Extreme Temperature Diary- Wednesday March 13th, 2024/Main Topic: The Frustration of John Kerry

Opinion | John Kerry: ‘I Feel Deeply Frustrated’ – The New York Times (nytimes.com)


John Kerry: ‘I Feel Deeply Frustrated’

David Wallace-Wells

When former Secretary of State John Kerry stepped into a newly created post as America’s top climate diplomat in 2021, the reputation of the United States abroad was, in his words, “in the crapper,” and the pathway to meeting the world’s climate goals looked, to most, very narrow.

Kerry, now 80, is stepping down this week but will continue to work on climate change. In the last three years, the climate landscape has changed in two big and contradictory ways: The goal the world set in Paris in 2015 of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times is now functionally dead, but the world’s green transition is accelerating far more rapidly than most anticipated just a few years ago. I spoke with him in February about the way the planet and its future look to him now. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

To understand the present tense, you have to go back a little bit in the road traveled. When Biden came in, the credibility of the United States was in the crapper, and we were viewed with suspicion if not derision. Our job was to go out and create credibility for our nation and for the president. At the time, the U.S. didn’t really have a global strategy, and so we laid out “keep 1.5 alive.”

If we did the things we could do — that we know how to do, and that we have the technologies for — we could actually do it. We’re just not. We’re not doing it on a global basis. Emissions are going up in too many countries. Oil and gas are still on a binge and their profits are obscene. I mean they’re just shocking. And everybody seems to be locked into a place of indifference.

Greed in a lot of cases, the ease of business as usual in a lot of cases and some wishful thinking in a lot of cases. And then, in some cases, just lies — complete distortion paid for by those profits.

And that is why I really believe Dubai was exciting and really different. In Paris we had to settle for every country going out and writing its own nationally determined contribution — a commitment to do only what it wanted to do. Some did something. Some didn’t. But in Dubai we succeeded in the dead hours of night in getting people to sign off on the transition away from fossil fuel.

Although just in “energy systems.”

But it’s the accompanying phrases, I think, which are critical. The text says “in a just, orderly and equitable manner.” It says “accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050.” It says “in keeping with the science.” Each of those to me is a big deal.

So we have moved extraordinarily, to be honest with you, but not yet at scale fast enough and not yet with the fervency needed.

We need to be able to actually catalyze the funding. That’s the secret to me. That’s the whole thing.

And there are two different parts of the problem. One is the Asia coal problem. The other problem is helping Africa’s less developed regions, the poverty-stricken regions, to develop but to do so in a way that isn’t harmful.

And how do we solve that finance part of it? You’ve talked about going from billions to trillions in green investments, and you’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to set up these Just Energy Transition Partnerships — customized financing schemes for particular countries. But the results there have been disappointing.

It’s been disappointing because the countries have not followed through. But there’s no magic here. It is simple, it’s economics, it’s basic market forces and how they work. And the problem is that gas and oil right now are making humongous, gigantic, windfall profit, in the trillions. And the margin for solar and wind can’t compete with that.

So the issue is: Can we go into Africa to try to find the projects that we think can be done and ought to be done, then get buy-in from the government that they’ll do certain things with respect to contracting, arbitration, law, currency certainty, maybe even guarantee something so that you can help attract the private capital? I don’t know any other way, honestly. I don’t know how you’re going to get the trillions moving in any other way. You’ve got to show that you can make a profit.

So that’s where we have to keep pushing. And we have to hold people more accountable, too. It shocks me that I and others are guilty of not really having focused on methane in Paris or before. Now we have 155 countries signed on to the methane pledge. And we now have technology, as you know better than anybody, which can trace methane leaks. And methane is responsible for 50 percent of the warming of the planet, but it’s also where you get the fastest reduction in heat. So if we can make the methane thing work, we actually can buy ourselves a little time.

It’s an excellent question, and the answer is, we should think about them in a context of real transition. Remember, this is a transition. This isn’t something that happens overnight. And the key test is whether or not you’re really doing a transition, whether you are leading the transition. And we are tripling renewables, doubling energy efficiency, tripling nuclear. I don’t think that’s hypocritical.

We’ve been pushing for no permitting of any new coal-fired power plant. That is the transition.

I’ve warned again and again against building out new gas infrastructure, which is 25-, 30-, 40-year infrastructure. It’s going to be a stranded asset. And if you’re just switching to gas now, my message to every gas executive is, “Hey, man, when you get to 2030 and you’re not able to reduce those emissions, what are you going to do? What are you prepared to do?” And as long as we are putting that question to them and we are prepared to be tough, there’s no hypocrisy. On the other hand, if people are not prepared to be tough, then, absolutely, we’re being as guilty as other people are.

Let me begin by saying that I think the United States is doing a lot, and that we will meet our target, I believe, of reducing emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030. And I really think there are other countries, European countries, that are really moving and they’re getting on target. Our biggest problem, David, is the amount of coal that’s still being spewed into the atmosphere, unmitigated.

And we’re fighting that really hard. How do I feel about it? I feel deeply frustrated. We’ve almost had shouting matches a couple of times over it with the Chinese. But that doesn’t get you anywhere. You’ve got to kind of work it through.

And China is now manufacturing and producing and deploying more renewables than the rest of the world put together. And I think it’s because they know they have this huge, huge cloud hanging over them in terms of their dependency on coal.

Correct — for now. But the International Energy Agency believes that they may well peak in the next couple of years. A lot of people think they may have peaked this year. And then the question is: Do they just go out and plateau, which was their original plan, or do they go down?

Now, they’ve committed to go down. But this gets deeply into the human psyche. Why do people not do things that they know are good for them? I was just shocked — there was a story yesterday about the Supreme Court being poised to knock the Environmental Protection Agency out from being able to hold Midwestern states accountable for the pollution they’re sending to the East. And I said to myself, who the hell is the constituency for more pollution? But that’s what they’re doing.

And I don’t understand how average folks all around the world are letting people get away with all this business as usual. I’ve likened it to a kind of de facto signature on a suicide pact. And we just sort of seem to be drifting down the road despite all the evidence.

The movement writ large needs to do a hell of a lot better job communicating to people that on the other side of this transition is a better world — cleaner, safer, healthier, more secure.

But for the moment, the guys with the money are spending that money to scare people and to put out a false narrative. No surprise, they’ve been doing it for 70, 80 years, since propaganda was invented. How do I feel about it? I feel really pissed off and frustrated.

Well, sometimes in this business, in order to be able to get things done, you have to be able to be inclusive. If you want to push people away, then you can talk about damages, but you’re never going to get past the Congress. So if you’re going to be smart about this, you’ve really got to figure out how you’re going to talk about it. And we’re the largest humanitarian donor in the world, so Americans should be proud of what we do in terms of trying to care for people.

I didn’t think it was tenable for us to go out there and say, well, there are no damages. Obviously warming has had impacts. But we can’t talk about liability or compensation for the simple reason, you will never see a dime from us, because our political system won’t embrace that.

Exactly — I agree completely. There’s a huge moral question about it. And I wanted to see things happen. Therefore we decided, look, we’ve got to create a fund. But it’s got to be explicit about the liability and compensation issue, which it has been all the way along because people get it.

And we got $700 million in a fund. But that’s not money for damage; that’s not money for losses. That’s money to set up the institution that is going to be housed in the World Bank. And there will be a window to come to and say, we’ve had damages, we need help.

But in no way were the donations of Dubai meant to reflect the money that’s going to be given in order to take care of damage and so forth. I anticipate that’ll be in the billions, and I don’t know how many.

It will have a profound impact, I hope. I’m pretty confident that over the course of the campaign, people are going to learn a lot more about it.

And I’m confident because 86 percent of the money is going to red districts and it’s creating a hell of a lot of jobs. Last year, the job growth in clean energy was 3.9 percent. The overall job growth in the U.S. work force was 3.1 percent. So for the first time, clean energy is winning in job growth. In addition, you had $1.8 trillion of investment in new technologies, clean energy, green energy. You had $1.1 trillion in the old energy. But still, that’s the first time historically that renewables and clean energy have beaten the amount of money that’s going into investment in fossil fuels. So I think we’re in the revolution. We’re in the transition. We’re just not moving fast enough and big enough to be able to do what we need to do to keep it to 1.5.

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