Remarks at the Panel Discussion Following "Before the Flood" Screening

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Fisher Stevens, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Piers Sellers
UN Headquarters
New York City
October 20, 2016

MR STEVENS: Thank you all for coming this evening. It’s quite an honor to screen in this incredible place. Thank you, Secretary-General, again. So you guys got to know these two gentlemen to my – these three gentlemen to my left at the film – during the film tonight: Piers Sellers, NASA-Goddard Space Institute; Secretary of State John Kerry, legend – you’re a legend, Secretary Kerry; and Leonardo DiCaprio. So we’re going to ask a couple of questions to these two fine, distinguished gentlemen, and Leo, you start.

MR DICAPRIO: Yes, I just want to second that motion. Thank you so much for your amazing contributions to not only our planet but to making – for making this film what it was. Piers, in particular, I was so incredibly moved by (inaudible) every single (inaudible) your tutorial on climate change. And if anyone at this point wants to deny climate change, all they have to do is see that five minutes of you exploring the science so clearly. So thank you again.

Secretary Kerry, we are approaching the anniversary of COP21 and the Paris Agreement, which was obviously an incredibly important step in reducing carbon emissions, but the key provisions of the agreement are voluntary. What are your predictions for implementation of the Paris Agreement as administrations here in the United States and elsewhere change over time?

SECRETARY KERRY: May I just take a minute to do a couple of things? First of all, Mr. Secretary-General, your choice of Leo to be a special ambassador of peace, but most importantly for the planet with respect to climate change, was unbelievably affirmed in his travels and in the product of those travels, this film. So thank you for your (inaudible) and thank you for doing this. I think everybody here is indebted to you. (Applause.)

And I was – I want to thank this fellow on my left, Piers, who I know and who I admire so much, because he revealed what’s he fighting (inaudible) in the course of the film. Let me just say one other thing, that he’s literally on a one-day pass from the National Institutes of Health to be up here today to be with us. He goes back tomorrow(inaudible). (Applause.)

And then finally, as a 28-year veteran of the Senate who knows Jim Inhofe well and many of the other people depicted in the film, maybe November 8th will produce a capacity for the entire Republican caucus to go to the Goddard Space Center, NASA, see that map and to see this film. It should be required for every single one of them, and I – (applause).

You’ve put together an extraordinarily compelling argument, but there’s (inaudible) Now, you just asked the relevant question. Every one of us (inaudible) in Paris and (inaudible), thank you so much, your guidance much appreciated personally But more importantly, Paris, President Hollande and company, put on such a tremendous stage, so well managed, to help 186 countries come together. And I want you all to know, folks, I’ve been involved in (inaudible) multilateral and various negotiations for years. That is not easy. What was produced in Paris was an extraordinary step.

But this is the fastest ratification of any environment treaty in history, and that’s why something is happening here, is going to happen. It’s why I can sit here with confidence that while we did not in this treaty have the capacity, because of the experience of Kyoto, where we failed because it was mandatory and people resisted, we purposely chose to create a capacity of every country to come together under the well-accepted doctrine now within the environment efforts of common but differentiated responsibilities. So every nation designed its own efforts.

And why do people like me and others who’ve been at this a long time, who’ve seen the failure of Copenhagen, the failure of Kyoto, the failure of Rio, which I was at – I’ve been at all of these – why is there reason for hope today? I’ll tell you why. Because ingenuity, innovation, investment are now coalescing around the goal that was set in Paris. And what we really did in Paris was send the strongest, most powerful signal we could have sent to the global marketplace for the biggest market in human history – the energy market.

And Piers will tell you as I will tell you that we’re not sitting here chasing some pie-in-the-sky set of possible solutions somewhere down the road. The solutions are here now. Every single one of them is staring us in the face. We know what we have to do. The solution to climate change is energy policy. And if we will make the right choices and everybody here exponentially grown around the planet starts to push the politicians, as the film said, then they won’t dare be against it as the populations begin to demand different sources of electricity, different sources of – of transportation, and so forth. And with the planet – what is it now? (Inaudible) 5-plus billion, 6-plus billion. It’s going to go up to 9 billion in the course of the next 30, 40 years, 50 years. So you will be able to do well and do good at the same time by moving towards the alternative renewable sectors.

Now, also I think what will happen and will happen (inaudible) in this film (inaudible) other things, we don’t – we don’t demand of our companies and of our governments that they actually do the real accounting of the cost of climate. So a company today or a government will say, oh wow, that’s – we’ve got 3 cents for a kilowatt-hour for coal and we’ve got more expensive for solar and more expensive this, so we’re going to have to go with coal.

But it’s not truly less expensive. And now, by the way, in the last year contracts have been let for solar energy – Saudi Arabia, Argentina – for 2.9 cents a kilowatt-hour, for 3 cents for solar. That’s why we’ve had a 30-fold increase in the United States for use of solar in the last year or so, few years. That’s why we’ve had three times the deployment of wind.

And as we begin to move to see the marketplace begin to measure the true costs, which would factor in cancer if it is spread by virtue of particulates that people breathe and wind up with lung problems, or children – the greatest cause of children in America being hospitalized (inaudible) the summer is environmentally induced asthma. And we spend tens of millions of dollars on it, just as last year alone, for the cost of cleaning up eight storms, eight main storms, we spent $230 billion. So $230 billion for eight storms’ cleanup, and we’ve been struggling to get $100 million for the Global Fund in order to implement what we passed in Paris. It doesn’t make sense – any of it.

And so the power of this kind of film and more that we’re going to have to engage in is that we will be able to win the battle of sending a message to people about how we account for the true costs, about what our opportunities are for a new energy base for our nation, how we will be able to do transportation and meet all of our obligations. And one thing I disagree with the film – I don’t think it is a battle (inaudible) quote, “lights out.” It’s – we’ll be able to live as well if not better. And we don’t have to give up certain kinds of things. We just make different choices about how we provide those things. And that will help us to win the argument because it’s a very (inaudible) argument to tell an electorate anywhere in the world you’ve got to give up this, you’ve got to give up that. The secret is to show people how they can actually live better, live as well, but do so by making a different set of choices.

And that’s why I’m optimistic about this. I really believe every solution is there – and I’ll tell you, just my own experience in the Senate, I led the effort to try to get a pricing of carbon in through a cap-and-trade approach. We got to 55 votes in the Senate, and then what happened? Exactly what Leo talked about in that film. Big coal – which now, by the way, is bankrupt – spent enormous sums of money against other colleagues, scaring them and making it clear to them that they were going to have a very difficult re-election because of the funding mechanisms we have in America for our elections, and that’s why people backed off. We never got to that critical mass.

And guess what? We had the faith-based community supporting us. We had all of the environment community supporting us, all of the health community supporting us. We had the nuclear community supporting us because the people understood that we were going to have to indeed build some nuclear plants because it’s zero emissions, and this generation – the fourth generation – is safer. The environment community supported that. We even had oil and gas on our side in this effort, with Exxon, Chevron, BP, and others ready to accept a fee for the cost of carbon, voluntarily (inaudible) the process. And we were deprived of the opportunity to ever get a vote because not enough people felt compelled to move by this. They were compelled to move by fear.

So Leo, this is a critical – this is going to be a very (inaudible) very important moment to begin to get people to understand the urgency. And I believe what Paris did, to come back to the question you initially asked, is send this message to the marketplace, and guess what, folks? Last year, $350 billion was invested in alternative, renewable, and various kinds of sustainable energy, so that for the first time in American history more money was invested in alternative, renewable, and sustainable than in fossil fuel. That’s the victory we’re going to win with this, and when we do, we’ll get that (inaudible) that you so described about our ability to win back our future. And I thank you for your contribution to that. Thank you. (Applause.)

MR STEVENS: Thank you, Secretary. Piers – we spent about three hours with Piers, and Leo – Leo and I afterward said, well, you could just also make another film just about our day with Piers. So I want you to elaborate on something that we saw in the film, if possible. What your group does is track weather patterns across the world, as we saw, and climate change exacerbates weather patterns – the 500-year storms becoming more and more frequent, droughts worsening. Can you just elaborate on these weather patterns and what you most fear?

MR SELLERS: Okay, can do. And before that, I’d just like to salute Leo again, like everybody else, for a powerful piece of art, a real call to arms, and also an offering of hope for the future. I think really, really important things come out (inaudible). It’s a huge contribution (inaudible).

MR DICAPRIO: In large part, thanks to you. Thank you for your help and inspiration (inaudible) this film.

MR SELLERS: Thanks for your kind words. So what was the question? (Laughter.) All right, so the atmosphere is warming up. Because it (inaudible) warm up, it can hold more moisture. Both of those things mean that the atmosphere is more energetic. A couple of things happen because of that. You can obviously expect more extreme weather as a result. That’s one thing. The other thing is a little bit more subtle. The planetary bands of moisture would move outwards from the equator. You can expect these droughts that we were talking about in the movie to become very deep and wide.

And I’m mindful of what the President said. He said before people start starving to death or dying of thirst, they move or they fight. So the biggest threat to the future stability of the planet is an unmanageable planet, (inaudible) planet, where you can have huge areas of – where food security and border security are real problems affecting hundreds of millions of people. Now you have an international security problem.

So looking at all of that, I think it’s imperative that we move very fast in this transition to a different energy future by any means necessary and avoid the worst. And the worst, it’s not – not just environmental, it’s political. Thank you. (Applause.)

MR DICAPRIO: Secretary Kerry, you often hear the United States has an opportunity to become an energy superpower by creating jobs, which is – (inaudible) create a reliable energy source that won’t need to be imported. That leadership could matter not only to solve the climate crisis before it’s too late, but because it would give us valuable new technology exports. As you travel the world, do you see other nations already trying to assume this role, or is there still time for America to claim this position?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re a very important player in that process. But other nations are surely trying to move towards it, no question about it. China is the largest photosolar producer in the world, and we’re working now with a number of other countries. India is very anxious to get into that and be part of that revolution. In fact, Prime Minister Modi started an innovation – Mission Innovation, which we joined and Bill Gates and others have joined, to try to accelerate the pace at which we are able to bring other countries on board. So I’m very, very confident, Leo, that this is going to be the future. The question is who’s going to move most rapidly.

Now, something a lot of people don’t know: President Obama put in place a national climate action program – a plan for America – and I think history is going to be very respectful of the way in which he has been able to circumvent a Congress, who didn’t want to do anything, and so he’s really found what are the constitutional powers that he can exercise administratively, and he’s done administratively what he hasn’t been able to get out of Congress. So whether it’s truck standards, efficiency standards for appliances, or set-asides of marine protection areas, or national parks and so forth, I think not since Teddy Roosevelt have we had a president who has been as forward-leaning on the environment as President Obama has been.

And the result is that we are taking the lead in some of these sectors now and we’re leading by example. Our goal for reductions to meet the greenhouse gas emission standards that were set under this agreement is 17 percent, I think against, if I recall, a 2005 baseline. And we are already above 10 percent – already, before this climate agreement’s even gone into effect. So I believe that you work that out with Moore’s law of technology and so forth, we’re going to see remarkable things begin to happen. That’s why I ask that, and I really do have the confidence about this. As daunting as the film is and the statistics – by the way, daunting – in three presidential debates in the last month and a bit, and one vice presidential debate, for a total of six hours of debate – The New York Times pointed this out today – not one single question was asked of any candidate on the subject of climate change.

MR DICAPRIO: Didn’t that piss you off while you were watching? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah. Totally. Totally. It pisses me off tonight, too. (Laughter.) But the bottom line is, Leo, that I think that all of this technology change – we’re an innovation country. It’s part of what defines us. It’s in our DNA. We redefine ourselves constantly, and I am really confident we will be one of the leaders in the world, but we don’t want to be the only one. We want China, we want all these other countries – in fact, I think (inaudible) would acknowledge that when we went to China originally in 2013 – just a month and a half after I was appointed Secretary, I went to China, and we were determined to get the Chinese to have a different position than the one they had in Copenhagen, when famously they were leading the G77 against an agreement.

And we sat down with the Chinese – who then had their populations doing what you saw in the film, demonstrating and beginning to agitate for cleaner air, for a better environment – and we reached an understanding of how we could have a different approach and a different set of goals but still lead globally by joining together. And one year later, President Xi and President Obama were able to stand together in Beijing and make the announcement that we were going to announce our intended goals a year beforehand in order to lead other countries to come to the table.

That’s going to start to happen automatically now. Every country is rushing to find a way to live up to this, because increasingly – at least in other countries – governments are coming to the understanding of the urgency of the need to move. So I believe that we should welcome countries that are fighting to lead in different technologies. Different countries will have it, but they’re all willing to share and sell it where the marketplace will buy it. And where it doesn’t, that’s the purpose of the Global Green Fund, is that we will be out there funding countries that are undeveloped and have difficulties being able to do this.

I think we’re going to see big breakthroughs in distributed power. Leon Musk is a leader in – Elon Musk is a leader in the whole battery storage technology. And someone is going to be the next Bill Gates or whatever of the world when they come up with the battery storage secret that’s going to be the breakthrough. It’s going to happen, folks, because we’re beginning to see this movement of money and political will join together to meet the urgency of what you saw in the film tonight.

MR DICAPRIO: Piers, you were so unbelievable – unbelievably articulate at conveying the interconnectivity of climate and how it affects the entire world population. If you were to explain to people and prioritize the most urgent threats to a growing mass of the population around the world regarding our climate, how would you do so?

MR SELLERS: Well, I mean, you’d simply start with the obvious: the causative drivers of climate change that have to be addressed. We’ve talked about those. Driving down emissions as quickly as possible – how to do that, how to add our technical ability with political will with a willingness of populations to what might look like short-term sacrifices but aren’t really. They could be presented as sacrifices. But I agree with the Secretary that I don’t think people have to live worse in the future to achieve a future you want to see.

So in terms of the biggest threats, I talked about those earlier. I firmly believe that it’s widespread scarcity or excess of water – two (inaudible) things, and then the food that goes along with that. So populations – if we’re not careful, the populations who are already living under tremendous stress (inaudible) will get desperate. So it’s up to us, going from 7 billion to 9 and a half billion. But with all the wealth we are creating in the process, with all the innovation and ingenuity that we bring, I mean with every year, it’s up to us to quickly change the situation for the better – not just for us but for everybody.

MR DICAPRIO: I just have a question for both of you. So natural gas has become kind of this bridge fuel. Can you talk about the dangers, Piers? I know we started to talk a little bit about of maybe – of us relying too heavily on that and the dangers of not – that they – that we encounter not putting more money into solar and wind, using natural gas as that excuse. Maybe both of you could address that.

MR SELLERS: Sure. Well, I would say that it’s out of the fossil fuels, tar sands – absolutely the worst criminal (inaudible) in terms of the impact on the global environment. We want to get out of that (inaudible) as soon as possible. Then coal, of course, then oil, then natural gas. So if you’re forced to use something for large-scale energy production over the next two decades, out of the four, you want to push for natural gas. But you’re right; you don’t want it to just be an excuse for getting away from the transition to renewable energy resources.

And I want to pick up on the business that you said earlier about nuclear. I’ve talked to people much smarter than me on the whole business of generation of power a lot and on the scale of what’s required, and they say it’s very hard to see a solution that doesn’t involve both nuclear and solar. We can’t just do it with wind and solar. It’s just not feasible for the world’s population and economic demand. They’re quite right, I think, (inaudible) to nuclear/solar.

SECRETARY KERRY: And I think what’s really critical – and I agonize about this – I mean, China, notwithstanding what it is doing with respect to solar, is bringing on a coal-fired power plant at the rate of almost one every week or so. It’s frightening. We’re not going to make it if that’s what continues to happen. Certain countries are still too dependent on coal, and to the best of my knowledge scientifically, at least as of today, there is no such thing as clean coal technology right now. Am I correct?

So this is urgent, folks. We can’t have India – India is also very – you saw in the movie – coal, massive amount of coal reserves; they think it’s very easy, we’re going to go to coal. Well, it’s – it’s sort of a – it may be the choice of least resistance today, but it’s going to be the worst choice possible for the long term. So we have to urgently stress to people who need to make these better choices that are not, in fact, truly, as I said earlier, more expensive. And that’s a question of getting the global – the big companies of the world to lead the charge in having an appropriate accounting of the real cost of what is happening right now. And how do you measure it? How do you measure the cost of the loss of the coral reefs and so forth?

By the way, I’ll just add this, because Leo was very involved with us in this effort on the oceans. This is not a divorced sort of thing – the oceans over here and that’s one problem, and then there’s the – there are all the global climate change issues over here. They’re really totally the same and linked. And the oceans are responsible for 50 percent of the oxygen that we breathe, and there are more than a billion people, as we saw, get their protein from them. But eight of the world’s 18 most significant fisheries are already overfished, and the remainder are either at peak or near at peak. And the problem we have in the world today is we have too much money chasing too few fish.

Now, we saw that happened in Massachusetts years ago when we lost our striped bass. We literally had to ban striped bass fishing for 10 years, and then they came back. Now we have it. We restored the stock (inaudible), and now sports fishermen can go out, people can go out, and we have a minimum size and number, but people can fish. But we lost our cod. Cape Cod is not defined by cod anymore. There aren’t any more cod. There aren’t any more mackerel. And you can run around the world, you can see the species – 100 million sharks are being killed every single year. Did you know that? Hundred million. Somebody asked me the other day, and I said God, I think it’s about a million or something. And we did what everybody does today and Googled it, and boom, up came 100 million. I couldn’t believe it.

The impact of that on the ecosystem is beyond description. It’s a system and we have to respect it. That’s that (inaudible) that Leo so brilliantly talked about and showed us. So I really think that connecting this for people is of great urgency for us, but I do believe, as Piers says, that we can pull this back from the brink if we do indeed make the right choices because we know exactly what’s available to us today, and that’s all going to improve over the course of the next few years.

And by the way, we had a trifecta in the last few months, and I want to just herald this and I want to again thank Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for his leadership in the UN. We just passed – the day or so after the number of countries signed the Paris Agreement and moved to where we (inaudible) we passed the airline industry emissions reduction agreement called ICAO. And just last week in Kigali in Africa, in Rwanda, we passed the termination phasing out of HFCs, which was the solution to ozone depletion. So we will now change our refrigerants, which are a hundred times more damaging than CO2. So we’ve just done three of what I would’ve thought a year ago might have been really hard reaches just to get one. We did all three. And when we couple that with what we’ve done on ocean set-aside and millions of square kilometers of ocean, we are on the right track, folks, and if we keep some momentum building, we have the ability to get this job done. (Applause.)

MR DICAPRIO: I would like to thank you, Secretary Kerry, for your amazing contribution to this issue throughout your entire career and your devotion to tackling this as part of a complex issue. Thank you for being a part of this.

Secretary-General, thank you for the honor of making this film. I hope you’re proud of this film. Thank you to the UN. I want to congratulate everyone for their amazing accomplishments with what happened in Paris, and furthermore, as we push on to the future. A special thanks to Piers. I’m going to leave you the last word here because you were really the heart and soul of this movie for me. Every time I see you up on screen there, you really made this film what it is for me not just from a scientific perspective, from an emotional perspective. And I know you’ve made it your life’s mission to speak about climate change and get this message across to the public. So if there’s anything you’d like to add.

MR SELLERS: I’d say good graphics can cover up a lot of sins now. (Laughter.) No, listen, what you’ve done here – Secretary-General, (inaudible), yourself – what you’ve done here, what you’ve pulled off, is amazing. I am really looking forward to a jump forward in people’s expectations for action. That’s what we need – more people to get out of a bit of a feeling of oh, it’s just too late, I feel overwhelmed, I feel apathetic about something, to changing of an expectation of I want to see something happen, I want to see political movement. And I think this is a major pull. I think what you’ve done here is going to be a major pull for doing that, so I really congratulate you for that. Well done. (Applause.)

MR DICAPRIO: Thank you (inaudible). (Applause.) Thank you all (inaudible).