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John Kerry Says Climate Change Is An 'Existential' Crisis

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry tells NPR that the U.S., China and other major emitters aren't doing enough to stem climate change.
Alex Wong
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Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry tells NPR that the U.S., China and other major emitters aren't doing enough to stem climate change.

President Biden is pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030.

It's an ambitious goal that requires transforming much of the economy. Renewable energy would need to make up half of the U.S. power supply from roughly 21% currently. Electric cars make up about 2% of sales now — by 2030, at least half, potentially all, new car sales would need to be electric, according to estimates. Many industrial manufacturing facilities would need to use technologies that haven't been developed.

It's part of Biden's effort to get the U.S. on track to reach the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement but Biden has formally rejoined.

John Kerry is Biden's special envoy for climate, a position that involves meeting with countries around the world about efforts to stem emissions.

He calls the threat of climate change "existential."

"That means life and death. And the question is, are we behaving as if it is? And the answer is no," Kerry said in an interview on NPR's All Things Considered.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and includes extended Web-only answers.

Interview Highlights

Is this more a matter of shoot for the moon and if you miss, at least you'll land among the stars?

No, I think it's achievable. And I think that people who've really studied this, analyzed it and thought about it for a long period of time believe it is achievable.

Already the [car] marketplace is moving towards electric. I mean, you know, Joe Biden didn't create the value of Tesla as the most valuable automobile company in the world. The market did that. And the market did it because that's where people are moving.

The scale of change that you're talking about in the timeframe that is required is something we've never seen in human history.

Let me put it to you this way. How many politicians, how many scientists, how many people have stood up and said, "This is existential for us on this planet"? Existential. That means life and death. And the question is, are we behaving as if it is? And the answer is no.

So why are younger generation folks so angry? Why are they standing up and demonstrating and asking adults to accept adult responsibility to move our nations in the right direction? Because the scientists are telling them that. They learn about this in high school and college. They read. They know what's happening. They know we're experiencing the hottest day in human history, the hottest week, the hottest month, the hottest year. And we see the results. Fires, floods, mudslides, drought, crop disruption, ice melting in the Arctic, run the list.

Climate change is still seen as a partisan issue in the U.S., and Republicans could take over Congress next year. A Republican could win the White House in three years. So why should global leaders view this as a reliable commitment from the United States when GOP leaders have not bought in?

For two reasons. No. 1, when Donald Trump was president of the United States and he pulled out of the agreement, 37 governors in the United States, Republican and Democrats alike, stood up and said, "We're still in." And states, those 37 states, have passed renewable portfolio laws. So at the state level, people are moving because they know it's better for their state. It's a safer, better delivery of power to their state, and it's the way it's going to move.

The second part of the answer: Masses of capital, trillions of dollars, are going to move into the energy market, which is the largest market the world has ever seen and going to grow now. Multiple double-digit trillions of dollars of market. And no politician can come along and tell those banks, or those asset managers or those investors or those venture capitalists or the companies, the corporations that are doing this, they know this is where the market's going to be in the future.

If the $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan that the president has put forth does not pass the Senate, does this goal to cut emissions in half by 2030 effectively die with the bill?

Well, it doesn't die, but it certainly takes a blow, a serious one. But the companies I've talked about are going to move in this direction no matter what. I mean, if you look at the biggest companies in America, these folks are all pushing to get this done because they know that the world is going to be better off and that their businesses are going to be better off if we do that. This is a real challenge for all of us, and I think people are waking up to it all around the world.

Let me ask you a question. Why do you think 40 heads of state, including President Xi of China, President Putin of Russia, Prime Minister Modi of India, huge populations come together and say, "We have to do this"? Do they know something that some of these opponents of it don't know or aren't willing to admit? I mean, the only leader in the entire world that saw fit to pull out of the Paris agreement was Donald Trump.

But it's so easy to make commitments and we haven't seen countries follow through on those commitments.

This is accurate. They're doing things; they're not doing enough. There are very few countries that are doing enough. Most countries are not. And of the 20 countries that equal 81% of all the emissions, they are the critical ones that have to do more. And we're among them. We are 15% of all the world's emissions. China is 30%. Does China need to do more? Absolutely. All of the 20 need to do more.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

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