Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry at the Scottish Global Dialogues in Edinburgh, Scotland
Source: US Department of State
Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for inviting me to share some thoughts with you today. Mark Muller Stuart, I am especially grateful for your role in making this possible, and thank you to the Signet for hosting.
First Minister Humza Yousef: thank you for your generous introduction.
And thanks to all of you for taking time away from the frolicking of the festival and for having the common sense to use the Signet Library as a refuge. I see a number of familiar faces…It’s great to be among friends, both old and new.
I was reading the lineup at the Fringe Festival: death-defying acrobats, famous actors, side-splitting comedians, clowns…It’s like being back in American politics.
It is particularly appropriate to be here in Scotland where, less than three hundred years ago, from Hutton to Hume, groundbreaking thinking contributed to the enlightenment not just of a country or continent, but of civilization itself.
It was here that James Hutton first found in the exposed rock face of Jedburgh, scientific proof visible to the naked eye of the transition from ocean bed to land, back to ocean bed, and finally evidence of the land he could see and experience and which we still treasure today.
In so doing, he may well have been the world’s first climate scientist.
The Enlightenment transformed thinking to win acceptance of the principle that science-based evidence, not vested power promulgating its own tradition, is the foundation of the laws of the universe. It won broad acceptance for the notion that any theory should be established by observation and that hypotheses should be tested against the evidence.
Hutton, David Hume and Adam Smith were not alone.
Across the sea, in 1755, an earthquake flattened Lisbon, set it aflame, and then caused a massive tsunami that swept the Tagus (TAH-Gus) River into the city, killing more than 40,000 people.
The ruling order said there was only one explanation as there had been for every earthquake or flood that preceded it: divine retribution for earthly pride and sin.
But Voltaire stood up and argued that science and evidence proved that nature’s hand, not the hand of a vengeful God, was responsible for the movement of the earth’s crusts and that if we studied the earth’s plates, we might avoid future massive loss of life. His advocacy triumphed in a principal debate of the day.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, in 2023, we again stand on the precipice where Hutton and Voltaire once stood.
Despite a vast array of empirical facts beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, despite thousands of scientists’ lifetime work accumulating hard data, and without a single piece of peer reviewed, documentation to the contrary, we are again witnessing another moment in which the persuasive force of evidence and with it, earth’s future hangs in the balance.
extremist political voices, holdout nations, and vastly vested interests have declared war on facts and science
All because some extremist political voices, holdout nations, and vastly vested interests have declared war on facts and science. All because they distort for political or personal gain what science and common sense dictate we humans must do to put our house in order. These interests would choose a destructive status quo over the opportunity to build a clean energy economy which can rescue our future, put millions of people to work and leave us all safer, stronger, and more secure.
Without facts or economics on their side, they flatly deny what is happening to our planet and what we must do to save it.
They incite a movement against what they falsely label “climate change fanaticism,” as they conveniently forget that the dictionary definition of a cult is the dismissal of facts in devotion to a lie.
While they refuse to accept the facts behind the increasingly obvious damages of the climate crisis, they lash out at the truth tellers, and label indisputable evidence as hysteria.
They compound the already difficult challenge of the climate crisis by promising to do more of exactly what created the crisis in the first place.
So now, humanity is inexorably threatened by humanity itself—by those seducing people into buying into a completely fictitious alternative reality where we don’t need to act and we don’t even need to care.
But just as clearly as Hutton could see in the layers of the rock face, Mother Nature is now sending an ever more desperate distress signal about the coming catastrophe as community after community, event after event confirms the excruciating spread of threatened and even uninhabitable places.
In Iraq, in the home of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which I remember as a school kid learning was the cradle of civilization, a recent article quoted a science teacher who stated: “Nowhere has water…Everyone who is left is ‘suffering a slow death.’” Just consider the scene: waterless, unlivable villages near the Euphrates River where families are dismantling their homes, brick by brick, piling them into pickup trucks — window frames, doors and all — and driving away.
These, my friends, are the real faces of the climate crisis. Now, magnify those lives by millions.
Around the world, people are moving because they can’t grow food, because they are flooded, because they can’t live and work in the extreme heat, because the air they are forced to breathe is clogged with pollution that kills someone prematurely every five seconds around the world.
“we are now in uncharted territory.”
The climate crisis is not just a passing environmental impact event happening in a few selected places. It is global and indiscriminate in its consequences. It can hit almost anywhere at any time. Just look at Pakistan and an out-of-control flood displacing over 30 million people in a matter of hours.
In northwest China, temperatures have climbed to over 52C while in southern China, typhoons have killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands.
Wildfires have torn across the Mediterranean from Greece to Algeria, spreading as far as Syria, where the UN has said 800,000 people living in camps are in danger.
Water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico have averaged over 88 degrees F—and off the coast of Florida they reached a possible world-record 100 degrees F. In cities like Phoenix, 30 consecutive days of 100 degrees F temperatures have caused some people to literally turn nocturnal, starting their days after the sun has gone down.
These are not just simple weather events. These are once in a lifetime catastrophes happening regularly now and they are a manifestation of the profound changes taking place on our planet.
Think about it another way: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that since the beginning of 2020, a billion-dollar climate disaster occurs somewhere on the planet about once every 18 days. And yet the cost in human lives and livelihoods is even greater.
No one living these tragic realities doubts for an instant that the climate crisis is real, or that it is here now and getting worse tomorrow.
None of the destruction unfolding daily should be a surprise to anybody. Scientists have been predicting it now for decades.
Except for one big difference. Now it is all unfolding even faster and more severely than was forecasted.
And what’s really disturbing, as heat records were being broken globally in unprecedented sequence, continent to continent, scientists who have spent a lifetime tracking this human made crisis described themselves as “alarmed” and “terrified.” As one said unequivocally, “we are now in uncharted territory.”
Why are we in uncharted territory? Because we are now on the precipice of tipping points—the point at which events can simply unfold of their own momentum—the point at which our reckless abuse of an ecosystem has unleashed forces of nature way beyond our control.
These moments of irreversibility will over time mean the loss of glaciers critical to the feeding of rivers which in turn sustain much of the world. It means the shifting or drying up of rivers, sea level rise that will be catastrophic because the Arctic, already warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, or the Antarctic will melt at increasingly threatening pace with sea level rise measured in meters not feet.
No one can predict with certainty the exact pace and scope of this unraveling.
But common sense tells us inaction doesn’t have a prayer of stopping it.
Those who promote procrastination, delay and denial will wind up at the bottom of the dustbin of history. But it is up to us to decide whether they’re going to drag the rest of civilization down there with them.
By denying or downplaying the problem, naysayers are prepared to accept that younger generations already alive today won’t inherit anything resembling the world that belonged to their parents and grandparents.
Unless we—all of us— start doing more, faster, now, future generations will trade the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, for struggle in the pursuit of survival. Merely staying alive is not the legacy any of us should want to leave to future generations.
And how could we dare to when the solution is so clear.
The climate crisis is the result of the unabated burning of fossil fuel, deforestation, and potent superpollutants from industry and agriculture. That’s it. That’s the whole of the climate crisis. Those emissions form an ever-increasing blanket of greenhouse gas pollution which traps the heat. Damage done.
We humans are trying to bend the very laws of physics, chemistry and mathematics rather than apply them, and that’s breaking our planet.
It should be obvious by now. We have better choices, and they are very simple: stop using fossil fuels—unabated fossil fuels—capture the entirety of their emissions, and cut methane and other climate superpollutants for the fastest climate benefits.
we have a unique opportunity to significantly accelerate this transition to a clean energy economy.
I believe we’re on the cusp of change in the speed of this transition. In a little less than 100 days COP28 will convene in Dubai. And despite the troubled road that has brought us to this point, I think in this moment we have a unique opportunity to significantly accelerate this transition to a clean energy economy.
We are at a different moment than we have ever been. There is more than hope. There is progress.
And in these next days, on the road to COP 28 and at the COP itself, we have the potential to reach a different kind of tipping point—a tipping point in the speed and breadth of our response.
Thanks to the Paris Agreement, we have the chance to assess our progress through a review called the “Global Stocktake,” a report card to see how we are all doing together, taking into account the latest science.
When the Paris Agreement was written in 2015, we set out to limit temperature rise to well below 2 degrees C and to pursue 1.5 C as our priority.
While we’re significantly off track, still the Paris Agreement has achieved a great deal. It has created a framework that is our best hope for winning this battle. The 1.5 degree limit on warming, Net Zero emissions, the Global Stocktake—these ideas all come from Paris.
While we’re significantly off track, still the Paris Agreement has achieved a great deal. It has created a framework that is our best hope for winning this battle
After the COP in Glasgow in 2021, the International Energy Agency determined if everyone did what they promised, we would limit warming to 1.8 C degrees by 2050. After Sharm el Sheikh last year, that projection dropped to 1.7 degrees of warming.
The problem is, not everyone is doing what they said they would or doing what the IPCC report demanded, and we are currently on a track with emissions rising, not falling.
What we already know from our own personal stocktakes is that we are behind and at COP 28 we need to universally raise ambition and propel implementation. Like Hume and Hutton, we are compelled to respond to the evidence we have. And that evidence tells us every country on the planet with significant emissions and emerging nations must kick into higher gear.
I take encouragement though that we are now seeing many more reasons for optimism. Remember, not everything has to be done by COP 28, let alone in the next seven years. We need to be on the right trend line. The science dictates that we all need to achieve a minimum 45% reduction by 2030 and then get firmly on the road to net zero by 2050. On that goal, there are a number of encouraging advances.
First, we are seeing renewable energy deploy faster as both the result and cause for further price reductions.
Since 2009, the cost of solar has decreased 83%; in that time, the cost of producing wind power has gone down more than 50%; and in the last three decades, the cost of lithium batteries has fallen 97%.
The marketplace will increasingly deploy capital to these sectors and that will add even more speed to the transition. The pace of electric vehicle manufacture and sales will result in a decrease in demand for fossil fuel and this will send a powerful demand signal to the marketplace about the economies of the future.
In the United States, under President Biden’s leadership, the Inflation Reduction Act, along with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, are already having a profound positive impact—driving over a trillion dollars in clean energy investment by decade’s end.
We’re also witnessing extraordinary progress in wind power with increasingly larger turbines producing more and more energy from fewer machines. Wind works, and the faster we can get the permitting and deploy it the sooner we will offer Mother Nature the space and capacity to heal.
Two years ago, as we approached COP26 in Glasgow, China and the United States joined together to agree that there should be no more foreign financing of coal fired power plants. Now is the time for all of us to join together and take a more critical step. There should be no more permitting of any new unabated coal fired power anywhere in the world. Period.
Knowing what we know are the impacts and given the alternative options, there is no rational reason for contributing more to the problem by turning to the world’s dirtiest fuel burned in the dirtiest way.
renewables account for nearly 90% of all new power capacity globally
In the United States, renewables are the largest source of new energy, and renewables account for nearly 90% of all new power capacity globally, and Scotland also is playing a part in that.
What is clear now is that the marketplace has made its decision and no politician—in the US or elsewhere—can reverse the course we are on. I am absolutely convinced we will get to a low-carbon, no-carbon economy. I am not convinced that we will do so in time to avoid the worst consequences of this crisis.
That remains our challenge, though there are increasing ripples of hope.
In Nigeria, a courageous decision by the new President to reform fossil fuel subsidies will save the country billions of dollars and is poised to unleash a new clean energy investment boom that Bloomberg estimates will see Nigeria’s solar capacity grow over 2000% by 2030.
The fastest growing heat pump market in the world in 2022 was Poland, which more than doubled its supply, while also pushing ahead with nuclear as a key source of zero emissions energy.
This past year we saw two historic experiments—one in the US, and one in the UK—produce net energy gain from a fusion reaction, a major milestone on the quest to commercialize abundant clean energy from fusion.
We need to be more creative in derisking these investments and creating pools of concessionary funding which will give confidence to investors.
This year, more money—$1.7 trillion worldwide—will be invested in clean energy technologies like wind, solar, EVs and batteries than is invested in fossil fuels.
One of the greatest restraints on progress in this transition is the lack of adequate financing. Trillions of dollars in private capital have been sitting on the sidelines, waiting for greater confidence before betting on the net zero transition. We need to be more creative in derisking these investments and creating pools of concessionary funding which will give confidence to investors.
The Biden Administration is helping lead a global effort that will significantly expand the amount of low-cost credit available to countries for climate action through entities like the World Bank, which under the new leadership of Ajay Banga, is leading the charge to unlock billions in new financing.
We also can’t achieve our goals without the fossil fuel industry itself.
We also can’t achieve our goals without the fossil fuel industry itself. The industry must step up and have a clear road map that aligns with Paris, Glasgow and Sharm el Sheikh. And, in the next weeks we have an opportunity to set out a real plan. If they are at the table, we can take massive steps forward.
I restate what I said earlier: this is one of the most dangerous moments in human history. But it may also be the greatest moment of opportunity for human advancement. We have the chance now to write a future filled with choices that make life cleaner, healthier, fairer, and safer.
One thing people have proven throughout history is an incredible capacity for innovation. The fact is that an amazing amount is happening now on multiple fronts.
We are well into an energy transition which can and should be the greatest economic opportunity since the Industrial Revolution.
Just think about it. Building a smart grid, installing new transmission lines, deploying solar fields, wind farms, adjusting infrastructure for electricity, renewing transportation, constructing efficient buildings —all of the enterprise of this transition will demand—electricians, heavy equipment operators, plumbers, steel, aluminum, concrete and cement workers and plants, architects. Every layer of economic endeavor will be engaged in this transformation. This should excite the imagination, not depress us.
But this is much more than just an economic opportunity.
It is, above all, an opportunity to redefine our relationship with the future itself, because the future is what we’re fighting for. The battle may be pitched in the present but it’s going to be won in the days and decades ahead.
I know it may feel intangible or ethereal to imagine a planet in distress. It seems beyond comprehension. There are lots of granular, here-and-now things we are all asked to do in life: like go to work, pay the bills, raise a family, be a good citizen. And in the course of all that it’s pretty hard to grab onto the fact that all of humanity is actually in peril but Hume, Hutton, and Smith, whose names are on this building, they kept arguing, they kept innovating, and they prevailed.
And they didn’t actually have on their side what we have.
They were defending science and reason in an era where people were still told and almost universally believed that the Earth might be flat, that the planet might be held in the palm of one giant beast, and that disease would be cured by bleeding and life restored by a mighty bellows pumping air into the dead.
Well, we have our own new breed of doubters but what do we have on our side? 350 years of proof-of-concept, from antibiotics, moon landings, a vaccine to fight a pandemic, so that we are empowered to take the biggest leap forward for all humankind when we listen to science and reason, and act on it.
we are empowered to take the biggest leap forward for all humankind when we listen to science and reason, and act on it.
Two hundred years ago, an admirer of The Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, wrote: “Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.”
Right now, the science and the knowledge are unequivocal.
All that is left now is for us to summon the wisdom to organize our world, to do what must be done, and win the fight.