Meeting

A Conversation With John Kerry

Friday, March 1, 2024
Mark Makela/Getty Images
Speaker

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate

Presider

President, Council on Foreign Relations

John Kerry discusses his work as U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, the challenges the United States faces, and the Biden administration’s priorities as it continues to address climate change.

FROMAN: Good afternoon. It’s a great pleasure to see everybody. My name is Mike Froman. I’m president of the Council on Foreign Relations. 

And it is a great honor to welcome Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry to the Council today to give what is in effect a valedictory address on his time in government, on climate, as he prepares to leave that position. He truly is a man who needs no introduction. You all know everything that he’s done, but I would say, on climate, this is something that goes back decades from when he was a senator, when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when he was secretary of state, to his position now. This has been a passion of his and he’s been a consistent advocate for strong policy in this area. 

I would say, when we served together in the Obama administration and I would see him in the Situation Room, I was so impressed that he was willing to go anywhere around the world, and indeed everywhere around the world, no matter how difficult the assignment was, no matter what little chance of success there might be in making progress, to represent the United States and to make the very best effort to address our interests all over the world. And I saw this in a very personal way when in—we found ourselves in Indonesia at a time—it was an economic summit there and there was something happening in Washington. I think the government was closing down or something, and President Obama could not come and so he designated Secretary Kerry at the time to be the head of our delegation, and we prepared Secretary Kerry and he went up on the stage of this large group and gave this impassioned speech about issues of fish and trade facilitation and tariffs and dumping. I knew in the back of his mind all he cared about was war and peace and climate and really big issues, but he gave the speech and he seemed to be so into it and so passionate about it that everyone thought these are the most important issues to the secretary of state. He came down off the stage, he sat next to me in the front row, and I said, “Mr. Secretary, that was really fantastic; I think you have a real future in politics”—(laughter)—at which point he said, “Screw you, Froman.” (Laughter.) That’s actually the sanitized version, but—(laughter)—I will leave it with that. 

With that, please welcome Special Envoy for Climate Secretary Kerry. (Applause.) 

KERRY: Thank you very much. Michael, I think—thank you for that introduction, wayward introduction.  

I want you all to know that representing your government in the middle of a shutdown is really hard, and everybody there would come up to me and say, oh, god, your government—can we buy you lunch? (Laughter.) Do you need a ride home? (Laughter.) Everybody was very solicitous but my preference would have been, honestly, to have had an open government—(laughs)—backing me up.  

This guy is amazing. Mike Froman is a tour de force and so glad you’re at CFR and pleased you’ve taken on those responsibilities, and thank you for your generous introduction.  

But we were talking out in the back room just for a few minutes and I commented to him how—I mean, I watched him labor so hard on TPP and I watched the transition taking place in the Far East about how people were viewing the U.S. and we were engaged and we set the gold standard of business rules and of goods and controls and so forth, and frequently, as I went to China, the Chinese would say to me, when can we join? Can we get in? And they were knocking on the door. And sadly, sadly, sadly, folks, we pulled out of it and watched the other eleven go off and make their own agreement and we lost critical space in that part of the world. So it does matter. It does matter. Every day it matters. It was doing what—who calls the shots, and we will see where we go. I’m still Hatch-ed, so I’m not going at all into the area. You’re sitting there saying, oh, what is he going to say now? (Laughter.) But staying away from that, folks.  

I’m really grateful that Mike has put the climate crisis—he’s placed it right at the center of the CFR’s priorities, and that’s exactly what Richard Haass did before you, and I thank you for doing that.  

Also, I appreciate the opportunity to share thoughts, a few reflections, if you will, on the journey of a little more than three years as the special presidential envoy for climate. And then we’ll get a chance to have some Q&A. 

But in November 2020, when President-elect Biden called me about this job, we talked about the world that he was inheriting as president, and America’s reputation on the global stage, I think you will all recall, was in tatters. Tensions with China were already at a high point. The world and the global economy were still reeling from COVID, with many countries still facing shutdowns, lockdowns. And on January 20th, 2021, within hours of being sworn in, President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement. A few hours later, I was sworn in as envoy and I gathered with a small band of my first-day staff and we began piecing together an office, which we didn’t have, and a strategy.  

The most critical decision of that day was a commitment to do every single thing in our power to be able to limit the Earth’s temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Centigrade, a threshold science decision, not ours, because the basic science told us that it was critical for the health and lives of people, in report after report, to be able to hold that temperature increase at 1.5 and that every point and decimal above that cost you billions more and be much more threatening to life itself and to stability on the planet. So “keep 1.5 alive” became our mantra, our organizational principle. Why? Because the science dictated it. The mathematics and the physics are undeniable—not a point of ideology or politics or geostrategic maneuvering—science, math, and physics. And our government, we thought at that point, had to make a mark that we were done with denial. 

So President Biden was determined to earn back America’s credibility and work with all countries, particularly the major economies and the world’s largest emitters, in order to raise ambition and actually address the global crisis.  

Within months, thanks to the great work of Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi, and our team and others, the new U.S. nationally determined contribution—our road map to reducing emissions—was announced, a 50 to 52 percent reduction of emissions in 2030, achieving net zero emissions by 2050. And let me just underscore, if we don’t meet our goals in 2030, there is no net-zero 2050. Everything changes.  

So on Earth Day of that first year we held an historic leaders summit in the East Room of the White House virtual, and President Biden reconvened the Major Economies Forum twice more after that in order to continue to raise the climate ambition on a global basis and it had impact, folks. 

As a centerpiece of our climate diplomacy the president pledged to scale up our international climate finance to over $11 billion annually by 2024 and we have made legitimate enormous progress in that effort towards that goal, raising our support for developing countries from 1.5 (billion dollars) when President Biden came into office in 2021 to 9.5 billion (dollars) in 2023, the largest such increase ever, and this year we intend to finish the job. 

Now, to address the urgent needs for those on the climate front lines President Biden announced PREPARE, the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience, which is helping more than a half a billion people worldwide to be able to cope with the rising costs of the climate crisis and, believe me, for most of the world they are real and they are every day and they are life and death.  

So we forge an innovative partnership with other nations and with the private sector in order to drive innovation and action and we put super pollutants like methane, which is eighty times more potent than CO2 in its early years—eighty to a hundred times—and we put it at the top of our agenda, and through the global methane pledge, which we created and brought Ursula van der Leyen in on and created a joint U.S.-EU effort, a hundred and fifty-five countries are now on board from twenty when we announced—a hundred and fifty five to slash methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 and at COP-28 we announced 1 billion (dollars) in new grant funding to help make that happen.  

We’re actually helping Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, and other countries to stop venting, stop flaring, stop leaking. It’s basic plumbing but nobody was doing it. So we tapped into the power of private capital also through the agricultural innovation mission for climate. We did this with the UAE and with the EU again and we created the First Movers Coalition. 

One of the early architects of that is sitting here, Varun Sivaram. We helped to put the world’s biggest companies at the leading edge of climate solutions and through the FMC nearly 100 of the world’s largest most successful corporations have now committed to purchase clean steel and other low-carbon products, sending a demand signal of over $16 billion to pull cutting-edge technologies into the marketplace.  

We have, you know, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Salesforce, FedEx, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, General Motors—I mean, companies that make a difference and have made a difference, and to help finance the energy transition in emerging developing economies we partnered and are partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bezos Earth Fund in order to launch something called the Energy Transition Accelerator which is an innovative carbon crediting program with unprecedented environmental integrity.  

We’ve been working with DCMI, with SBTI, and others to guarantee the guardrails. But this is going to help us find the concessionary funding we need to be able to actually get people to transition off of coal and deploy renewables.  

We also created a green shipping challenge we established with Norway and it’s now mobilizing 1.6 billion (dollars) in public and private funding to decarbonize a sector that is critical to global commerce and our way of life.  

And thanks to this initiative, folks, and our engagement with the IMO get this, the entire maritime fleet of the world, which is one of the largest carbon emitters in the world—if it was a country it would be the eighth largest emitter in the world—but it’s going to be transitioning now to carbon-free power over the next twenty years and already carbon-free ships are being built around the world.  

All of these initiatives and more contributed significantly to the momentum that we’ve created and other nations have been able to achieve advances at the last three COPs, from Glasgow to Sharm-el-Sheikh to Dubai. We worked together with each COP presidency in order to help set the stage for what is called the Dubai consensus.  

Now, I’m convinced, not because I was there and took part in it and tried to help make it happen, but I’m convinced that Dubai is going to be judged as one of the most significant COPs in history, contrary to what many people predicted and what many people thought could happen because of (an) oil and gas person being involved in it.  

For the first time ever we adopted a substantive decision on the very first day of the COP, an historic and unprecedented agreement establishing a new fund to be able to help vulnerable countries deal with the real and current impacts of the climate crisis.  

And for years losses and damages had confounded people. It was a contentious issue with significant diplomatic engagement. However, over all of last year we were able to change that dynamic, pass it on day one, and move on to the other issues we needed to deal with.  

Nations joined together to set ambitious goals to triple renewables deployment, to double energy efficiency, to halt and reverse deforestation in this critical decade, and I have been privileged to chair with my counterpart from Ghana the Forest Leaders Climate Partnership which has brought about sixty countries together to deal with deforestation.  

It also—this critical stock take decision that took place in Dubai said that we had to make these changes in this critical decade and a coalition led by the United States set a goal of tripling nuclear energy capacity by 2050.  

Now, words matter, folks, in international agreements. Most importantly—(clears throat)—excuse me, in this one—most importantly, this one is paragraph 28. We achieved something—excuse me—I’m sorry. I got this muck from flying around. Stop flying.  

We achieved something that we had really tried to do for a long time. When almost two hundred—195 countries—finally agreed on the imperative of, quote, “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly, and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade so as to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 in keeping with the science.” 

I’m telling you, I was there when Jim Hansen testified. I was in Rio in ’92, many COPs in between. This is the most powerful, focused, comprehensive statement about what we need to do that I’ve seen in any COP.  

Each phrase in that paragraph carries impact. Just and orderly manner is critical for developing countries and emerging nations. Accelerating action in this decade underscores the importance of the 2030 goals because, as I said, you don’t do that you’re not doing 2050.  

Keeping with the science. That means 1.5, my friends. No longer the Paris well below two or—you know, it acknowledges the 2018 decision of the IPCC that says 1.5 is the North Star and we embrace that. And net-zero emissions, folks, means you have to have a plan. That’s the power of what came out of Dubai, the most focused demanding initiative in the history of the COPs.  

Now, multilateral success is often built on the foundation of bilateral agreement. Foreign ministers told me again and again that we could not have reached the Dubai consensus without China and the United States finding common ground in a series of meetings throughout this administration but particularly in Sunnylands, California last fall. After years of Beijing not even counting or accounting for any of its non-CO2 greenhouse gases—which on their own, just the CO2, makes it the world’s third largest emitter on the equivalency of India.  

So China committed to submit a 2035 nationally determined contribution that now will be economywide and includes all greenhouse gases. That is a huge step forward. And for the first time, China acknowledged that it anticipates achieving net reductions in power-sector emissions by the end of the decade rather than continuing to plateau far longer than the science would allow and where we were post-Glasgow and Sharm el-Sheikh. Big movement forward. And now China is actually producing more renewables and deploying them than all of the rest of the world combined. 

So these key understandings from the Sunnylands statement helped establish the successful outcome of the Global Stocktake in Dubai, and the first of the periodic stocktakes mandated in the Paris Agreement. Now, the immediate task is implementation, action, and more implementation and action. This new statement of global intent, endorsed by those 195 countries, means—this Dubai consensus itself means that it can never be reduced to mere words on a piece of paper. And if we don’t do what we’ve said we’re going to do in these next months, that’s exactly what could happen, encouraging cynicism and dropoutism and, you know, huge disappointment around the world. Our challenge now is to translate the Dubai consensus into investment and action.  

And I just want you to consider for a moment the upside. The upside is enormous. The transition to a clean energy economy represents the greatest economic opportunity since the Industrial Revolution, and already we are seeing incredible progress across key sectors of the economy. Our job is to accelerate that progress—to erase the fear of this transformation and replace it with the possibilities. 

Technology and innovation are, in fact, our greatest assets. Just think about last year’s landmark announcement on fusion out of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the fivefold increase we have seen in electrolyzer capacity in the United States in the last few years. Think of the demonstration projects that are underway for batteries with new chemistries like iron-air batteries, with the potential to provide longer-term energy storage for electric grids; game-changing. 

To realize the potential of these technological solutions, we must, of course, overcome some pretty fundamental challenges. Despite being inundated by record everything—record rainfall, record warmth in the Arctic and Antarctic, record fires, record floods, record melting, record drought, record emissions—despite all that, we got too many people who refuse to accept the facts or choose literally to outright distort them and make a profession out of it. We know with certainty that many of the jobs and the investments of the future are found in solving the climate crisis, not in prolonging it. 

And today, the IEA reported that in 2023 total CO2 emissions from energy combustion in the United States declined by 4.1 percent while the economy grew 2.5 percent. We are proving that this transition works for our economy. And those who claim we are putting our economic security at risk by taking action to cut pollution—remember, this is pollution, folks. There was day when we—nobody—who’s fighting to have pollution? But we do have people who are fighting to have pollution. And if you don’t cut pollution, you’re so far removed from the truth and from the science. 

In the end, we face not just a confrontation with the climate crisis; we face a confrontation with human nature itself. In too many places, including right here in the United States, we are locked in a polarized confrontation. And the worst instincts of those who choose to ignore the facts are stacked up against the best instincts of people who know we must take action now. The clock is ticking. 

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not and should not be an ideological fight. That’s part of what gave me the leeway to be able to deal with China, was it’s not bilateral; it’s universe. It’s the whole planet. And we are the two largest economies and the two largest emitters in the world. If we don’t do something, how can you ask other people to? So, yet, even as every economic analysis reminds us that delay is far more expensive than taking action now, we are nevertheless—despite that, we are nevertheless in the middle of a battle against distortion, disinformation, and greed, and only one outcome is tolerable for future generations. 

Now, when we began our work in 2021, the world was on track for three or more degrees Celsius of warming. Thanks to the progress we have made, thanks to President Biden making this a top priority and stepping up and leading, we are now on track to limit warming to 2.3 degrees or 1.7 degrees if we do everything that we promised to do in those three COPs. Critical. Now, that happens, the figure I gave you, the—you know, the potential of 2.3 or 1.8 happens only if we fulfill the promises we made in Glasgow, Sharm el-Sheikh, and now Dubai. And in a few weeks, we will have the report from the IEA as to what Dubai now adds to that capacity to lower if we do everything that we have said we would. It’s a big if, and it’s up to all of us to erase that question mark even as we double down on doing more to keep 1.5 alive, as we committed to do on that first day that we came into this job. 

Now, just as people from all walks of life came together and come together to win—or came together to win the Second World War—engineers and scientists locking arms with determination of diplomats and courageous generals—just as that took place, we need to invest and innovate at scale in this country. It honestly is a simple choice. If those who seek to delay, distort, and deny in pursuit—you know, in pursuit of the path of least resistance, which is what they want, then they will take us all down the path of maximum destruction. But if we follow the facts, if we embrace the technology, if we do it correctly, waiting for us on the other side of this transition—and we’ve been through transitions before—on the other side of this one is a cleaner, safer, healthier, more prosperous future for everyone. 

My experience in this job and in public service tells me we can get where we want to go. We have to. With the Dubai consensus, we now have a global roadmap; we just need to follow it. But we have to be louder, clearer, and relentless. The truth must triumph over disinformation, or we can’t get there. This is not a transition to be feared; this is actually a transition to be embraced, to be welcomed. 

And though I am leaving the job of special envoy, I am not retiring and I am not leaving the climate fight. I intend to be part of the effort to accelerate the transition and meet the goals set out in Dubai. And I’ve had the privilege to serve in public office, obviously, for many years. I’ve seen firsthand the power of the United States to galvanize other nations to action. As I’ve traveled the world, I’ve also heard the pleas of those who contributed the least to this climate crisis, who speak with the greatest moral urgency. 

So I’ve been awestruck by the determination of scientists, and entrepreneurs, and inventors, and young people—people of all nationalities in all walks of life—all of whom want to create a better world for those who will follow. They don’t give up. They don’t give in. And that is what gives me hope, the ultimate renewable resource. 

Now, some can deny and deride, but always remember what Nelson Mandela said: “They always say it is impossible until it is done.” So we don’t need to do the impossible here, folks. We just need to do what our people and our planet demand, and what we know we have the ability to do. So let’s not stop until it’s done. Thanks. (Applause.) 

FROMAN: Well, that was terrific. Thank you so much. What an impressive tour de force on all the progress that’s been—that has been made—(inaudible)—Betsy (sp) over there. 

Let me—let me pick up where you left off, perhaps. If you—and draw upon your experience as a politician as well. You poll the American public thinking about the upcoming election; climate doesn’t rank one, two, three, four, or five on their issues of concern. Why is that? How can we better explain not just the facts, but the significance of an issue like climate in such a way that the public does demand of their politicians greater action? 

KERRY: Well, actually, I think, Mike, the polling data I’ve seen shows that climate is a 78 percent issue or so. It’s a huge, huge majority of people who know it’s happening and they want something done about it. But when you wake up in the morning, a few months ago, you know, they were challenged—COVID, inflation, different things—that’s automatically going to be the first things on the list. I’ve seen that for years. That doesn’t mean that if, you know—I think it is a campaign issue. I think the president believes it’s a campaign issue. I’ll tell you, young people in our country know it’s a campaign issue, and they’re going to look to who is going to try to protect the planet for the future. So, you know, polling is a complicated science, as you know better than anybody, but it’s never reflected those kinds of issues underneath. 

I think—you know, I don’t know, but if you—I’m not sure you’ll find, depending on which part of the country you’re in and who you’re asking, whether or not—though I know choice is going to be a very critical issue in this campaign, I’m not sure it would be in those top three. So I’m a little leery of separating those things out. I don’t think it reflects what people would—do care about and what they want to hear from people as we go forward. 

And the other thing is, the climate issue is an economic issue. I mean, you know, last year the job growth in clean energy was 3.8, 3.9 percent. In old energy, it was about—it was 3.1 (percent). And $1.7 trillion dollars are now in venture capital in the marketplace for clean energy, and you have the dirty energy—the old energy—is at about 1 trillion (dollars). So it’s almost two to one, and it will pass two to one I’m sure. 

Now, we need 2 ½ trillion (dollars) to 5 trillion (dollars) a year for the next thirty years. That’s one of the things I want to focus on when I’m in the private sector, is finally turning the talk about blended finance and other things into a reality where we either have a new financial instrument or new structure, or we’re able to really put blended finance to work and start getting those bankable deals out there, so we’re deploying the trillions of dollars. That’s how we win. 

FROMAN: Let me—let me follow up on that. That’s something we’re working on here, the climate finance. You’ve done some very innovative things in your—in your time as special envoy on trying to create opportunities and mobilize private-sector finance. What do you see as the biggest obstacles? Why—get to the trillions that we say we need. It’s not going to come from official finance. It’s not even going to come from the World Bank or the—or the multilateral development banks. 

KERRY: No, it won’t. 

FROMAN: How do we get the private sector crowded in in a way—not just by concessional finance, but in a way that they see that they can get risk-adjusted returns that they can justify investment for? 

KERRY: So let me answer that observing, first, that when you say risk-adjusted returns, I am very sensitive to that because absolutely we’ve got to find a way to de-risk broadly in order to attract private capital to deals that they don’t deem to be bankable. Now, most capital wants bankable deals. Most capital is controlled by people who have a pledge or a fiduciary responsibility to have a return on that investment. And most people who give their money to the asset managers and the asset owners give it to them on a basis that they’re going to get a return. 

And so there are—there are different kinds of risk out there. What we need to do is figure out how, in a larger, quicker fashion—I negotiated the JETP along with some other colleagues with Indonesia and with Vietnam. And very difficult, very—you know, it’s a bespoke deal every time you step out. We don’t have time to do that. 

FROMAN: Right. 

KERRY: We have to find a way here to create some incentive or instrument that’s going to move the market by itself much faster. And I believe in the power of the marketplace. I think when it’s unleashed in the—you know, with the right incentives—look at the what the IRA is doing. The IRA is an example of how you could make a difference here. And we could change subsidies, too. Why in God’s name we are subsidizing the creators of the problem is beyond me. About $2 ½ trillion goes to fossil fuel industry in subsidy. You want a demand signal shift that’ll begin to move behavior? My God, that’s one of the first things you could do. Or, obviously, I’m not out of the administration yet, but there are other issues that ought to be considered. They’re not on the table now. There are reasons they can’t be. But you know, Europe has a CBAM they’ve been putting together, a countervailing, you know, trade measure for carbon that’s coming in from making goods that are competing with their goods, but the carbon—and it’s dirty carbon; it’s made from coal. So that’s one thing we have to do. 

The other thing we have to do is get big countries to stop funding coal and stop building coal, and that’s one of the biggest challenges we have. There’s five hundred gigawatts of coal-fired power sitting out there either being constructed right now or on the planning table, and 360 of that is in China. But as I said, China has very significantly altered what—you know, we all thought, oh, China’s out there, 2060 target. But they now have acknowledged that that has moved way forward because of the amount of renewables they’re deploying. 

So, you know, there’s a way to change the dynamic here of where people can invest. I think we have to get hands on and be involved with—I mean, this is what we’ve been doing. We did get hands on. We have been doing it. But we need to help deploy larger sums with greater confidence that the deal is bankable and we de-risk it sufficiently, either currency risks or political risks or, you know, all the different risks that get calculated into it. I think we can make a lot of these deals much more attractive. 

I also believe that sometimes the risk is used as an excuse. There are plenty of deals out there where people could get a, you know, 9, 10, 11, 12 percent return, 13 to 15 (percent) in some cases, for pension fund money or other long-term investing money. And you know, you have to look at these deals and water facilities as revenue producing. Transportation is revenue producing. Energy is revenue producing. And where you have energy—or, where you have revenue-producing projects, you can go to the market. You ought to be able to go to the market. You get a long enough—you get into a long enough PPA, power purchase agreement, with a good enough offtake price, you can make this work. And that’s what we have to do. 

FROMAN: Let’s talk about China. You’ve invested enormous efforts with Vice Minister Xie and other Chinese leaders on really trying to make progress together at Sunnylands, as you mentioned, and elsewhere. This is in the midst of a very competitive relationship with a lot of conflicts, sometimes crises. How well can climate be segregated from these other issues in the relationship? How much cooperation can we get done? What do you think the potential is there? 

KERRY: Well, I’ll tell you the reality that we found. I knew that nothing we tried to do would have that much meaning if we did not somehow have China at the table when I began. And fortunately, I began with a relationship of twenty years or so with Xie Zhenhua. We had met at many COPs. We worked together. We even met occasionally passing—him going one place, me at another, we were at the airport at the same time, we had a meal together. We had a—we had a genuine relationship. And I am a believer—we are at the Council on Foreign Relations, after all. You all think about this a lot. I believe deeply that relationships matter; that engagement matters; that even when it looks the bleakest, you need to have a channel where you’re able to talk with people or you will miss opportunities to avoid catastrophes. And so I had to convince some people in the administration that we really needed to work with China at a time where, as you all know, the rhetoric of Washington and most of the currents are kind of moving against that idea. 

So Xie Zhenhua and I talked with in the first five days, six days of being in the job. We agreed that we needed to work together. We agreed we were going to try and separate it from the other issues. And for a while that worked. And President Biden spoke to President Xi—he had a conversation in the White House which I was present at—and they agreed that we would try to treat climate as a universal, broad global issue, not the bilateral issues that we, obviously, have disagreements on.  

And I’m not suggesting those disagreements aren’t real or legitimate and shouldn’t be attended to. They should. Access to the market; theft of, you know, intellectual property; Uyghurs; Hong Kong; Kim Jong-un; nuclear weapons; South China Sea dash-nine; you know, you run the list, folks, and there are plenty of things that have some arguments about. But we don’t have time to argue about the climate thing. And thank God Xie Zhenhua and President Xi agreed with President Biden. 

So we went down the course for the first year or so. We negotiated in the wee hours of the night in London. Then went to Glasgow, negotiated every night till 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. Came up with an agreement that China agreed to do a national methane plan and they agreed to move and accelerate their separation from coal. 

And then we—in Dubai we went further. At Sunnylands we spent four days together negotiating in Sunnylands and we—and China agreed that all countries should put in the full—all greenhouse gases in your NDC and they agreed they would accelerate the reduction of emissions in this decade.  

That is a huge move forward, and so I—you know, it came about because we were determined to make it. Now, there were tough times. When Taiwan became an issue because of a trip, the U.S. visit, we ran into problems and we had about a one-year hiatus because they just wouldn’t allow people to talk. That was infuriating to them. It was simply off the charts. 

Finally, we got back together. We had actually been working very closely. We’d been in Berlin, we’d been in Stockholm at Stockholm +50 and we’d been in—in Stockholm we’d been at the Davos meeting and we all found—we worked at each place and we were ready to have that retreat to Sunnylands.  

But we couldn’t do it until finally in the last year, this last year, the gate started to open and we began to work again and we managed to get things done.  

Many, as I said in my comments—prepared comments—many people told us that they really needed something like that to help build momentum for the COP to come together and I’m proud of it. I think that—and Xie Zhenhua and I are genuinely good friends. He’s going to be affiliated doing some things with Tsinghua University and I will go back and do some things with a program I’d started at Yale and we’ll sort of have a back—you know, a channel, hopefully, that connects us, continues to be able to talk.  

He did a remarkable thing. You know, he always would bring up to me the photograph of me signing the Paris Accords at the U.N. with my granddaughter on my lap, which came about because her mother had abandoned her in my arms and I suddenly heard the words United States of America and I was expected to go on. 

So I just walked out with her and, amazingly, everybody applauded. They just got the message. They thought I was purposely saying it’s all about her. And when we came back she was quite upset and she turned to her mother who had returned. I’m being unfair to her mother. She didn’t plop her down. I was happy to cover. (Laughter.) And my granddaughter all of three and a half said to her mother, “Mummy, me no sign paper.” (Laughter.) So he tried to make up for it. But Xie Zhenhua brought his wife and his ten-year-old grandson to meet me and to spend some time together at the COP and that’s how personal it got and that’s, in my judgment, folks, how you can actually get things done.  

FROMAN: You talked about the Dubai consensus and you’ve been to so many COPs, and these COPs are tens of thousands of people fly in. You spend till 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning negotiating texts. It is, at the end of the day, words on a page. As you said, some more important than others.  

How much emphasis do you see the—how much contribution do you think those words and COP really make vis-à-vis technological change like the fusion that you mentioned before or the private sector role, just the private sector doing what it needs to do to invest in its own transition?  

KERRY: It’s a great question and not a completely easy answer. But there—the hardest diplomacy—there are a bunch of ambassadors, different people here, who have negotiated through your lives. The hardest negotiations are multilateral, and the hardest of multilateral are a hundred and ninety-five countries. (Laughs.) It’s painstaking and it takes a lot of time and effort and work and confidence building, relationship building, et cetera. 

I think we’ve built our relationship as strong as I’ve ever seen it with Europe, with our allies, with the Norwegians, with Japan and other countries. We’re really all working together now in a very concerted way.  

But it’s—the words really do matter. I mean, let me go back to, you know, why have we had twenty-eight COPs? Well, because we got somewhere but not far enough in each one as we went, and they built on each other.  

In Glasgow we had a huge fight on the floor. The plenary almost brought the place down over the question of phase out/phase down, even though we tried to explain to people that, you know, in order to phase out you have to phase down. 

So, you know, just it gets caught up in this energy of its own. We worked through that and we wound up without. We had India and China, a couple of others, who just weren’t going to deal with that at that point in time.  

But they did. They came around, and in Sharm-el-Sheikh we had a major step forward and then, of course, in Dubai we changed the language altogether and people embraced something far more forward leaning.  

So it’s a process. It doesn’t happen with one COP. At the next COP the finance issue will be front and center in Baku, Azerbaijan, the question of whether or not all nations will contribute to the 100 billion (dollars), which by the way we did complete two years ago and last year and will this year, unknown to people. 

But that was a thorn in our side that hadn’t been done and many countries hid behind that as we sort of negotiated. So I think it’s a cumulative process unless, of course, you’re, you know, immediately trying to have a ceasefire and a war—you know, something like that.  

But in this kind of a situation where it’s progressive it just builds up over time and I think we did a hell of a lot of homework and I’m very proud of our team, some people on it who many of you know. I think Sue Biniaz, who’s been negotiating these things a long time worked all summer, four or five meetings, ultimately. We actually got a(n) extra fifth meeting set up to try to deal with the loss and damage and come up with a solution that could actually get by in one day and it did. And it was not because we just sort of lucked out or casual. We made that happen through the process.  

So these things really make a difference. Nations don’t want to be the, you know, named and shamed. They don’t want to be left out if there’s a global, you know, direction that is gaining broad-based support and climate now—you know, I spoke about our challenge here and the polarization differential.  

But most other nations don’t have that. Most other nations are fully understanding the threat to them of the climate crisis and most other nations are moving in ways that they can and countries—I just this morning was on the—did a Zoom with my good friend, the minister from Indonesia, Minister Luhut—Dr. Luhut—and, you know, it’s a fight still.  

They got palm oil family ownership that doesn’t want to get rid of, you know, their—you know, doesn’t want to reduce their manufacturing. You’ve got coal that is sold mostly to China and India and with the demand where it is, you know, that’s going to continue and it’s very, very—it’s a real problem for all of us.  

So you have to find ways to move. But they are seriously debating internally. They’ve just had a presidential election. There’s a big debate internally about what they need to do and how they can live up to this.  

And so, again, if China, the United States, India—India is moving. India is deploying a lot of renewables and their goal is high and we’re working to help them.  

We put a half a billion dollars through the DFC into a major solar plant. It’ll be the largest solar plant in the world that will help affect the supply chains and, you know, how fast we can affect this transition. 

So the words do matter. The coming together matters. And the results matter. And it has an impact on those other governments. But equally now—equally citizens are screaming in every country about the drought, about the fact they can’t grow their crops, about the fact there’s, you know, torrential rain that turns into a flood that destroys their homes. I mean, that’s what’s happening all around the world.  

And that’s why I say to you, it is—it is baffling to me that despite all the evidence of everything that is happening, despite science, despite the math and the physics I talked about, there are people who just play a game with this. And they’re putting the entire life of the planet at risk in doing so. But I’m convinced we’re making progress. I think they are fewer and fewer. Maybe we’re starting to isolate them, except for a few of these ESG and other, you know, folks who are trying to retro still. But we’re going to win this. We are. We just got to stay at it.  

FROMAN: I have a lot more questions, but let me open it up—open up to the floor. Yes, the second table here. 

Q: Nina Gardner, Johns Hopkins, SAIS. 

Speaking of ESG nutcases and the private sector—I don’t want to put them together, though—maybe when you leave government you can sit down with asset managers. I think you said that the asset managers are on the wrong side of history. You have people like Warren Buffett, who says record oil and gas prices, how exciting. I’m concerned about climate. So perhaps you can take them on as your next group to convince them that there’s money, as you say, to be made in this transition. 

KERRY: Well, I appreciate that. I have been meeting with people. I met with all of our top six oil and gas companies and I’ve met with a lot of banks, a lot of financial institutions—many of whom have done a terrific job of stepping up. It’s only in the last few months that there’s been some of this pushback. And I think that many of those companies are—you know, while they may have pulled out about one group thing, that doesn’t mean they’ve changed their goals and that they’re pulling out of the effort to continue forward. So I think we have to kind of work together to make sure we’re moving in a in a competent direction.  

A lot of people I know who head up funds and who are major financial institution chieftains are deeply committed to this issue, and are making a difference, and are committing their institutions to do a lot of different things. One of the first things I did when I came in was sit with our six largest bank heads, the American six big banks, and see what they would be willing to invest over a period of time to help us towards that number I talked about in the trillions that we’ve got to deploy. Well, the six banks all together came back several months later in good faith, and they put on the table that they were prepared to invest $4.16 trillion over ten years in order to move it forward.  

Now that’s looking at the playing field the way it is now, without the number of bankable deals that they think they need and would like to have. So just on the basis of what they think is viable and could work now, that’s helpful. That’s a big deal. The IRA probably is now up around a trillion of commitment of expenditures, a tax credit thing basically. But there’s no ceiling because it goes to anybody who qualifies and who comes in and gets it. So I think we still have a lot of opportunity here to speed things up. And I am going to sit down with some of these people, if they’ll let me in the door. 

FROMAN: My guess is they’ll let you in. This gentleman here. 

Q: Thank you. Hi, Kevin Book from ClearView Energy Partners. Thank you for an inspiring speech.  

I wanted to clarify something you said in passing. It sounded like you said the U.S. needs a CBAM. And I wanted to ask also, sort of in a controversial topic, how you see things heading for geoengineering. You talk about 1.5 C as a lodestar, but we’re very close to that—perilously close to that now.  

KERRY: Yeah. So, well, let me say first of all, I’m not advocating a CBAM for the United States. I’m saying there are tools out there. Pricing carbon is something that’s pushed very hard in Europe and in a various places. A lot of people will tell you they think pricing carbon is the single best thing you could do. It would have the greatest impact on stability and on messaging to the marketplace. We’re not there at this point. But so those are some of the tools. But I think that the real—the challenge with these folks is convincing them that you’ve got something that will work with a market that’s not just dependent on one administration, and then you get a new administration and it gets changed, and everybody goes crazy.  

So that’s why—I don’t mean to sound pollyannish in any way. I know there are problems. And, you know, there’s a reason we have a commerce clause. And there’s a reason we enforce it. And there’s a reason we have an EPA. So not all things that happen in the market are, obviously, what we want to see. But we have ways of changing that. That’s what we’re trying to do now. But I think the marketplace basic profit motive here for some of these new technologies is huge. And we should welcome that. And we should bring it in and unleash that marketplace force.  

Look at the fusion thing. I was up in Massachusetts recently, went up there to look at the Commonwealth Fusion plant that’s being built there. And they intend to produce heat, which is what fusion is all about, you know, in three or four years. About forty megawatts maybe, as proof of concept. And then we go on to the next stage. So I see things happening. I mean, there are 28,000 jobs last year in batteries. There are about 12,000 jobs in solar. There are five thousand jobs in wind. There were a thousand jobs in geothermal, which we have barely exploited. I didn’t mention it, but geothermal, the estimate was that we have about twenty-five to forty gigawatts capacity. That’s what it’s been until now. Now, with better drilling capacity, with new technologies that are coming for geothermal, they estimate that we have five thousand gigawatts, not thirty or forty. That’s just staggering, folks.  

So that’s what’s going to happen. I’m just so convinced of it. You know, we have five times better efficiency now in electrolyzers. And that’s going to—I mean, so if we could work harder to bring some of this to scale, to get some public money, to excite the private money, there’s no question about our ability to win. So those are the battles that we still have here. And we got to go out and make it happen. It’s just that that simple. The World Bank now could play a bigger role. The MDBs writ large can play a bigger role. I think there’s—you know, we’ve got the philanthropies working with us to try to provide some of the concessionary capacity.  

So I’m excited about this idea of trying to move the private sector faster, because the private sector has the trillions of dollars. In GFANZ, when we went to Glasgow, you had 131 trillion (dollars) that Mark Carney said would—you know, was sort of there, from people who are committing to move the process. Now, not all 130 trillion (dollars) is going to deploy and do this. But what happens if you’ve got, you know, 10 percent of it or 5 percent of it? I mean, we could really move this process if we can find a way to give people a better sense of confidence and assurance that their money is going to be safe.  

Maybe one of the things we need to think about are guarantees. I’m open to that. And I think we would conceivably have much greater success. And maybe with a guarantee process you could be creative and get more return on investment earlier from some other things that make up the difference of that, you know, sort of risk, and where you have a loss, let’s say. Anyway, it’s time for creativity. We’ve come up with new financial instruments when we’ve needed them before, and my judgment is we need them now. 

FROMAN: Let’s go to a virtual question, please. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Fred Hochberg. 

KERRY: I know Fred. Just be careful. (Laughter.) 

Q: This is a great time, Mr. Secretary and Mike. 

What I’ve seen is, in my travels, that the opposition to climate and climate investment mostly is in places like Australia and the U.S. Most of the countries seem on board. Is there anything we can learn about even the opposition in Australia that could inform us to change the tide here? Or what are people thinking in the rest of the world that somehow Americans and Australians are missing? 

KERRY: Well, the rest of the world is looking with a pretty significant amount of skepticism at the U.S. right now. I mean, we can’t and don’t pass budgets. We have a rolling—I mean, you know, it was an aberration. Back when I was in the Senate, it just would have been unheard of on a regular basis. It’s just de rigueur now. And what have we had, four speakers in the last ten years or less, somewhere? Less. And—well, I’m trying to be generous and include Newt Gingrich in there. I’m trying to get way back, because remember, they did ax him. So there had been a serious—and that was at the beginning of the Tea Party and the Contract for America and so forth, so it is part—it’s connected. 

And it is not an exaggeration to say that democracy itself is on the ballot this year in a number of countries. You know, Viktor Orbán, I gather, has been invited to come and will meet with a certain person some time in the next days here in the United States. So this is a big, big, big moment. I’m not free to talk about it now, except to say to you that we have to, all of us, be living out the great responsibilities of citizenship.  

FROMAN: Squeeze in one more, if we can. Yes, here at the second table. 

Q: Thank you. Elise Labott. Mr. Secretary, thank you for the inspiring remarks and for your service. I’ve been witness to your commitment and indefatigability over the years on the road, so— 

KERRY: Elise was a reporter and she traveled with me around the world. 

Q: We did have some fun but there was a lot of serious business done, and one of those places, if you’ll beg my indulgence—I would be remiss—I think a lot of people in this room would be wondering what you’re thinking of the situation in Gaza right now. I understand if you’re not free to talk about U.S. policy in particular, but I’m wondering, as someone who has spent more time trying to negotiate and try and find a solution more than many, how you see a way out. Thank you very much. 

KERRY: Well, Elise, I would love to obviously weigh in and comment on it but I’m not going to and I can’t. I really—you know, it’s a tragedy. It’s very tragic and I’m not going to go into all of the aspects of that. What happened on October 7 was some of the worst stuff I’ve ever read about or seen, and what is happening now is obviously a challenge in a lot of ways. So enough said. I will more fulsomely speak out on it in the future.  

FROMAN: Let me say, we are remarkably lucky to have John Kerry as a longstanding public servant, including in his most recent role. We’re going to miss you. You are almost old enough to run for president. (Laughter.) So I’m sure you have a great future plan ahead. And we are very grateful to you— 

KERRY: I may surprise you. (Laughter.) 

FROMAN: We’re very grateful to you for choosing the Council on Foreign Relations as a stop along your farewell tour and sharing your valedictorian thoughts with us. Thank you very much. 

KERRY: You know how it was when we were young? It was always, you know, gosh, time for a new generation, time for new voices, you know, da, da, da, we need change, blah, blah, blah. Now it’s, boy, we like the experience. (Laughter.)  

FROMAN: Please welcome—thank you. (Applause.)  

(END) 

Top Stories on CFR

Trade

U.S. Presidents Trump and Biden have both turned to tariffs to support local industries amid economic confrontation with China. Here’s how these taxes work and how they’ve been used historically.

 

Russia

The new defense treaty demonstrates a growing closeness between the two pariah states that is likely to make the rest of the world uneasy.