Grist - We Work on Climate Change Every Day

Op-Ed

By:  John Kerry
Date: June 19, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

By John Kerry

Everywhere I travel as secretary of state -- in every meeting, here at home and across the more than 100,000 miles I've traveled since I raised my hand and took the oath to serve in this office -- I raise the concern of climate change. I do so not because it's a pet issue or a personal priority, but because it's critical to the survival of our civilization, and that means it's a critical mission for me as our country's top diplomat.

Is it also personal to me? Of course it is. The environment has been one of the central causes of my life ever since I entered public life as an activist.

When I was just 26, I attended an Earth Day celebration in Massachusetts in 1970. It was an eye-opening immersion into the power of the grassroots to identify a problem, force it onto the national radar screen, and demand action -- action that would come not from the goodwill and benevolence of Washington, but because citizens demanded it. The explosion of our activism on that very first Earth Day led to the creation of the EPA, the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and so much more. People demanded action and the politicians followed.

Today, people all over the world are demanding action on climate change, and those of us in positions of authority globally have a responsibility to lead the way toward progress.

So it's personal, absolutely -- but leading the way is also the right role for the United States.

We are not just the "indispensable nation" -- today we must be the indispensable stewards of our shared planet. What one country does impacts the livelihoods of people elsewhere, and what we all do to address climate change now will largely determine the kind of planet we leave for our children and generations to come. From the far reaches of Antarctica's Ross Sea to tropical wetlands in Southeast Asia, we have a responsibility to safeguard and sustainably manage our planet's natural resources.

I am passionate about this, not based on ideology, but based on facts and based on science. It's not just people all over the world crying out for action -- it's the very science that is screaming at us.

Twelve of the hottest 13 years on record have occurred since 2000. Glaciers are melting across the globe. Arctic sea ice volume has shrunk by 80 percent since 1979. Extreme weather events are increasing -- like a massive, lethal heat wave in Moscow in 2010, enormous floods in Pakistan that same year that killed nearly 2,000 people and affected 20 million, and two "100-year droughts" in the Amazon in five years that led to the release of billions of tons of CO2, a fifth of all global CO2 emissions from energy in one year alone. In 2012, the United States endured 11 extreme climate- and weather-related events that each caused more than $1 billion in damage.

As I said in Sweden in May, climate change is truly a life-and-death challenge for all of us.

There was no mistaking President Obama's words in his second inaugural address or in his State of the Union address this year: The United States is committed to meeting this challenge head on, working in cooperation with our partners around the world through ambitious actions to reduce emissions, transform our energy economy, and help the most vulnerable cope with the effects of climate change.

But these are not problems that can be solved by one nation alone. By definition, rescuing the planet's climate is a global challenge that requires a global solution. So we must all demand that the biggest contributors to climate change have the most skin in the game.

That is why, shortly after I arrived at Foggy Bottom, I began working with our special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, not just to find new ways to elevate the discussion of climate change globally, but to find new ways of cooperating with other countries right now.

Dealing responsibly with the clear and present danger of climate change was the focus of my first trip to China in April. I spoke with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang about how we can work together to address the threat of climate change and its impact on our two nations' economies and security. People on the streets of Beijing want a healthy climate just as much as people on the streets of Boston do.

I stood with State Councilor Yang Jiechi to announce that we would put our efforts on an accelerated path, making climate change and energy policy a priority at the upcoming U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

To confront this challenge head on, we created the U.S.-China Working Group. Our goal is to spur creative, cooperative new ways of addressing the climate challenge -- and in its first few months, this working group has already broken new ground.

When we last met with China's leaders in California just a couple of weekends ago, after productive and candid dialogue, President Obama and President Xi were able to announce that the United States and China have agreed to work together and with others via the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), highly potent greenhouse gases used in refrigerators and air-conditioners. This could eliminate nearly two years' worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2050.

And next month, we have another opportunity to make progress when we meet for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, where both the United States and China will present new joint initiatives to curb climate change.

Our new climate change working group is an example of how two motivated and committed countries can take strong and swift action to reduce global emissions and put the world on the path to a clean-energy economy.

By keeping the pressure on each other to take ambitious action and replicating this effort around the world, we will create a virtuous cycle to address the climate challenge the right way: together. In a more collaborative environment, I am absolutely confident we will find the solutions and push the curve of discovery. We can do it without jeopardizing our economies -- in fact, we will grow them.

And the United States will be working not just with China, but around the globe. Next I will be traveling to India, where once again climate change and energy will be vital to the conversation.

I hope you will share your thoughts and ideas on new climate initiatives we could undertake. If ever there was an issue that demanded cooperation, public participation, and committed diplomacy, this is it.

In my very first address as secretary of state, I stood before a group of students at the University of Virginia and pledged to them that President Obama and I are committed to marching forward on climate change. But we can't do it alone. So I also challenged them, as I challenge you, to join us in that effort. For if we waste this opportunity, our failure may be the only thing our generations are remembered for.