Remarks at Georgetown University

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
September 16, 2016

MR HELLMAN: Hello. Thanks very much. Welcome, everyone. It’s wonderful to see such an enthusiastic crowd. Let me welcome Secretary Kerry, Adrian Grenier. Thank you for joining us today as part of the first ever Our Ocean, One Future Leadership Summit.

We’ve got a limited time. I’ve got a pack of questions that you’ve already given me in advance, but I’d like to just get things started by asking the Secretary: As Secretary of State, you’ve been deeply committed to elevating the global response to environmental issues like climate change, ocean protection. These aren’t issues that have been traditionally at the top of foreign policy agenda. Could you start, first, by explaining to the audience why you view the ocean as a top global policy priority?

SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely. But let me begin by saying thank you to you, Dean. Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, sir, for inviting us here. Thank you, Georgetown, for providing such a terrific forum over the last couple of days. Thank you to Adrian who was with us last night. And I really want to thank my fellow foreign ministers here, Isabella, Segolene, and who else do we have here somewhere? I thought we had someone – Susana somewhere. Where is Susana? She was here. (Laughter.) I didn’t see her, but I know Susana was here.

Anyway – and by the way, note all women, folks. (Applause.) Could be a harbinger of things – no, I can’t go there. (Laughter.) I’m not allowed to go there. (Laughter.) Let me just – let me answer the question, and thank you all for coming here.

The answer is really very simple. I’ve been involved in this issue now since I was freshly returned from Vietnam, which is a long time ago now, way back in 1969, ’70, and I became involved in the first Earth Day. And through the years as chairman of the fisheries subcommittee and as a participant in the variance conference of the parties, under the UN climate change efforts, and Segolene is the President of COP21, which succeeded in doing the Paris Agreement. There has always been not a well recognized but, for those involved in the issue, a clear, inescapable connection between climate change and oceans; between criminal activity, human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, gun running, and other things, criminal enterprise, which carries into the oceans in terms of illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing, which is strip-mining the oceans and threaten to destroy an entire ecosystem. The connection, obviously, of acidification – the increased carbon dioxide, greenhouse gas emissions come back, fall in the ocean, and so we see a massive amount of black carbon in the Arctic, which increases the melting of the ice, increased acidification, which is 25 times what it was 50 million years ago, and we don’t know the consequences completely except that we do know that crustaceans are affected by the increased pH, the increased acidity of the ocean, and that can threaten the life cycle.

We have almost 50 percent of the planet dependent on food from the ocean, on protein. We have 12 percent of the world’s workforce depends on the oceans for their livelihood, for their work, and that’s without even getting too far downstream in terms of the economic food chain. So when you look at what is happening with the combination of pollution – just as an example, the farms we depend on for our food also produce an enormous amount of nitrate. The nitrates flow from the Missouri into the Mississippi, down through the delta and we have a huge, several-hundred-mile dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi where nothing lives, nothing will grow, nothing survives. We now have more than 500 dead zones around the planet.

So when you add up the level of illegal fishing, the destructive force that is – there’s – human trafficking is a modern form of slavery, and there was story I remember reading this last year which really affected me in The New York Times, front page story of a young Cambodian boy who was lured to Thailand with the promise of a job. He wanted the job. He went to Thailand. He was kidnapped and put on a vessel, a shackle around his neck for two years fishing illegally in order to provide for the illegal product that would come in to a port and be illegally sold. So we’re doing things about that.

When he started this Our Ocean conference two years ago, only 10 countries in the world had signed on to the Port State Measures and you needed 25 countries in order to make it law. Now, today, as we come here again for this session, we have 60 countries have signed up to the Port State Measures. (Applause.) And so the answer – the short answer to your question is caring about the oceans, understanding the connection of the oceans and what we do with plastic and pollution and overfishing and climate and energy policy is absolutely a security issue for every country in the world. If we don’t pay attention to it, we will magnify the degree to which we’re already going to experience climate refugees, massive problems and challenges to food security as things that grow in one place today don’t grow there anymore, or as the fish that people rely on for protein disappears.

So this is life and death. This is national security. It is international security. And if we’re going to respond to the challenges globally, we have to care about the oceans and we have to understand the linkage to science and the linkage to climate change. It’s that simple.

MR HELLMAN: Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.)

Adrian, let me ask you on a similar note. What led you to devote so much of your effort and time to this call?

MR GRENIER: Well, it’s simple. I’ve been listening to John Kerry. (Laughter.) I mean, are we all not converts now? I mean, of course. I’ve been committed for a long time to root causes and fundamental solutions to many different issues. So for me it’s environment, it’s health, it’s education. These things affect so many others. They’re fundamental to so many other things. And if we can solve for them or protect them, then we’ll just eliminate many other problems. So that’s from my perspective.

And I think the oceans in particular are fundamental to the environment. So I started to focus on the oceans. And I grew up in New York, right? And I’m not too far from the ocean. And when people ask me, “Did you grow up by the ocean or on the ocean?” I said, no, I grew up in a concrete jungle. And that was my experience. So the oceans were so out of sight, out of mind from my everyday experience, and I realize that that’s true for so many others. So many other people have that same experience. Even though we own the oceans, even though they are ours, we don’t have that fundamental connection or sense of ownership.

So when I was introduced to the story of the loneliest whale in the world – he’s a whale who migrates up and down the Pacific coast, calling out at a frequency that is unlike any other whale. So he speaks at 52 hertz and no other whales speak that particular frequency. And so knowing that whales are sentient and highly social, they have spindle cells just like us that are associated with consciousness, and he’s been calling out his whole life without once receiving a response, I immediately felt empathy. I felt a connection for this particular whale. And I realize his calling out, his disconnect, is a symbolic reality for my reality. I’m utterly disconnected from the oceans.

So I started the Lonely Whale Foundation as a way to bond people together and connect them more with the oceans, because if we can’t connect, we can’t care. And so for me, let’s focus on root causes, because they actually can solve for a lot of human things economically and just – even just the spirituality of having that experience actually improves a lot of health conditions, and as an inspiration as well. And then let’s connect to each other so that we can bond on common goals and solve them together. (Applause.)

MR HELLMAN: Thank you. Thank you. Well, thank you very much. We’ve been so fortunate here at Georgetown over the last two days to host students from over 50 countries thinking about ideas, innovative ways of addressing these challenges. And many of the students, of course, here are in the audience. We asked them to give us a set of questions. We have a lot of questions. We’re not going to get through them all. But what I’d like to do is I’m going to ask from the cards. I’m going to ask the student who gave the question to stand up so we can see who you are. First, is Cindy Tran here? Cindy? Wave. (Applause.) Cindy’s from Georgetown, class of ’20, and she asks, to both of you: “If you can give one piece of advice to my generation about sustaining and protecting the environment, what would it be?” Secretary Kerry.

SECRETARY KERRY: Don’t be scared to take a risk and be engaged and pick a project. Pick a target and go after it. And I’ll just – very quick story. I shared this with some folks who were there, I think, last night. In 1970, I became engaged in, as I mentioned, the first Earth Day. Twenty million Americans came out of their homes on Earth Day because mostly students organized a national moment to reflect on what was happening to the environment.

But it didn’t end with the 20 million coming out on that day to demonstrate because they wanted to not live next to a cancer-breeding dump or watch the Cuyahoga River light on fire again. So they then focused on Congress and they targeted 12 congressmen who were the worst votes in the United States Congress, and they labeled them the Dirty Dozen. And in the course of the campaign, seven of the twelve were beaten in 1972. In the aftermath of that, suddenly, because of this student movement, the environment became a voting issue. And that voting translated into people running for cover in the Congress by passing the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and ultimately the EPA, which President Richard Nixon – who was not known to be a leading, ardent environmentalist – signed into law. That’s how we got the EPA.

So it’s an example of what happens when you create accountability in the system. Now, I know there’s a lot that you look at today that’s a turnoff. I get it. But the system won’t fix itself and you won’t get what you want unless you are willing to put your head down and plow through it and be determined, picking that target, and get it done. And if you do that, what Robert Kennedy said – that great message he gave in South Africa when people were fighting apartheid and he talked about that each person can make a difference and altogether they create this ripple, then the ripple builds out into a mighty current that sweeps down the biggest walls of oppression and resistance. That’s what happens – one ripple, one moment. And each of you has that power, I promise you. (Applause.)

MR GRENIER: There isn’t one solution. There’s no panacea that’s going to solve all of the world’s problems, the oceans, the environment. There are as many solutions, as many possible opportunities as there are people in this room, as there are people around the world. So I would just say commit yourself to the oceans every day. It’s a lifestyle change. Give us, give the oceans your mental energy, your heart energy every day and change the way you decide to commit to your world and your vision of the world.

And it’s okay if you have a small idea or if you have a big idea. If you’re committed every day and you put a little energy towards it, you will add to the collective amount of solutions that will all come together to solve the problem. Don’t feel like there’s just one thing you can do and you check it off the list and you’re done. It’s not. It’s a whole life of committing to the oceans. (Applause.)

MR HELLMAN: Let me – thank you. Is Mary Insalu (ph) from Estonia here? Mary. There she is, hi.

MR GRENIER: Hi, Mary. (Applause.)

MR HELLMAN: Mary asks: “What’s been the most challenging issue that you’ve had to deal with on climate change?”

SECRETARY KERRY: (Laughter.) Well, I was tempted just to say ignorance – people who want to ignore science, years of science. I mean, after all, we still have people who have run for president of the United States who don’t acknowledge that there is a problem. (Laughter, applause.) Last July was the hottest July in recorded human history, but the month before that was the hottest month in recorded history. In fact, all 12 months of last year were the hottest 12 months of recorded human history. And they make up 10 years that make up the hottest decade in recorded history and the decade before that is the second-hottest in recorded history and the decade before that is the third-hottest in recorded history. Do you begin to get it?

Some people don’t, and so I suppose they believe that whatever extra water there is from the ice melting in the Arctic and Antarctic will just spill over the sides of a flat Earth or something. (Laughter.) The problem is that we’re in a race against time. That’s what science tells us – not politics, not hyperbole, not surmise, but facts. And you all remember the old saying; everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but they’re not entitled to their own facts.

And so this has been a challenge because I led the effort to try to get a trading system in place for – in the Senate, before I became Secretary, obviously, to try to get a national program to deal with a market-based mechanism to reduce emissions so that the marketplace would really set the price for carbon and we could begin to trade, and you really could have had huge reductions. And we actually had the nuclear industry of America bought in, we had the electric industry of America bought in, we had the environment community, the faith-based community – people really got it and were ready to move. But then the coal industry started advertising, scaring the hell out of some of my colleagues in the Senate, and we could only get to about 55 votes. We could never break that 60-vote margin. So we failed to get what in fact provided the solution to acid rain in the 1980s, which is a trading mechanism that reduced the sulfur that we put out.

You don’t talk about acid rain today. It didn’t destroy our economy; far from it. We have never ceased to grow even when we regulate intelligently. And so the greatest challenge is getting over this hurdle in America that we particularly face in our media structure of being able to build consensus around facts rather than mythology or scare tactics or theories for which there is not one peer-reviewed study versus 6,000 or so peer-reviewed studies that document what’s happening on climate change. That’s been the battle. It’s a battle versus just a fundamental resistance to reality and the increased difficulty we face in American politics of building consensus among the voters because of this multiplicity of outlets from which people get information and the lack of capacity to have a sort of focused, concentrated debate. That’s the challenge.

MR HELLMAN: I have a question for Adrian from David Wilke – is David here? – from the college – Georgetown College class of 2019. There he is. David: “Do you think that President Obama’s recent designation of the first underwater national monument is a step in the right direction? And how would you like the next administration to continue or not continue down the path?”

MR GRENIER: Well, absolutely it’s a step in the right direction, but we have so much further to go, so I’d like the next administration to increase the amount of water space by tenfold at least. And it’s not easy. I mean, I think it’s one thing – it’s a great step in the right direction that we designate an area protected, but I think we also need to look at policing, how are we going to actually make sure that that area is taken care of.

And I think that has to do with public connection to what is theirs and an outcry if it’s not being protected. If your neighborhoods are falling apart and if there is crime, you get up and you say something, you call the police and they show up to protect. But the oceans don’t have a 911. We don’t even know the amount of destruction that’s being done out in the oceans and the open oceans in particular. So I’d like to see more money put towards actual policing of those marine protected areas.

MR HELLMAN: Thank you. We’ve got Sarah Tralines, a graduate student at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. Is Sarah here? Hi, Sarah. She asks the Secretary: “As the Obama Administration comes to a close, what are your proudest accomplishments in respect to climate change and ocean conservation, and what’s the greatest challenge, you think, facing the next administration?”

SECRETARY KERRY: Papahanaumokuakea. (Applause.) Do you know what that is? That’s the largest marine reservation in the world that President Obama just created when he went to Hawaii and then went out to Midway Island, and it is – it builds on an already designated area, but it is an enormous set-aside. Now, at this conference that we’re having in the course of this afternoon, we will have additional commitments, but I can tell you right now that we have more than 12 additional marine protected areas that are going to be announced or have been announced. We are setting aside – I think we were at 3.3 million square kilometers this morning; that has grown.

I don’t know what the final figure’s going to be, but I can tell you this: In the first ocean conference in 2014, we got pledges and commitments of 1.8 billion. At the second one in Valparaiso in Chile, we had 2.2 billion, so that’s 4 billion. And in today’s final tally, I do know we will be at 4.8 billion, twice what we had for the two prior conferences, in commitments to ocean conservation and so forth. The Packard Foundation today stood up and committed a five-year plan of $550 million; the Oak Foundation, 100 million; the – Walmart, Rob Walton of Walmart, put up his $250 million. I mean, it’s an extraordinary commitment by people and this is now building, and I think that’s a significant accomplishment – the Administration – to be galvanizing this kind of activity.

We’re – we’ve announced and – what’s called the Safe Ocean Network, which is a network, now still loosely cobbled together, of SEAWATCH and OceanWatch and different entities that are watching where ships are tracking fishing vessels and you can have real-time. You can go, actually, and see this on your own computer. Just google it and go into sea vision or SEAWATCH or whatever and you can begin to trace what’s happening.

But we’re going to try to connect this as an enforcement mechanism using NASA, using militaries, military input, coast guards, police, environmental police, so that our goal is to make certain that there is no area of the ocean where illegal fishing can take place, where unaccountable fishing can take place, and we begin to gain accountability over this absolutely precious, vital resource.

Fifty percent of the oxygen that you breathe, we breathe as humans, essential for life itself, comes from the ocean. The ocean is the world’s climate thermometer – it’s the regulator, if you will. It sets the – El Nino – it sets the climate change. Storms nowadays are far more intense because of what’s happened with climate change. The ocean plays a critical role in that. The ocean is also the great sink at – what we call a sink, it is the absorber of carbon dioxide and the ocean has now absorbed about 30 percent of the total carbon dioxide since the Industrial Revolution and we don’t know how much it can take. We do know that there have been signs of ocean regurgitation of carbon dioxide in the Antarctic that was measured.

So it may be that it’s at maximum. And if it is at maximum, what does that mean in terms of the rate of growth of temperature as a result of where we are? And this is why people are predicting this curve, this hockey stick of transition and the tipping point. And it’s why we’re trying to keep the global warming level up – held to two degrees centigrade, but we’re nearing that close enough now that we already know we may be into just – we may just be locked into mitigation and not prevention. That’s what creates the urgency for this, so I think the most important thing the Obama Administration has done is put its mouth – put its money where its mouth is, worked on absolutely following through with designations and President Obama, I can tell you today, is number one among all the Presidents in American history in setting aside both water bodies and land in order to preserve it for future generations. And that’s what we’re fighting. (Applause.)

MR HELLMAN: Thank you. I’m afraid we have time for just one last question to you both. It comes from Alex Yamron. Is Alex here? Hi, Alex.

He’s a senior in – at Georgetown and he asked: “How do we build on the Paris Agreement to ensure that even as negotiations press further in the future, countries don’t backslide on their commitments?” And in particular, linking to another question that was also raised: “What can young people do to keep countries to their commitments?”

I’ll ask the both of you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me begin by – I want to thank Segolene Royal, and I want to thank France and Paris for hosting a superb conference, and President Hollande put himself foursquare behind this effort. It was complicated. We spent several years working to lead up to it.

I’m proud to say that another accomplishment actually, in terms of trying to make this happen, that I went to China in the very first months of my being Secretary and we made an agreement with China to create a working group with the intention of having our presidents be able to stand up to announce our common goals to move towards the Paris Agreement. And so a year later, President Xi and President Obama were able to stand up together and announce our intended reduction levels. And the reason this was so critical is that in Copenhagen only a few years earlier, we failed at the Conference of the Parties to come to a meaningful agreement, and China was leading the charge, along with the rest of the less-developed world, to prevent this from happening.

So bringing China on board was critical to being able to change the entire paradigm, and with that change other countries began to come aboard so that we are now in a place where we believe we can bring the Paris Agreement into force this year. And I am convinced from the conversations I’ve had with countries over the course of the last months, there are a number lining up to come on board. We will have a number of announcements in New York during the course of this next week where countries will sign on, and we are getting closer. We have to have 55 percent of the world’s emissions contained within at least 55 percent of the countries that have signed the agreement, and that’s when it takes force. We’re now over, I think, 40 percent, nearing the 50. We can march up to the 55 percent. And if some of the countries that I think are going to come on board over the course of the next months come on board, we will be there and it will be enforced.

Why is that important? Because when it takes force, we have a review mechanism that was built into this agreement where every country has its individual plan, which is the common but differentiated responsibility, but every country has to be serious about its plan. And the review process brings us all back together where countries have to submit – this is a requirement – what they’ve done to accomplish what they said they were going to do. And there’s a retooling, recalibrating, required if they haven’t been meeting what they said they were going to do on a voluntary basis.

So that’s the accountability measure and there’s a lot of peer pressure here, but there’s also a lot of just basic political accountability that exists here. This is becoming more and more every day a voting issue, and populations are going to hold their governments accountable. China – the population of China really cares about this issue, and it’s one of the reasons the Chinese Government felt they had to move, because to not move might have created instability. I think that’s a growing movement around the world where people are feeling the increasing heat, feeling the reactions to increased intensity of storms, feeling drought, seeing the increased fires and the intensity of the fires, and there’s just an intuitive, cognitive transformation taking place, which in my judgment is going to help to create accountability in the Paris process.

So I think we’re at a transformational moment, but it’s only by what Adrian was talking about and I was talking about earlier – about all of you being sure to not just attend Gaston Hall today, make sure that you’re going to translate this, and every one of you has a fundamental responsibility to vote. I don’t – I do care who you vote for, but I’m not going to tell you who to vote for. (Laughter.) I’m not allowed to get involved in the partisan process. You decide who you’re going to vote for, but you have a fundamental responsibility to vote, and I’m telling you, in presidential elections that have been decided by chads in Florida by a few hundred votes – my presidential election, 59,000 votes in one state was the difference. Folks, it makes a difference whether or not you vote – please. Thank you. (Applause.)

MR GRENIER: We need to change who we are as a culture. We need to re-evaluate how we imagine the future, our future to be and I think change what we value. We have to recognize that we are part of this interconnected global community and we have to act accordingly. I spent eight years on a show that promoted conspicuous consumption and immediate gratification without any long-term consequences. I mean, if you’ve ever seen “Entourage,” did you notice that we never had hangovers? (Laughter.) If you live that lifestyle in reality, you’d have lots of hangovers or be dead. (Laughter.) But of course, in the reality of television, there are no consequences, but in the real world there are.

So I think we need to start thinking long term, not in quarters and years, but recognize how our behavior affects our children and in the future. And I think if we change what we value away from materialism and just conspicuous consumption, but we start to re-divert it towards what’s really valuable the preciousness of the planet, I think that the future that we all will enjoy is going to be that much better. (Applause.)

MR HELLMAN: Great. Well, thank you very much. Thank you so much. Let me just say on behalf of the audience, on behalf of everyone at Georgetown University, how privileged we are to have first an extraordinary panel of ministers join us here today. Adrian Grenier, Secretary Kerry, it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to hear from you, to learn from you, to engage with you, and to be inspired by you. So thank you very much for coming to Georgetown and we wish all the success to the Our Oceans initiative. (Applause.)

Let me first ask you to join me in thanking them. (Applause.) And if I could just ask you to please remain seated while the Secretary and Adrian Grenier leave the stage and our distinguished guests in the front row depart. Thanks everyone for coming. (Applause.)