDCs if China hadn’t joined in, so I think that’s been a very important synergy.

But I know it’s – people, you have to sort of try to find the right level of concern to express, because if you go too far people think you’re over the top. And a lot of what is happening can lend itself to conclusions that people will judge to be over the top, but they’re real. They’re absolutely real. Science is science. I keep trying to say this to people. I mean, this is not based on a supposition, what we’re doing. It’s not based on a theory. It’s not an ideology. It’s based on years and years of scientific analysis and study.

And life itself on Earth would not exist without a greenhouse effect. It is the greenhouse effect that keeps its temperature at 57 degrees – or did. It used to be 57. That’s the science. And scientists are telling us that the gases that collect, we all know, are creating the heating. Now, it’s really not debatable anymore. As Ernie Moniz says, it’s just not debatable. And yet, we have opportunists in politics who want to debate it and appeal to people’s different instincts.

So it’s important because we could have massive human dislocation on the planet. President Obama went to Alaska last summer. We all went up there to underscore the level of melting. There’s a glacier there that’s going to disappear, and we lost 187 feet of it last year. We’ve lost 1.83 miles since the turn of the century, last century, 1900s. So this is happening.

And already there are people in the world who fight over water in the Sahel and in other places. Already, we have climate refugees. And imagine what happens when people can’t produce food or there isn’t enough water or a river dries up. We see what’s happened to the Aral Sea already. So this is a matter of how we organize ourselves as human beings on the face of this planet. And it’s – but what we need to grab on to, and many of you here, particularly those in business already have, is this is not – this doesn’t have to be disruptive in a negative way with respect to economies. This is the most extraordinary market opportunity in the history of humankind. The market of the 1990s which created the greatest wealth our nation has seen since the days of no tax and the Rockefellers, Carnegies, et cetera, Mellons, we created the greatest wealth in the 1990s in America – and we shared it, by the way, with everybody. Every quintile of American society went up.

But this is a bigger market. That was a $1 trillion market with 1 billion users. This is already a 4 to 5 billion user market and valued at multiple trillions of dollars, and we’re going to spend at least 17 trillion in the next ten years on new energy projects, et cetera. So that’s why AT&T and Microsoft and Apple and Google and Walmart and GE and a whole bunch of companies have signed on to the President’s business initiative. And they’re already making pledges to make sure that their products are produced without a huge chain of deforestation, with a virtuous fuel cycle, with sustainable practices and outcomes. And that’s going to be the difference that young people growing up now, all of whom are in touch with each other 24/7 around the world, are not going to stand for the hypocrisy and they’re not going to stand for the delay. They’re going to demand products and goods and options that are sustainable, and we owe it to them. That’s why this is what is so important in Paris.

Now, a final comment. I don’t expect Paris and I never expected Paris, given the Kyoto experience, to come out with a firm, we’re going to hit 2 degrees and everybody’s going to live by the same standard. That didn’t work. It’s not going to work. The virtue of this is that every country is designing their own plan, and every country is coming to the table with what it can do, not what it’s being told to do. And that differential is going to create a huge momentum.

And I believe the reason it is so singularly important is that that market that I just talked about, it’s going to explode if we get the right market signal coming out of Paris. And I’ve never looked to the government to be the savior here. The government isn’t going to make this decision. You are. Businesses are. This is going to be a business-driven transformation that will take place combined with just consumer demand and voter demand ultimately. And you’re seeing it in China. I mean, China just shut down its schools for two days and its transportation and said no open fire burning. And you see on the news today the pictures of what Beijing looks like. They have to do it. And they’re concerned that if they don’t do it, it could be destabilizing to the party and to the party’s interests and control of the country. So I think you’re going to see a mass movement here, particularly if Paris comes out with the judgment we hope.

MR FRIEDMAN: Mr. Secretary, about a year and a half ago, I actually went to northern Syria, Raqqa province, now the home of ISIS, and interviewed Syrian refugees from the terrible drought in Syria that preceded the civil war there. To what extent is the European migrant crisis, which we’re really now in the middle of right here in Paris, to what extent do you think that’s climate driven?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there’s a percentage, Tom. I don’t have the ability to tell you sort of the full degree. It’s not the majority. Let me just make it clear. About a million people plus, I think about a million two to a million five moved because of a massive drought in Syria towards Damascus. And clearly, that was destabilizing to some degree because you had a massive Sunni population moving in. And as the civil war began to take hold, they began to take sides and had an impact. But it wasn’t the cause.

MR FRIEDMAN: But more broadly then, because we’re getting a lot of African refugees particularly from the dry lands of Africa (inaudible).

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s a different – yeah, that’s partly – I mean, it’s a combination of things. The biggest challenge globally, I think, is governance, bad governance and corruption. And the combination of it is driving people away. I mean, the fruit vendor in Tunisia who ignited the Arab Spring self-immolated because a policeman slapped him around because he had to pay his bribe, and he got fed up and said, “I’m not going to pay my bribe.” And he went to the police station to protest and lit himself on fire. That is what ignited the Arab Spring, the Tunisian Spring it started with and the departure of Ben Ali, and then moving to Egypt and elsewhere and throughout the world.

That’s what ignited Syria. Syria began with a bunch of young people who went out to protest for jobs and for a future, and they were met by Assad’s thugs. And then the parents came out and protested the way their kids were treated, and they were met with bullets and ultimately bombs. That’s Syria. So I think that one of the greatest challenges we face generationally – all of us – is – it would be very different from the 20th century, which was driven by state actions and state ambitions. Here we have state ambitions, but they’re manifesting themselves in much more of an economic presentation.

But the millions of kids, millions of kids, massive numbers of countries – just look at the demographics – 30 percent – or, what, 50 and 60 and 65 percent under the age of 30, 35, depends where you are. But just think about that. And if they don’t have jobs and they don’t have an education and they don’t have an opportunity and their country is being stolen by some oligarch/dictator who’s squirreling money away somewhere else and that steals the future of that country, we’re all in trouble. So bad governance is driving a lot of folks to find opportunity, and that’s why they’re pouring across the borders to Germany and to Europe.

MR FRIEDMAN: To what extent, though, do you think that’s being fueled by climate stressesc?

SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely. Absolutely. If you can’t get food easily, if the food is too high priced, if you can’t – I mean, various things contribute to that. But it’s really the combination. I’m not going to sit here and say it’s all climate driven. It could be more climate driven in the future if we don’t respond properly, because you’re going to have more massive dislocations. Let me give you an example.

In the United States, we coped with eight storms since I became Secretary of State, each of which cost us more than a billion dollars. But when I say more than a billion dollars, it was actually $165 billion, 160 billion total, for those eight storms. We’re here struggling to find $5, $10 billion for the Green Climate Fund, and we’re spending 165 billion to clean up the mess from a number of storms which are intensified because of what is happening.

And there are countless other costs. The cost of coal is not six cents per kilowatt-hour. The cost of coal is the cost of a bunch of people who die and who are hospitalized because of environmentally induced asthma, because of the air quality in a place like Beijing. Or you run the list of this, and you’ll find when you really have cost accounting that is appropriate and real, you’re upper in the teens if not the low twenties or something per kilowatt-hour. People need to think more carefully about what real costs are and do a better balance sheet, frankly.

MR FRIEDMAN: As Secretary of State, though, do you think that this – these climate issues, direct and indirect, have occupied your agenda more than your predecessors?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think that’s partly by choice. I mean, I’ve been involved in this since I was a lieutenant governor of Massachusetts when we dealt with acid rain and through the years in the Senate. Al Gore and I came in the same class, 1984, and Al – as everybody knows – has been a spectacular leader on this. We all went – Tim Wirth, Al Gore, John Chafee, myself, Frank Lautenberg, a group of us went to Rio in 1992 to the Earth Summit, and we’ve been involved ever since.

So I led the efforts in the Senate to try to get legislation, and I’m lucky to have a president who is deeply committed to this issue. Barack Obama has needed zero arm-twisting on this. He is passionate about it. He is a genuinely engaged. He’s been on the phone with leaders; he’s working the issue. He has led the Administration, obviously, as President, to put in place a Climate Action Plan. He’s insisted on doing things executively that he was not able to get through Congress. I think he’s shown terrific leadership and courage on this. And so there was a natural combination between us, really.

MR FRIEDMAN: Being Secretary of State is a hard job, especially now. I would assume, though, Mr. Secretary, it’s a harder job when you have a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, calling for banning the entry of all Muslims into America when you’re trying to put together a coalition in the Middle East to fight ISIS, and when you have a Republican caucus and I think a delegation here coming to Paris or telling Paris, “Don’t pay attention to those guys. You’ll never get it passed in the U.S. Senate.” Talk about both of those thorns in your side.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we don’t have to pass this in the U.S. Senate. The --

MR FRIEDMAN: Should we? Should you want to?

SECRETARY KERRY: I mean, if you were going to have a legitimate debate --

MR FRIEDMAN: Well, I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Secretary. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: I think that it’s very sad. I mean, I was excited to be elected to the United States Senate and I loved my years of service there, but they began to change in the 1990s, and I regret that the Senate is as gridlocked as it is today and as troubled as it is. And therefore our nation is challenged by that.

Now, I stay out of politics. (Laughter.) I really – I try to stay out, anyway. Put it that way. But on this one I have to say something because it involves my job.

MR FRIEDMAN: Yes, that’s right.

SECRETARY KERRY: And it involves our country. And everything we’re doing is exacerbated – trying to do. ISIL/Daesh is not Islam, and there are courageous Muslims around the world, in the Middle East, elsewhere, standing up to it. There are people fighting ISIL. And we cannot succumb to plunking everybody in the world into one pot. I mean, that is not America. That is not our Constitution. And we, in our policies, have a policy of nondiscrimination and a policy of religious tolerance.

And frankly, what Mr. Trump has said runs contrary to all of that and makes our job of reaching out to people and sharing the real America just that much more complicated and that much more difficult. And that’s about as diplomatic as I can put it. (Laughter and applause.)

MR FRIEDMAN: Mr. Secretary, the deal that the President and you struck with China last year, I thought was a really defining moment where America and China, rather than kind of hiding behind each other, teamed up and basically said we’re going to make a concerted effort now to take on this climate issue. Yet, what I hear from the negotiations is the Chinese still, when it comes to what their contribution is to the 100 billion fund from the developing – developed countries to the developing world, still wants to say we’re a poor developing country.

So how do you manage that? Here’s a country that has 3.5 trillion in reserves. Shouldn’t the biggest creditor country be doing more to help the biggest debtor countries?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, China still has 400 million people, 450 million people, living in abject poverty. And yes, China has done an absolutely astounding job of bringing people in from an agrarian society into a more industrial society. And I think that hopefully we can work quietly and effectively with China to bring them even further on board, but I think China has made a huge difference and has already stepped up significantly. My hope is – I talked to the State Councilor Yang Jiechi just yesterday and met with the Chinese delegation, and we were working on issues.

My hope is that they will embrace the full measure of this agreement. But without China’s participation, we wouldn’t be where we are, to be honest with you. They’ve been really essential here. I understand their fears and concerns. I think we can address them, and that’s my hope here.

By the way, just going back to that other issue, it just flashed in my mind, when I sit at the State of the Union message and I come down the aisle and I plunk down, just on the right-hand side of the aisle there, staring me in the face – I believe it’s directly in front of me, but maybe to the right – is a panel. And engraved in the panel in the United States Congress is the word “Tolerance.” Tolerance. And Justice. And you go down the list of these things. And I was struck by that the other day when I was there listening to His Holiness, to Pope Francis, and my eyes fixed on that.

And so we need to stay true to who we are. We’ve spent a lot of energy, a lot of blood, to carry those values around the world. And tolerance is absolutely essential and it is a key ingredient to what is missing in the heart of the Middle East and certainly in the perverted, horrendous presentation of Daesh.

MR FRIEDMAN: How have you as Secretary of State, Mr. Secretary, had to reconfigure your assets, when you think of our embassies in places like Central Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East, to track these climate and refugee issues and to manage them in terms of the assets we have and try to make a – ease the way for the people now suffering from these – from these repeated and intensifying crises?

SECRETARY KERRY: So I’m not sure exactly --

QUESTION: I mean, do you find you have more people focused on these climate issues now? Do you find that you’re having more internal discussions on these issues? Is it occupying more of your day? Obviously, the migration issue, and it is not all climate driven. I really, totally agree with you on the governance point. But is climate now, if you compared it to your predecessors of 10, 15 years ago, just a much bigger issue?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, no question about it. When you started talking about assets I thought you were going somewhere else, Tom. I was sort of worried; I didn’t know what you were talking about.

QUESTION: Yeah. I wish we had those answers.

SECRETARY KERRY: The answer is yes, inevitably. First of all, lots of countries are seized by this. This is a big issue. Also, by the way, it’s a voting issue in many places. Our objective is to make it more of a voting issue, to get more people who are zeroed in on this and that will vote because of their choice about climate change and not just their choice about Medicare or pension or whichever. This has to become a voting issue too, and I think increasingly it is. So energy policy as a whole is very much central to foreign policy today.

QUESTION: I guess what I mean is, as Secretary, you’ve had to deal with the biggest migration crisis – not you alone, obviously; you and our allies – of any Secretary of State since World War II. We’ve got a lot of people on the move now.

SECRETARY KERRY: And that’s very, very --

QUESTION: Politically driven, climate driven, whatever.

SECRETARY KERRY: And that is a security issue, Tom, in a lot of different ways. What is happening in Europe, one of the reasons that we are moving so hard, that I have moved to the two Vienna conferences, Vienna 1, Vienna 2, and we’re trying to push right now in the next days to convene again in New York, and see if we can come out of a conference taking place right now in Saudi Arabia among the opposition in Syria and pull together an effort under the UN to get everybody to the table and move. And one of the reasons for this extra – I mean, there are many reasons. Russia’s engagement shifts the dynamic somewhat. Daesh’s external plotting and engagement shifts the dial somewhat. The urgency of keeping Syria whole and moving on this.

But one of the ingredients – by the way, I want to make sure I say this first. The destabilization of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey – all critical. But another add-on now is Europe. And the flow of migration to Europe, while some of it can be absorbed economically and will be good in some ways because it’s a – it will drive economic growth to a certain degree and fill job holes in certain respects. And I think the Germans have made that calculation to some degree.

But it’s still very destabilizing politically, and it has a very serious impact, and I think France just experienced that in this by-election that just took place. And you’re going to see a rise of xenophobia, of nationalism, of reaction to this that is, in effect – that has the potential, potential, to be very destabilizing politically, and could – could, if it got out of control and really went to even, let’s say it doubled or something happened – you can challenge the European project, so to speak --

QUESTION: These migration flows could challenge the European project?

SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely. This could be – I mean, the Schengen process, the lack of a fiscal unity, the other tensions that already exist, could be greatly exacerbated. And it’s a real challenge. So I think everybody feels the urgency on every level – the humanitarian catastrophe of Syria; the huge, 2 million refugees here, a million and a half there, a million over here. I mean, 4 million refugees out of the country or more, maybe 8 million wandering in the country, displaced people.

QUESTION: You’re talking about Syria.

SECRETARY KERRY: Syria. Three-quarters of the country already voting with their feet, so to speak. Assad controls, what, 18 to 22 percent of the country now, and without the Russians maybe not even that. So hopefully, there’s the ingredient now here for different interests to come together. It’s very difficult to judge how Russia is advantaged by siding with Assad, Hizballah, and Iran against the Sunni world. So I think Russia has reasons to want to find a way to solve this. We have reasons to want to solve it. Everybody does.

QUESTION: Have the Iranians been as helpful as they need to be on this?

SECRETARY KERRY: The Iranians have – it’s a mixed, a mixed set of choices. There is an engagement, obviously, with Iraqi Shia militia that complicates what we’re trying to do in Iraq. But they do not – obviously, they are as anti-Daesh as any other country in the region. They want Daesh destroyed. They have helped significantly on the border of Iraq and elsewhere with respect to some of the operations – without our coordination, I might add, but they have done that.

And our hope would be that Iran will, first of all, comply fully and move on the Iran nuclear agreement, and then we’ll see whether or not there’s an opportunity for them to hopefully continue it. But they have joined in the – one very significant event was really Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Turkey and Egypt and others agreeing to have Iran come to the table in Vienna. And so we had every party that has an interest for the first time at the table, and we came out with a consensus document twice. So I have to credit Iran for being at that table, being willing to try to be part of a broader anti-Dash effort. And hopefully, let’s see over the next months what kind of contribution there is, but I remain hopeful.

QUESTION: Hopefully, Paris is going to come out with an agreement, and whatever our participation in it will have to be sold to the American people, but not formally ratified in Congress. If you were explaining this to an average American why this deal matters – and it’s very hard for people to understand Paris, it’s got a funny name, COP21. It doesn’t exactly hit you right in the gut. How would you explain to the average American why this is actually important?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s important because it’s going to open up a whole new economy and provides jobs and security to Americans in very large numbers. We have already grown our solar base 20-fold over where it was before President Obama became president. We’ve grown our wind base industry by three times where it was. We are a technologically innovative entrepreneurially gifted country, and we have the freest flow of capital of anyplace in the world. And I am convinced that the combination of American ingenuity and our allocation of capital are going to combine to help America to be able to lead the world to a better economy. And I think there are millions of jobs to be created in this – the people who will build and service and profit by this transformation.

MR FRIEDMAN: Directly and indirectly.

SECRETARY KERRY: Directly and indirectly. And if we do what we should be doing in America – I mean, we’re not investing like other countries are in infrastructure. Some of this transformation is infrastructure investment, but look at our transportation system, look at our airports, look at our energy grid and base. We don’t actually have a national grid in America. I don’t know how many people know that. We have a great big hole in the middle of America. We have an east coast grid and a west coast grid, and Texas, of course, has its own grid. And then we have up in the north a little line that goes from Chicago out towards the Dakotas and so forth. That’s it.

But you can’t sell wind energy from Minnesota down south. You can sell solar thermal produced energy from Arizona or Colorado to Massachusetts in the winter. That’s absurd. So we need to be investing. And I proposed an infrastructure bank when I was in the Senate for $10 billion of federal money. We could have leveraged $650 billion of private investment, which would have been worth millions of jobs. So there’s a huge job base in this transformation that is waiting to be tapped and created. And I think that I would sell this just on the economics, period. Everything else is gravy.

And by the way, I can’t tell you how many votes I cast in 28-plus years at the United States Senate, but if you were able to get a full-measured, one really good thing out of that vote and go sell it, you’re doing pretty well. Sometimes there were negatives in the votes and you had to still go sell it.

But this, you get – the greatest cause of hospitalization of children in America in the summertime is environmentally induced asthma. It costs us millions. So we can eliminate that. You eliminate cancer that’s induced by particulates in the air that you breathe; you will have greater health, you will have better, obviously, environmental quality, you live up to your environmental responsibilities, you have energy independence. America, all of a sudden, becomes more secure, cheaper energy. How does that shift your economy for disposable income that begins to go to other things versus a huge energy nut on your house or your apartment or whatever all the time? There are just so many pluses here. And our security globally changes as a consequence of that. So you get – the benefits here, I think are enormous, and just the economic benefit.

And increasingly, I find that economic policy is foreign policy, and foreign policy is economic policy, and I’ve said that again and again. And the more we sell that to people, the more they’ll be willing to invest, I think, in what we do abroad currently. One penny on the dollar. Everything we do in foreign policy in the world – our USAID, all our programs, all our diplomacy, is one penny on the dollar in a globalized society. We need to do better than that, actually.

MR FRIEDMAN: Mr. Secretary, before we let you go, just two quick questions. One is do you think Vladimir Putin now regrets stepping into the middle of Syria, number one? And number two, totally unrelated but relevant to this conference, India coming in. We were worried about how India would participate in this conference and whether it would be a spoiler or not. What can you tell us about India and its participation (inaudible)?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me begin with the second first. I think Prime Minister Modi is a really interesting leader who is appropriately seized by technology and by the possibilities, and he faces this enormous challenge also. India, a very poor country, has an enormous challenge of bringing Indians in to the modern economy. Their baseline needs for energy production to keep their economy going are what they are. And he doesn’t have the luxury of cutting that off and then still growing and moving.

So we’ve got to help. Everybody has to help. And there are ways we think we can help – technology transfer, adaptation, mitigation. There are things we can do. We really want a joint venture, work with India to try to do it just as we are with China. We have an obligation, I think, to try to do that, and we’re trying to work through the modality of how do you present that, what’s appropriate, what can our – what can we do politically and what can we do substantively. And we’re trying to get there.

On President Putin, I’m not going to get into evaluating what he thinks or doesn’t think. I’m, I think, traveling to Moscow in a week and will be meeting with him and with Foreign Minister Lavrov on the subject of Syria and on Ukraine. And my hope is that he will continue. They have helped us in this process. Russia has been constructive in helping the Vienna process to take place, to be successful, and I think they want a political settlement there. I believe that.

Now, do they have interests there that are different from ours? Yes, they do. Are they protecting those interests? Of course they are. There’s nothing new in that. Russia built Syria’s air defense system. Russia has been manning Syria’s air defense system for years. Russia was openly and avowedly supporting Assad when we got into the business of being opposed to Assad.

So there’s nothing new here except the degree to which they have chosen to now protect their interests. And if we can join the interests sufficiently to understand that there’s a positive outcome for all of us in saving Syria, in getting a political settlement, the benefits of that for the Middle East would be absolutely enormous. And that’s our goal. And I believe President Putin and the Russians are genuinely interested in trying to achieve that.

MR FRIEDMAN: Well, thanks for being the best man for the hardest job. (Applause.)