John Kerry urges climate action in MIT address

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged action on climate change at an address Monday morning at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, while voicing confidence in the economic potential of renewable energy to drive positive change.

“What we do right now, today, matters,” he said, noting rising global temperatures, melting glaciers, and increasing frequency of extreme weather events. “The damage we could inflict could take centuries to undo, if it can be undone at all.”

Kerry described a trip he made to Antarctica, where he was shown air samples from what was supposedly the cleanest air on the planet. These samples contained 401.6 parts per million of carbon dioxide — 14 percent above the 350 parts per million “tipping point,” beyond which damage may be irrecoverable.

“The problem is, we continue to move in the wrong direction and add to that curve,” he said.

Kerry touched on global challenges that will be exacerbated by climate change, listing climate refugees, climate induced conflict over water, and climate induced conflict over food. “You could run down a long list,” he said.  

With just over a week left in office, Kerry briefly mentioned the incoming administration.

“I’m not going to speculate about the policies that our president-elect and his secretary of state will choose to pursue,” he said, “but I will tell you this: in the time I’ve spent in public life, one of the things I’ve learned is that some issues look a lot different when you’re actually in office, compared to when you’re on the campaign trail.”  

President-elect Donald J. Trump has questioned whether climate change exists and whether humans are a driving factor. The nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has said he believes that climate is change is real. At his ongoing confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Tillerson was asked, but did not say, whether he believed that human activity contibuted to climate change.

Yet Kerry expressed confidence that the U.S. “is going to meet all the emissions targets we have set, not because of government action, but because of market forces.”

“Market forces are already beginning to shift” toward clean energy sources, he said. Kerry noted that in some places, renewable energy sources like solar and wind have reached cost parity with coal, while the number of jobs in solar energy has grown by over 20 percent in each of the last three years. Domestic wind generation has tripled since 2008, and solar generation has increased 30-fold in the same time, he said.

“We are relying on the ingenuity of MIT and institutions like it, along with the private sector, to get this job done,” he said, “because government can’t get it done and won’t get it done.”

Kerry and Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with MIT faculty following his address. Chaired by MIT’s Vice President for Research Maria T. Zuber, their discussion focused on the future of work and potential benefits to workers of automation and technology. Kerry said in his address that “the clean energy sector is one in which technology can create jobs rather than eliminate them.”