Classroom Discussion on Ocean Protection and Environmental Issues

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Silver Spring, Maryland
June 1, 2016

MS JOHNSON: Okay. Please join me in a round of applause for our U.S. Secretary of State, Mr. John Kerry. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: How are you doing? Everybody good?


SECRETARY KERRY: Good morning.

MS JOHNSON: Yes, good morning.

SECRETARY KERRY: I get to, like, wake you up here. Anyway --

MS JOHNSON: And I want to say we’re so pleased to have you here at Montgomery Blair High School.


MS JOHNSON: It’s such an honor to host you today. And my students are anxiously awaiting to have a conversation with you. And I won’t talk too long, but we know you’re really passionate about our ocean, so thank you very much for being here today.


MS JOHNSON: We also have Dr. McNutt --

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes. Thank you. How are you? Great to see you again.

MS MCNUTT: Good. Good to see you again.

SECRETARY KERRY: How are you doing? Thanks for being here.

MS MCNUTT: Yeah, great.

MS JOHNSON: -- president-elect of our academies of science.


MS JOHNSON: Yeah, so thank you for being here as well. All right. So I’m going to turn the mike over --

SECRETARY KERRY: You’re going to turn the mike to me.

MS JOHNSON: -- to you, Secretary. Thank you for being here.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you very much. Thank you very much, Principal Johnson. Thank you very much. This is not a mike-mike, does it – it’s just a --

PARTICIPANT: Let me check this.

SECRETARY KERRY: I can do what?

PARTICIPANT: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Okay. (Laughter.) We’re not always – we don’t always start that confused, I promise you.

It is a great, great pleasure for me to be able to be here with all of you this morning. And I had a chance to meet your extraordinary Science Bowl champions, who I think are pretty amazing and I’m sure you think so too. And how many of you – do you know the last question that was answered, any of you? Let me try this on you.

Material A has a bulk modulus that is twice the bulk modulus of Material B. If both A and B have the same densities, by what factor must the speed of sound in B be multiplied to find the speed of sound in A? You all get that, right? Everybody’s got that, right? I barely knew what the question meant, let alone the answer, but it’s by a factor of 2, correct? Where are you? Who got that?

PARTICIPANT: Yeah, those were 2.

SECRETARY KERRY: And you got that answer. I think he deserves an amazing – (applause). And one of the two seniors who are leaving is going off to Princeton and the other is going to MIT, so a huge congratulations to you and to your coach. Where is the coach over here? He’s done an amazing job.

MS JOHNSON: Yeah, back there.

SECRETARY KERRY: Back there, he’s hiding back there. Coach, thank you. Great job, really amazing. (Applause.) And then there’s the Ocean Bowl crew. Anybody here who was in the Ocean Bowl? Any of you? You were, okay. And a bunch of you from the same team.


SECRETARY KERRY: Well, congratulations to you. They won the regionals and then they devoted their attention, obviously, to the Science Bowl rather than the Ocean Bowl.

So as Secretary of State, it’s really a privilege for me to be able to come here and just share a few thoughts with you, and I want to get you all engaged in a conversation. So I’m not going to talk at you for very long at all. I’d rather take questions and we can have a real discussion.

But I’m sure you’re saying to yourself, “Okay, why is the Secretary of State of the United States of America, in an age where we have terrorism and we have several wars going on at the same time – why are we focused on the oceans, and what does that have to do with my life every single day?” Well, the fact is that the oceans are essential to your life. Life on Earth wouldn’t exist without the oceans because half the oxygen that we get that we breathe is produced through the oceans. In addition to that, a massive amount of food that the world consumes, a huge amount of protein in countries all over the world, it’s a huge part of the economies of countries to produce the food that comes from the ocean.

And in addition to that, it is absolutely critical to the weather that we live with. The oceans are a critical – like a thermostat, if you will, cranking up and cranking down whatever happens with respect to the weather and the climate. So we’re spending billions of dollars today of taxpayer money. Your parents’ money is going to pay for the harder impact of storms that we’re suffering – much more damage than ever before as a result of the intensity of the storms that we suffer because of climate change.

We’re seeing rainstorms that are much more intense than ever before. Houston, Texas had a rainstorm the other day that produced 17 inches of rain within a few hours – more rain than it had produced in the entire rainfall of the summer a year ago. This last April was the hottest April in all of recorded history. But what’s scary is that every month before it in the last year now ranks as the hottest particular month in recorded history. So, April, the hottest recorded April; March, the hottest recorded March; February, the hottest recorded February; and so forth, all the way back through the year. But then it gets even more dramatic, because last year was the hottest year in recorded history, and that was the hottest year in the hottest decade in recorded history. And guess what? The decade before that was the – is now the second-hottest decade in history, and the decade before that is the third-hottest decade in history. So does that begin to tell you something? It should. That’s a warning signal about as loud as any warning signal you could get.

And the problem is that global climate change – which comes about because of the CO2 and other greenhouse gases that we put in the atmosphere – global climate change is having a profound negative impact on our oceans, because the CO2 that falls out of the sky in the rainfall and goes into the ocean turns into carbonic acid, and that carbonic acid in the ocean has a negative impact on fisheries, on shell-backed life in the ocean, marine-backed. So, lobsters or crabs or shellfish are negatively impacted by the acidification. And you can see experiments that have been done that show you clams that are put into different levels of acidity, and depending on the level of acidity, the clams are smaller and smaller and smaller – greater acidity, smaller clam. Ultimately, it has the ability to actually destroy the ability of some of these living life to be able to produce the shells that they live in. So it destroys habitat, it destroys ecosystem.

So what we’re seeing, also, is obviously several other challenges with the oceans. It’s not just acidification. We have a problem with what’s called “non-source point pollution[1]”, particularly in areas where there’s a lot of farming, because you have high levels of fertilizer, and the fertilizer has high level of nitrates, and nitrates pour into a bay, like the Chesapeake Bay, where we’ve had major algae boom – bloom as a result of the nitrate overgrowth, and it crowds out the oxygen, which in the end reproduces the algae bloom, which crowds out fish and you have a dead zone in the end. We have 166 dead zones in the United States. The largest dead zone of all is about 5,000 square miles down by the Gulf of – in the Gulf of Mexico, out where the Mississippi River comes out because you have 31 states pouring nitrates off of farmland, a rainstorm pours into the rivers, rivers into the larger rivers and down into the Mississippi from the Missouri, and we get a dead zone.

There are now over 400 dead zones on a global basis and they’ve gone up every single decade for the last decades. What does that tell you? It tells you that we’re not solving the problem; it’s getting worse, not better.

In addition to the dead zone challenge and nitrate overload, we have plastic pollution. Last year, on one single day globally, about 800,000 people – most of them young people – got together to do a cleanup on a global basis of the oceans, of the plastic on the beaches and plastic that’s in the streets near the beaches that can be washed out into the sea. And they got about 100 737s’ equivalent of plastic that they took out of the ocean. Now, the problem with the plastic is – and there are parts of the ocean where there are huge – I mean, literally kilometers-wide areas where these mass of junk that has been collected from the tides and the currents of the world that gathers in these several places – you can just visibly see it if you flew over it in an airplane, a mass of plastic junk. But this plastic breaks down over time and marine mammals ingest it. They eat it. And they can die from it. You have an enormous amount of plastic in the ocean that is affecting marine mammals and birds, various – porpoise or other things – and the result is that we’re again having a profoundly negative impact on the ecosystem of the oceans.

Bottom line is, folks, we rely on the oceans on this planet for life itself, particularly because of the oxygen cycle. We also know that the oceans consume about 25 percent of the global emissions that we put up into the atmosphere that are contributing to climate change. Much of that is consumed and stored in the ocean. The problem is scientists can’t really tell you how much the ocean can actually hold, how long it can hold it. So if all of a sudden the ocean started to regurgitate that CO2, then you have a massive overload of CO2 that is already negatively impacting the temperatures that we’re living with on Earth.

So you can see, and all of you don’t need me to tell you about it, because you’re smarter than I am and you know the connections of these dots and the impact that it has potentially on our lives, on fisheries in the future.

There’s one other problem, very quickly, and then I’ll open it up. It’s illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing. We have billions of dollars’ worth of illegal fishery business being done in the world. Out of there, there are about 17 regional fishery management structures in the world. And out of those 17, about a third of them are fully overfished already. Every one of the rest of them are at maximum level of fishing capacity. So as the population grows and as more and more pressure is put on our fisheries, we’re going to have a huge challenge just to maintain the stocks in a sustainable way. And if we don’t keep stocks sustainable, food – a huge food resource for the planet disappears, not to mention an ecosystem that gets destroyed.

I represented Massachusetts in the United States Senate for about 28 years, and I was chairman of the fisheries subcommittee at one point in time. And we had to literally stop the fishing of striped bass in Massachusetts for 10 years in order to let the stock replenish. That is, in fact, a challenge now with fisheries all over the world. We – it’s called Cape Cod, but we don’t have cod that are fished that much up there anymore. Can’t find them. And there’s been a migration of fish because of the warming of the ocean. You now have fish swimming – by the way, we have great white sharks off of parts of Massachusetts now because they’re coming after the seal population, and there’s been a whole shift and migration of certain kinds of fish to certain places because the waters are getting warmer.

So this – I came here today because we have announced a major conference to be held in Washington. It’s the third one we’re doing since I’ve been Secretary. And it is a global conference we will have right here in Washington on the 15th and 16th of September at the State Department, bringing people from all over the world to talk about how we are going to manage this together. How do we deal with these challenges, and what are we going to do to make sure that your generation inherits an ocean that we all grew up with learning how to appreciate and love? And it’s important, obviously, for the long-term future of this planet for us to deal with and understand the crisis of the ocean as it is linked to the challenge of climate change, as it is linked to the quality of life that we have here on Earth itself.

So that’s why I’m here today, to put an exclamation point on the extraordinary work of your science bowl finalists and victors, your champions, which is a great tribute to this school, this amazing school you all go to. And I’m in awe of what you have accomplished. Out of 69 schools that competed, representing all 50 states, you came out number one – the champion. And it’s a great credit to all of you.

So with that, let me open it up and let’s just have a discussion. And I’m happy to answer any questions that anybody has on any topic. It doesn’t have to be on the ocean, though I would love it if it were. (Laughter.) So who wants to go first? We got somebody lined up here?


SECRETARY KERRY: Who’s that? Right here?


SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, please. Tell us your name.

QUESTION: My name is (inaudible). And I have a question that in what status would the ocean be in 100 years if humans continue to do what – the damage they’re doing to the ocean right now?

SECRETARY KERRY: So I’ll repeat the question: What – in what status would the ocean be if humans continue to do the damage that they are doing to it today? Well, I can’t tell you with absolute precision, but I can tell you that scientists are predicting that if we continue with the ice melt that we’re seeing in the Arctic and Antarctic, and particularly if the Greenland ice sheet were to melt – and the reason the Greenland ice sheet is different, the ice sheet in the Arctic is floating, so it’s already displacing water but – and therefore, as it melts it’s not a straight addition to the water volume of the ocean. But on Greenland, it’s sitting on rock. And you can go up to Greenland today and there’s a huge hole that you can see in the summertime and there’s a torrent of a river running underneath the Greenland ice sheet, and some scientists are asking whether or not whole blocks of ice may just break off under that torrent and slide down into the ocean. The melt is at a ferocious rate. The Northwest Passage will be open over the course of the next 10, 15, 20 years during the summertime. And the more the ocean is exposed, the more the ice melts, the more you have a white reflective substance – the snow and ice – that makes the heat bounce back up into the atmosphere. Instead, you have a dark ocean and the dark ocean consumes the heat and it gets hotter. So your progression goes faster as a result of that in terms of the melting.

So we are seeing predictions of anywhere from three to six feet, and over a course of time, end of century into the next century, unpredictable levels well more than that conceivably, because if the Antarctic ice sheet continues at the rate that it’s going, we’re going to have a serious, serious challenge. Already we have refugees in this world as a result of the rise of ocean levels, particularly in the Pacific islands. There are island states where their leaders are talking about where they’re going to move to – a whole nation-state – and where they’re going to go live. So there are huge challenges as a result.

So I can’t predict completely. What I can tell you is there’s a good thing that’s happened. We went to Paris last December and we negotiated – President Obama made this a big priority of his Administration and he’s pushed a national action plan on reduction of our emissions level. We’re already 10 percent of the way down the road. I think we’ve got about – is it 10 percent? Yeah – of our emissions level that are targeted out of 17 percent that we’re trying to achieve by 2020, and 26 to 28 percent by 2025. So if we keep doing that, and other nations keep doing that, we have a chance to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. We’re not yet on a path to guarantee that we keep the Earth’s temperature at 2 degrees centigrade of increase, which many scientists have suggested is the tipping point. If you go beyond the 2 degrees, you begin to have negative impacts that are unpredictable to some degree.

So I can’t give – I can tell you that the power to solve this problem is in our hands. The solution to climate change is very simple – energy policy. As long as we are continuing to provide the energy for our vehicles or the energy for our heating of our plants or the lights that are on in this room – if it all comes from the burning of fossil fuels, we’re in trouble. But if we can transition to clean, alternative, renewable energy, and begin to minimize the quotient of the fossil fuels that are really negative, we have a chance of avoiding the worst impacts. That’s why this is so urgent, and that’s why I’m here today. Because we’re trying to raise people’s consciousness about just how serious this challenge really is.

Next question. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: My name’s Sam. So fish stocks are under dire threat from overfishing and climate change. What concrete actions are the U.S. taking to protect global fisheries from these threats?

SECRETARY KERRY: Good question, because I raised the problem; I didn’t give you an answer to what we might do about it. Basically, you have too much money chasing too few fish. And when you have a lot of money involved, you almost always have challenges of enforcement, of transparency, of regulation if you will. What you have are some criminal enterprises that are out there avoiding responsibility for sustainable fisheries, avoiding responsibility for good working conditions for fishing people, who exploit and exploit and exploit – they exploit at every stage. They exploit the worker, they exploit the process, they exploit the ocean, and then they come back and they exploit the lack of enforcement mechanisms, and they sell the fish and take the money and run. The problem is the ocean can’t sustain that.

So what we are doing is working with many other nations now to raise the level of enforcement. And we have a new program called Sea Scout that we will be implementing through this conference that we are having where we are bringing NASA and satellite surveillance, and we are bringing the military and coast guards and all of our police and law enforcement community and governments all together to talk about how we can put some monitoring and some enforcement into the ungoverned spaces of the ocean.

The ocean is so vast that you have huge parts of it that don’t belong to any particular nation. They’re outside of what we call the extended economic zone of a country – about 200 miles. So everything outside of there begins to be what we call the high seas. And we need an enforcement mechanism for the high seas, so we are going to be laying out how we do this with monitors on boats. We have ways that we work dual permission with another country where someone from our country in the Coast Guard will ride on the ship of another country to help them know how to enforce, and we share responsibilities. There are a lot of things that we’re trying to put together that will empower us to be able to enforce. We have a new thing called the port state measures, which is – the ports of our world are a place where normally people come to land the fish. If those places will only take fish that they know are caught by a licensed captain and that are legally caught in places where it is permissible, then you have an enforcement mechanism for the distribution of the fish. And that’s a way that we can begin to get control over this.

So we’re doing everything we can now to raise awareness, increase cooperation, and begin to put enforcement in place. That’s the key.

A couple more. A couple more questions. Yes. Yeah.

QUESTION: My name is Cristal. My question is: We know that a lot of action can be done to save the ocean. I want to know, what did you guys already try to save it? And then if the public – I mean, how the public can be part of it, and also how does you educate the public to, like, to save the oceans?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re educating the public, I hope, right now. Turn around, you see these guys? Hopefully the people who are here to write or to tell the story through video will help people to understand what is going on. I mean, in Maryland and Virginia, Washington, we have a pretty good sense of some of this because of the history of the Chesapeake Bay, which has had some real problems and there’s a massive citizen’s organization that has grown up to try to help make sure we’re saving it. What we need to do now is extend that kind of citizen action to the rest of the world.

Now, let’s be honest. In some places in the world people don’t get up out of bed – if they have a bed to sleep in – or off the ground or out of their tent and worry about how they’re going to save the ocean. They’re worried about how they’re going to save themselves. And so there are daily challenges to how much you can ask certain places and certain people to do. But certainly we can raise awareness with governments around the world and begin to provide mechanisms that they can employ in order to do this.

I’ll give you an example. I mentioned 800,000 young people went out and cleaned up in one single day. There isn’t one of you here who couldn’t organize that. And you could get a whole bunch of classmates and folks at the school; you could make it a project. You could work with other schools in the community or broader community, in the state, and say, “We’re going to do a national awareness; we’re going to do a state awareness. We’re going to have a cleanup day on the beaches this summer.” When you go to the beach and enjoy – if you get a chance to be able to do that, make sure that people aren’t just throwing their plastic wrappers away or leaving junk on the beach and so forth. There are all kinds of things that people can do. And it’s just a constant process of raising awareness. Eat – use recyclable things.

Let me give you an example. Fish nets – in Chile, there’s a company down there called – I think it’s called Bureo or something – in Chile that young people, young entrepreneurs, have put this company together, and they take old fishing nets – and fishing nets nowadays are not rope; they’re monofilament, they’re plastic basically – and they take the fishing nets and they recycle them, and they use them to make clothing or to make skateboards. In this case they’re making skateboards out of this recycled plastic.

So there are all kinds of ways to be creative and use something that’s already there, that’s been processed, and reprocess it rather than just cluttering up the ocean and killing ocean life with it. Those are some of the choices that you can make and the kinds of things that people can do. And it’s only limited by your own imagination.

Another question somewhere? Way over --


SECRETARY KERRY: Laura. Okay. Oh, we got all the questioners here in the inner – I finally caught on. Okay.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about why the U.S. has failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the third version from 1982, especially because it seems to have a lot of widespread global support --


QUESTION: -- and support within this community as well.

SECRETARY KERRY: Good for you. Good for you. How’d you know that?

QUESTION: Well, I did Ocean Science Bowl and I’m interested in marine biology, but I’m also interested in ocean policy, so --

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s outstanding. Good for you. Well, that’s great. She’s absolutely correct. We have an international agreement – a treaty, a convention. And this international treaty was actually instigated by the United States of America. We were one of the key organizers in helping to get people to come to the table and negotiate this treaty. I believe it was under George Herbert Walker Bush. Is that right? Can you correct me? Or was it Reagan? It was Reagan.

PARTICIPANT: It was Reagan.

SECRETARY KERRY: It was Ronald Reagan. It was actually under Ronald Reagan. I knew it was under a Republican president. And Ronald Reagan actually helped negotiate it, and they saved a seat for us on the advisory board for this for our ratification of it. It is a set of rules and understandings, principles, by which all the nations who sign up to it agree to live in order to manage the oceans effectively with respect to navigation and commercial use, freedom of navigation, all those kinds of issues.

So here we are – Ronald Reagan was 1980 to 1988 – and we still have not ratified this. The United States Senate has not ratified it. We tried one year, when I was there and I was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, we tried to get it ratified. We just couldn’t get enough votes. We fell slightly shy. And the reason that we can’t get it ratified is there are some people who ideologically simply are against any treaty, or they believe – they find a reason to say that this particular treaty would be giving up the sovereignty of the United States of America. Well, it doesn’t. It doesn’t give up our sovereignty. It doesn’t do anything negative in that way. It would actually empower us to be able to protect ourselves, and so we’re sort of stuck politically and that’s why it hasn’t happened.

My hope is that we will break through that. I’m obviously – I’m not involved in politics day to day right now, but my hope is that we’ll break the fever with this election in the fall and start to do these things that we ought to be doing as a matter of our leadership role in the world. And since we’re the ones who started this process, we really ought to try to make sure that we’re living up to the standard.

Now, this Administration – the Obama Administration has announced long ago that we will live by all of the requirements of UNCLOS. So even though we’re not yet ratified, we are signed up and we live by the rules. And I hope we will continue to do that until the day comes that we ratify it. Okay?

MS JOHNSON: All right.

SECRETARY KERRY: Is that it? That’s all we have time for.

MS JOHNSON: Students, let’s give Secretary Kerry a round of applause. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Can I just – can I just explain what we’re – I’m going to leave my expert team here. I’ve got a group of people who are outstanding regarding fisheries: Cathy Novelli, who’s the under secretary of state, including all the issues of fisheries, and Dr. Marcia McNutt is here and she is the newly-elected president of the National Academy of Sciences and used to be the head of the U.S. Geological Survey. So you have top-level experts to grill when I duck out of here and escape the clutches of a whole bunch of people who probably know more about the ocean than I do, so thank you. (Laughter.)

MS JOHNSON: Again, thank you Secretary Kerry --

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much.

MS JOHNSON: -- for answering the tough questions and being here today.

SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure. Thank you.

MS JOHNSON: Thank you very much.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all. Thank you very much. Thanks. (Applause.) Thanks, guys. Congratulations to you. Thank you. All right, thanks. Thank you – pleasure. Thank you.

[1] “non-point source pollution”