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How John Kerry Hopes To Combat Climate Change


This week's U.N. climate report concludes that a certain amount of damage to the planet is now irreversible, that even the most dramatic cuts to carbon emissions can only maybe prevent the worst predicted effects of climate change. And to some, that might feel like a landmark finding. Not to John Kerry.

JOHN KERRY: To some degree, it was a report that just underscored a level of frustration and even anger that grows, that we have to keep having reports just repeating the same thing, only it gets worse and worse.

CORNISH: Kerry is President Biden's special envoy on climate, meaning it falls to him to help chart what U.S. policy will be. As secretary of state, he once signed the Paris Climate Agreement. This fall, he heads to a major U.N. climate conference in Scotland. Kerry spoke to us about what it will take for the world's governments to move more aggressively, starting with the most populous country and the one responsible for nearly a third of the world's emissions - China.

KERRY: Well, we're engaged in continuing discussion with China. And it's very important that China step up and take additional steps between 2020 and 2030. Now, China is currently doing more than many people know or think. China is, in fact, the largest producer of solar panels and of alternative renewable energy in the world. China has, in fact, deployed more of that renewable energy than any other country in the world. But because they're so big, China has to obviously do more faster. And the Chinese are currently in deliberations to try to determine what that will be and can be.

CORNISH: But can I stop because that - we're looking at a moment where, as I said, they don't actually have any policy in this direction.

KERRY: They have not yet decided to do enough, in our judgment, to be able to meet what we need to do between 2020 and 2030. But it's not fair to say China doesn't have policy. China is, in fact, implementing some policy, and they are currently in deliberation on more. Now, it's not my job to explain China's policy, except to say that we're - I'm going back to China in about three weeks. My hope is that by that point in time, China will have made some of the decisions that they're in the throes of deliberating now so that we can move forward faster together. If we can't, obviously, that injures everybody else's efforts. I don't think it makes any sense for people to throw up their hands and say, well, if China isn't going to do it, we're not going to do it, because obviously we've all got to do our part to avoid the worst consequences.

CORNISH: In the past, the U.S. has made pledges to help poorer countries, for instance, pay for efforts to transition to clean energy. Is there any move to improve that? Have we lived up to that? And what's the plan if we haven't?

KERRY: There is a tremendous effort going on to assist less-developed nations. We have made a commitment globally that was made in Paris to commit $100 billion a year for, you know, the next 10 years in order to assist those countries to make that transition. Tragically, that amount of money has not yet been fully identified, though the effort to identify it between now and Glasgow is in full swing. In addition to that, though, there's trillions of dollars that are going to be needed for this transition. And we, the United States, have worked very closely with the six largest banks in our nation. They've stepped up, and they have announced that they're going to set aside a specific amount of money to invest in accelerating this transition, augmenting it over the course of the next 10 years. That amount of money from the six banks is $4.16 trillion. And that's a floor, not a ceiling.

CORNISH: So are policymakers moving at the same rate as markets?

KERRY: This is one of those incredible moments where, frankly, the market is way ahead of political systems in many, but not all. The private sector is fully prepared to invest in these sectors, providing governments are making it feasible by getting the bureaucracy out of the way, guaranteeing you can make a decision on the land acquisition needed for some of this deployment and making sure that the revenue stream that supports that financial transaction is there and reliable.

CORNISH: Are governments doing that? Is our government doing that?

KERRY: We're engaged in this. We're leading this effort to try to make sure that this works. And the answer is yes. Other governments are fully prepared to be engaged in similar transactions. The EU is a terrific partner in this. The U.K., Canada, Japan have all made decisions that are moving in the right direction.

CORNISH: Is there any particular arrow in the quiver, meaning a tariff, a policy, a tax, any kind of way that the U.S. might consider wielding some of its economic influence to bring about some of the changes President Biden is calling for?

KERRY: Well, there are two things that are on the table being examined. Now, the president has not adopted either yet, but those two policies that are being examined are, one, a border adjustment mechanism for carbon.

CORNISH: So you're referring to a tax.

KERRY: Well, it's a tariff. It's a fee that would be charged to a nation's particular products that continue to be made cheaply because countries are not investing and doing what they need to do to meet the climate challenge. And it's a possibility, depending on what nations sign up for, decide to do. The second one that is being considered in various parts of the world is a price on carbon itself. And there are many models, though it's not acceptable to certain elements of certain parties and certain countries, but it is certainly one of those steps that gets the most bang for the buck.

CORNISH: You've been at this for many years, thinking about these issues. What, if anything, about this week felt like a turning point for you? Maybe it's not, but I feel like I should ask.

KERRY: Well, no, it didn't. And it doesn't feel like a turning point at this point. It feels like one more in a series of warnings which have been made over 30 years plus. I don't think it took this IPCC report for a whole bunch of people who have been working on this issue for a long time to feel motivated. So the time has come. It has to happen now. That's what Glasgow is all about. That's what this next meeting of the world coming together is about. Not one country, but the world has to make a global effort here. Everybody has a role here, and no one carries a greater burden in that role than the 20 largest economies of the world, which emit almost 80% of all the emissions that are creating this damage.

CORNISH: That's former Secretary of State John Kerry. He's now the U.S. special envoy for climate.

Thank you so much for your time.

KERRY: Pleasure to be with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.