Sec. Kerry On Climate Change, America's 'Crisis In Democracy'

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Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a conference on climate change and innovation in clean energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a conference on climate change and innovation in clean energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Secretary of State John Kerry warned of dire consequences if the United States does not do more to mitigate the effects of climate change.

"What we do right now, today, matters. Because if we don't go far enough fast enough, the damage we inflict could take centuries to undo -- if it can be undone at all. We don't get a second chance on this one," Kerry said, speaking at the MIT Sloan School of Management on Monday.

Kerry did not mention President-elect Donald Trump by name during the speech. Trump has continued to question the science on climate change, even though there is broad consensus that climate change is real.

Before his speech, Radio Boston sat down with Kerry for an exclusive interview.


John Kerry, secretary of state and former U.S. senator for Massachusetts.


This transcript is via the U.S. Department of State with light editing for clarity and time.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Big-picture here – how are you feeling at the end of your term?

SECRETARY KERRY: I feel great. I mean, I feel very energized still, very focused, trying to finish up some key things; regretting a little bit that there isn’t more time to try to finish the unfinished business, but very proud of the things that we’ve accomplished.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, tell me more about the regret part.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we should focus more on the things we’ve accomplished, but I mean, obviously Syria disturbs me greatly and I’m not happy with where Syria is. I think what I’ve achieved is by leading the formation of the International Syria Support Group and passing resolutions at the UN and getting the communiques we got, we have created a framework for resolving it, but that framework has yet to be implemented and it’s – it’s deeply disturbing to me that so much violence has continued with the world kind of not able to pull the parties to the table yet. But when it happens, it will happen along the lines of what we put together.

Ukraine obviously continues to be a concern, and there are a lot of reasons for why that hasn’t been able to progress more, which I’ll talk about when I’m out.

But I feel very proud of the fact that we got a nuclear weapon potential away from a country with whom we haven’t talked for 35 years – Iran – and we were able to reach an agreement under very difficult circumstances, but it’s a sound agreement, it’s solid, it’s working. The world is safer because of this agreement. Iran cannot possibly make a nuclear weapon during this period of time. And I feel very confident about that.

I’m very proud of what we did on climate change with the Paris Agreement and ... the oceans work we have done has been groundbreaking. That’s a strange way to say oceans but – oceans parting. (Laughter.) But what it’s been able to do is awaken people to the fact that the oceans themselves are threatened and life itself, therefore, and the planet is threatened because of it.

So there’s a lot of work we’ve done. I say to people we have been – the United States of America has been more engaged in more places in the world on more simultaneous crises, but engaged with positive consequence, more so than at any time in American history.

CHAKRABARTI: Are you concerned that that’s going to get reversed soon?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m concerned about – sure, everybody has a lot of questions about where things are going. We just don’t know. But I’m not going to put my energy into focusing on things that are hypothetical that we don’t know. So I’m just going to keep moving until we cross the finish line and then I’ll focus on where we are.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, let me ask you a couple quick questions about climate. During a press conference just last week, you said, quote, “The science is absolutely irrefutable that the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is a dire threat to which we have to respond.” And you’re here today at the MIT Sloan School to give a talk, another speech on climate change. I’m just curious about whether or not you’re bothered or disturbed, or how much you’re bothered and disturbed that you find yourself in 2017 still having to defend the science of climate change?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it is disturbing that there is a genuine minority – getting smaller all the time – that doesn’t still accept the basic science, but it is affirming that many, many, many more people are now accepting it and that it’s not the kind of debate it was. So yes, we have to continue to push it with some people, and unfortunately, now, evidently, with a president-elect of the United States who has evidenced his own skepticism about it, and that poses potential serious risks to all of us in this endeavor. But I believe the American people and the people in the planet are deeply committed to this. They understand what is happening. ... Cities and mayors and governors and states and 196 nations came together in Paris, and one nation being skeptical by its leadership is not going to stop all the rest of them from moving. But it’s not necessarily going to empower us to move as fast as we need to, which is part of my discussion today.


SECRETARY KERRY: And that’s concerning.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So given the time we have, I could just – I would love to be able to talk with you more about climate overall but I want to --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I mean, when I’m out and we finish up, I’m happy to come in and we can – we’ll do a longer session.

CHAKRABARTI: Let’s do that. ... But a couple of weeks ago you gave that speech about Mideast peace and the threats to Mideast peace, and I just wanted to ask you briefly what your reaction was to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction to your speech when he said he didn’t feel like Israel should be getting lectured about peace in the Middle East.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to get into characterizing the prime minister or his comments. It’s just not productive. I spoke out of affection and concern for a country I love – Israel. I supported Israel 100 percent as a senator for 28 years and I’ve supported it 100 percent as Secretary of State, and we have stopped every resolution that was harmful or piling on or delegitimizing or singling out Israel, with UNESCO, with the Human Rights Commission, with the UN – we’ve been there for Israel, every step of the way.

... And I spoke out of my concern that if you want to be a Jewish state and you want to remain a democracy, you have to have a two-state solution. And what is happening is policy in Israel is being driven by the settlers who don’t support a two-state solution, who want their settlements to prevent the possibility of two states. They openly say that.

CHAKRABARTI: America’s next ambassador is in – his personal opinion is in line with those settlers.

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s accurate. He has personally expressed that opinion and he has a hearing coming up, and we’ll see what he says about it. But the fact is that you literally, by definition, cannot have a Jewish state and a democratic state and have a whole bunch of Palestinians in it who are living under military rule while the rest of the country is living under civil rule, and they have different rights and different – it’s just not a democracy. And if you don’t have two states, you have one state, already the non-Jewish population outnumbers the Jewish population in one state.

So somebody – all I did was ask questions. How does this work? Tell me. Are the – is the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, going to patrol all the communities of the West Bank forever? What happens with schools? What happens with businesses?

And so I do think that it’s important for Israel to have a debate about this, and that’s what that speech has helped to foster.

CHAKRABARTI: So I was thinking back to many decades ago, your testimony on Capitol Hill about Vietnam — the testimony that really put you on the national stage. You were driven by conscience to say what you said then. And I wonder — and that’s been sort of a major part of your career in political service since then. Am I hearing correctly that your conscience is demanding you to — you made the speech about the Middle East a couple weeks ago, you’re speaking about climate change today. I mean, as you’re looking at the last couple of weeks of your tenure as Secretary of State, is there something more than just policy driving you to speak this way now?

SECRETARY KERRY: I came into public life during the 1960s when a whole bunch of us believed in our ability to change the world. And we did a lot of things. I was part of the environment movement, part of the women’s movement. We had the Equal Rights Amendment. We helped set the country on a course to change its relationship with 50 percent of our country, with women. I was part of the peace effort to try to end the war in Vietnam, to put us on a different track. As a public person, I’ve always tried to reflect what is embodied in our defining ideals as a nation about equality and fairness and justice and so forth.

And I think that for many of us, the years of the Civil Rights movements – Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy running for president in 1968 to end the war and so forth – these were defining moment in terms of trying to hold government accountable and have a level of responsibility and truth-telling. I mean, you can’t have responsibility and you can’t have us living up to our ideals unless it’s based on a fairly common acceptance of truth, of what is true – what is the truth here? And I think that too much, to a greater degree than is anywhere near appropriate, our country and our politics are being governed by more and more powerful interests, by fewer and fewer people in the sense of the amount of money that has controlled access and other kinds of things.

Now --

CHAKRABARTI: Well, let me --

SECRETARY KERRY: — that has changed a little bit with — the last few years with the new platforms that exist in communications. But it is not proving to be fact-based communication, and that’s disturbing. And we have a new phenomenon of fake news and of all kinds of interventions in that communication process.

So we still have a lot of work to do to protect our own democracy. And I’m motivated by my passion for our basic values, protecting our interests, and for protecting the future.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, since you said that, let me ask you: Can one do foreign policy or diplomacy via tweet or Twitter?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, obviously. I think that’s a concern and has been expressed by a lot of people. I’m not going to get into that debate right now, but I do think that it’s really important for leaders of countries to be very clear and careful in the statements they make because their words are weighed extremely carefully by other countries, and you have to create a continuity of seriousness and of credibility in order to be able to be taken seriously and get things done.

CHAKRABARTI: I’m going to guess that you may not choose to answer this, but are you already getting the sense that America is losing its credibility in the eyes of foreign leaders because of some of the things that the president-elect has tweeted?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to comment on the president-elect. You appropriately divined that. I will say that before this race, in the last years, just the fact that we can’t pass budgets in our Congress, just the fact that we are gridlocked in our own democracy, the fact that everybody who travels can see that we’re not investing in our airports, in our rail, in our infrastructure and so forth, people are noticing a United States that is not getting the job done in some ways. And I think that has affected – I’ve noticed it in the four years I’ve been Secretary – I think that our own crisis of democracy is in its own way affecting our ability to leverage in the same way that we used to in the world.

CHAKRABARTI: What’s the consequence of that?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think the United States is still the indispensable force for positive change and for rule of law and for order and structure. I mean, when Ebola happened, the United States stepped up and led the charge in order to prevent Ebola from taking hundreds of thousands of lives. AIDS — we are the country that has now created a moment where we have the first generation of children that may be born AIDS-free. We are the one that ... has led the effort to strengthen NATO and strengthen the front-line states against Russia’s pressures. ... There’s so many places and ways in which our leadership – on refugees; we’re the largest donor in the world to the refugees from Syria. ...

I can run down a long list of things where if the United States isn’t stepping – and I don’t say this arrogantly at all. We’re in a position to do this. We’re the most powerful economy in the world. We’re an $18-trillion-dollar economy. And so we have an ability to try to make some things happen that other countries don’t necessarily have. And what we need to do is respect that incredible blessing that we have as a nation and make sure that we are leading in the best ways possible. And in the last years, with the politicization of everything, and the gridlock that has been a purposeful political strategy for political gain by one party – not for nation, but for one party – that is discernible by everybody in the world and it is not helping us.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Secretary John Kerry, thank you so very much for speaking with us today.

SECRETARY KERRY: Glad to be with you. My pleasure. Thank you very much.

This segment aired on January 9, 2017.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


Headshot of Kathleen McNerney

Kathleen McNerney Senior Producer / Editor, Edify
Kathleen McNerney was the senior producer/editor of Edify.



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