Why John Kerry Is Optimistic About Fighting Climate Change

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This week, representatives from nearly 200 countries assembled in Dubai for the United Nations Climate Change Conference—called COP28—and agreed to “phase out” production and use of fossil fuels by 2050. The surprise deal could be the most significant action the world has yet taken to address the climate disaster. Outside called former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry—who represented the United States in the negotiations—and asked him if this really is as big a deal as it seems.

“Witness what Mother Nature has done in the last few years,” said Kerry, whose official title these days is special presidential envoy for climate. “The intensity of storms, the amount of damage being done, rivers drying up, fires out of control, it’s apocalyptic, even biblical. These 200 nations came together witnessing that, and they agreed on the fundamental goal and the fundamental principal [of eliminating fossil fuels], and I find that genuinely encouraging.”

The deal—reached after two full weeks of negotiation—specifically calls for the “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner…so as to achieve net zero by 2050.”

While non-binding, and open to interpretation by each participating nation, the COP28 agreement is nevertheless, “a significant document,” Kerry said. This is the first time fossil fuels have even been mentioned in the final draft of an accord created by the annual conference. And it creates both an agreed-upon goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions, a deadline for doing so, and an accepted path to get there—phasing out fossil fuel production and use as an energy source.

Kerry acknowledged that it took 28 years for the conference to reach a conclusion scientists arrived at decades ago. “Fossil fuels have been a major source of contention,” he said. “The most complicated kind of negotiation is a multilateral one. One that involves a lot of nations with a lot of different interests, a lot of different cultures, a lot of different economies, a lot of different capacities. Even though they disagreed on certain things, certain approaches, they agreed on the fundamental goal. And I find that genuinely encouraging.”

The 2023 summit, which began on November 30, started off with early success. On the first day, participating nations formally adopted—for the first time—a loss and damage fund, which developed countries most responsible for carbon emissions will use to help pay for climate-related damages in the developing countries most impacted by them.

“The climate impact response recognized a need to take a contentious issue off the table and get something real happening,” Kerry said. “And I think it helped set the tone for the rest of the meeting.”

These wealthier nations pledged $700 million to the fund. The COP28 agreement itself acknowledges that the estimated amount needed to fully address climate disaster impacts is $387 billion, annually. Donations to the fund are voluntary.

During the negotiations, the European Union along with other countries pushed for strong language around the elimination of fossil fuels, even while oil-rich Saudi Arabia led its partner nations in the Organization for the Petroleum Exporting Countries. That group sought to prioritize carbon capture technology, and an agreement would have allowed them to continue producing and burning petroleum.  Ultimately, the language in the final draft dropped a requirement for participating nations to eliminate fossil fuels altogether, and instead “calls on” countries to “contribute” to eliminating carbon pollution through both carbon capture and renewable energy technologies.

Not every delegation at the summit was satisfied with that compromise. Samoa representative Anne Rasmussen, who led negotiations for the the Alliance of Small Island States, which are uniquely threatened by rising sea levels, decided not to oppose the deal, but gave a speech afterwards calling for more action.

“It is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us we need to do,” she said to a standing ovation.

John Kerry, then Secretary of State, visited Antarctica on November 11, 2016. (Photo: Department of State)

Does the non-binding nature of the agreement, as well as its acceptance of carbon capture, create loopholes that will ultimately render it pointless? “These guys stepped up and said we’re going to transition away from fossil fuels,” Kerry said. “Now, will people adhere to it immediately? There’ll be some reluctant participants. There’ll be people who will dawdle. It’s going to take public pressure. It’s going to take a lot of public policy and incentives. But the foundation is here.”

Kerry hopes the foundation achieved by the agreement will encourage market forces to prioritize renewable energy over carbon capture. The latter merely seeks to reduce that element’s concentration in earth’s atmosphere, but it allows for energy production that produces it.

“Carbon capture is done to some degree today, but it hasn’t been brought to scale,” Kerry explained. “That’s got to be proven and further developed. Renewable energy is available today. there’s no excuse for not putting all your effort into doing what works and what we have available today.”

Kerry thinks the agreement will, “help attract capital,” to renewables. “I think money will invest now in some of these things,” he said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of public pressure put on companies to actually live up to what they said they’re going to do.”

This year’s COP28 summit was intended to be a “global stocktake” on progress made towards the big goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius over pre-industrial levels. Like the COP28 deal, the Paris Agreement was also non-binding, and progress from it hasn’t lived up to expectations. Last week, the United Kingdom’s weather service predicted global average temperatures will exceed that 1.5 degree limit next year.

Does Kerry still believe keeping warming at 1.5 degrees is achievable? “I think we’re on the precipice,” he answered. “Could it be attained? Yes. But there’s too much business as usual, too much greed, and too much indifference. Practically speaking, people have got to really get in gear and do a hell of a lot more than they’re doing now.”

There is, of course, a major unknown hanging over this achievement. Kerry was appointed by a Democratic U.S. President, and participated in the negotiations from the perspective of an administration that acknowledges scientific research into the causes and implications of climate change. In the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, and has repeatedly asserted that the climate disaster doesn’t exist. If Trump wins another term next year, would similar actions render the COP28 agreement moot?

“Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, but 37 Governors—Republicans and Democrats alike—continued to stay in it,” Kerry said. “No President, not one politician, could make very smart CEOs of the largest corporations in the world suddenly reverse the decisions they’ve made to retool their factories and be moving in the direction the marketplace is heading now—towards clean energy. They’re too smart, too capable, and too responsible to do that.”

Is all this just hot air from world leaders who have spent decades profiting from fossil fuels? We asked Kerry if this agreement could, at this late stage, hold any hope of addressing the climate disaster. “There’s no magic elixir here,” he responded. “You can’t wave a wand and make it all happen. You need to fight for those things we can make happen. And I think that in Dubai we did a pretty damn good job of pulling together the best opportunities.”

“I think it’s encouraging what’s happening with battery storage, with renewables, with the rate of deployment, with electric vehicles,” Kerry added. “I mean just a hell of a lot is happening. We have an opportunity to win. And I’m an optimist, so I’m looking for the win.”

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