In an interview with the NZZ, the former foreign minister warns against losing sight of the fight against climate change in the context of the Ukraine war.
Former Senator and US Secretary of State John Kerry used to travel by private jet. These days he is mostly on the road as an ordinary airline passenger. This is not due to a lack of budget, but to his office: as US President Joe Biden’s special climate envoy, Kerry can hardly admonish other countries to do more to fight global warming while he flies around the world in his own jet.
Kerry also flew “commercially”, as the Americans say, to the World Economic Forum this week. Towards the end of his three-day stay in Davos, the NZZ spoke to Kerry in a telephone interview about the new starting point in the fight against global warming.
Mr. Kerry, the war in Ukraine has triggered a global energy crisis. How will the conflict and Western sanctions affect the fight against climate change?
It’s a double-edged sword. The war has reinforced the belief in expanding renewable energy and breaking dependency on goods controlled by petro-dictators. Europe has chosen this path and is rapidly moving in this direction. At the same time, the confusion and price hikes in the energy market as a result of the market turmoil have caused a lot of suffering. Higher energy prices are affecting living standards and the affordability of goods for people around the world.
But we must make an effort not to mix up the various problems. That [meteorologische] Climate will not improve if we turn back to fossil fuels.
We must fight climate change because it will generate greater chaos, greater risk and greater loss than anything else. We have to develop new sources of energy.
And of course we need to temporarily increase the availability of natural gas from the United States and other countries to help Europe. But at the same time we need to tap into more renewable energy and nuclear power to get through this crisis.
The financial markets expect that the oil and gas industry will benefit from the current crisis. Oil and fracking company shares have outperformed the broader market many times over since February. Many investors expect a positive future for fossil fuels. Where does this optimism come from?
Well, I think that optimism comes from wanting to make money. It stems from a totally distorted perception of what needs to be done. So the answer to your question is yes, the oil and gas industry has very significant profits to come. But frankly, energy companies should invest some of that in renewable and alternative energy.
Not only must we expand the production of fossil fuels, we must also have a plan for keeping the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius alive. If we exceed the 1.5 degrees or even pass the 2 or 3 degree limit, we enter a catastrophic situation. The expenditures that will then be required will dwarf any profits now accruing to the oil and gas industry.
The Corona crisis has shown how difficult it can be to tackle a problem together as a society, even if the danger affects every individual directly. What do you think this means for the fight against climate change, which – compared to Corona – does not feel like an immediate threat to many people?
You are absolutely right. For many people, the threat doesn’t seem imminent, even though you can read about the negative consequences of the climate crisis every day. A few days ago it was 51 degrees in Pakistan. Temperatures well above the long-term average were also measured in Southeast Asia and Antarctica. Every year 15 million people die due to poor air quality.
It is a fact that not taking the necessary measures costs us much more than if we do. The real risk is not making the necessary investments. We know that wildfires, floods and warming oceans are changing conditions in ways that threaten human life. I believe that more and more people understand this and realize how dangerous this development is.
Much of what is happening now was predicted decades ago. But the development is now happening faster and on a larger scale than we expected. The question is whether people will behave logically and listen to science, or whether they will enter a state of denial. I think most people don’t want to sign a suicide pact of indifference.
So you are confident that society will not become jaded to the warnings from science and from people like you who have made it their mission to point out the dangers of climate change?
Well, you know, it’s not my job to warn of the dangers. It’s my job to convince people that the transition to a clean energy economy is the best economic opportunity we’ve ever had. If we act right and wisely, we will create millions of new jobs and wealth. We will make life cleaner, safer and healthier for people around the world. People are starting to see and understand that.
However, many developing and emerging countries do not want to be deterred from promoting their economic growth with cheap energy sources such as coal. What do you think?
I have great understanding for developing countries. They need our help, our technology and our financial resources. We must help them. But at the same time, we need to make sure they don’t simply repeat past mistakes.
The UN Climate Change Council says that to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030. As of now, we will miss this target. We must behave intelligently to protect ourselves and our children. This also includes making the right economic decisions. We can have a cheaper energy supply than today if we rely on renewable energies. People need to be aware of that.
China’s contribution to combating climate change is considered extremely important. You spoke to your counterpart from Beijing at the World Economic Forum in Davos. How did the talks go?
It was very constructive talks and we agreed that we will meet again in Berlin on Thursday and try to continue working on the things that we both need to do. And we want to cooperate – hopefully.