John Kerry, who recently stepped down from his role as the top U.S. climate diplomat, emphasized the crucial role of the private sector in slashing global emissions of planet-warming gases during a discussion at Stanford University.

“Trillions of dollars have to be deployed, and it’s the private sector that has the ability,” he said during the event, which took place on May 8 and was moderated by venture capitalist and philanthropist John Doerr. Kerry said he believes governments have set the stage for rapid progress through policies such as the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and the pact by nearly 200 nations in 2023 to shift away from fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal. “I left doing the job I was doing because I believe very deeply government is not going to solve this [alone], because we need money.” 

The discussion was part of Big Ideas in Sustainability, a series of conversations hosted by the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

Stop subsidizing the problem

Kerry contrasted the scale of spending to combat climate change with the mobilization effort mounted during World War II by America’s public and private sectors. “We acted like we had an existential threat,” he said, thumping his fists on his armchair. “We have an existential threat today and we are not acting as if it is that. And that’s the difference.” 

The former secretary of state and longtime senator from Massachusetts called for bigger tax incentives to drive investment up to the more than $4 trillion per year that the United Nations estimates is necessary for climate finance by 2030. He called for accelerated permitting for wind and solar projects, and “demand incentives,” such as power purchasing agreements for renewable energy and commitments from major manufacturers to buy steel made without fossil fuels. And he said that government must stop “subsidizing the problem,” referring to federal tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. 

Breakthroughs needed

Kerry remains convinced the world can and will correct its course on climate. “President Obama used to accuse me of unfettered and unwarranted optimism. I am an optimist,” Kerry said to the crowd of about 250 faculty, students, staff, and invited guests. He reflected on signs of progress in the long arc of human history, from cures to once deadly diseases to improved gender and racial equality. “I believe change comes.”

When Kerry took on the role of climate envoy in 2021, he said, the world was on a path to warming as high as 3 or 4 degrees Celsius, but the International Energy Agency has estimated that warming could be held to 1.7 C if nations fulfill their current pledges to reduce emissions. “Boy, I’d take that. And then you claw back, and we could claw back with the technologies that are coming online,” he said, before adding that breakthroughs in energy storage and other areas are still needed. 

Kerry called for a “Manhattan-type project” on small modular nuclear reactors, a technology that advocates say could help generate reliable supplies of electricity at low cost with limited carbon emissions, although research from Stanford and University of British Columbia scientists has found it would generate more radioactive waste than conventional nuclear power plants. 

“If we want to keep the lead on AI – and we do – and we want to break through on the other technologies, we need power. Those data centers are going to require enormous power,” Kerry said. 

Transitioning away from fossil fuels, Kerry said, means moving toward a world that is cleaner, healthier, and safer for people. Greenhouse gases are pollution that leads to more intense and frequent severe storms, he said. “That’s what we’re talking about … it’s pollution that kills people,” he said. “We’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars just cleaning up the mess rather than preventing it from happening in the first place.”

Demanding change

Kerry, who joined President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign after leaving the administration’s climate envoy role, urged young people to organize, demand change, and vote. He praised nonviolent protest. “You have to translate fury into things that change things,” he said. “Protest is supposed to be an inclusive invitation, not an exclusive rejection.”

The conversation had begun with a brief discussion of international affairs, in which Kerry commented on the situation in the Middle East. Kerry described the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by the Hamas terrorist organization as “one of the most grisly, depraved, horrendous, inexcusable, frantic, racist, deeply disturbing events I’ve ever seen. What happened to women, particularly.” 

At the same time, Kerry continued, frustration “has grown up through the years of disappointment in the West Bank and on the Oslo Accords and constant promises and the corruption that has existed with the P.A.,” meaning the Palestinian Authority. He spoke about the rise of the religious right in Israel and settlements in the West Bank. “The peace movement has been crippled over the last years to some degree in Israel,” he said. After the event, Kerry added, “If you care about a secure, democratic Jewish state, you have to get back to a place where a two-state solution is back under discussion.”

When the conversation later focused on organizing to demand action on climate change, Kerry described tactics he and others used to build a political movement around environmental causes in the 1970s. “We targeted the 12 worst votes in the U.S. Congress. We labeled them ‘the dirty dozen.’ We raised money and we advertised, and we went out to those districts and campaigned.” Activists knocked on doors and handed out leaflets. “We defeated seven of those 12 members of Congress. And as a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Senate, I’ll tell you that there’s nothing like watching your colleagues slinking out, defeated, to stiffen your spine.”

Within a few years of that election, Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed a wave of environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Marine Animal Protection Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Endangered Species Act. 

Kerry emphasized that organized public outcry about the environment had propelled the president at the time, Richard Nixon, to sign the legislation. Loud applause erupted as he added, “Richard Nixon, because he saw it was a voting issue, signed it into law.”

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