Senator John Kerry Speaks at HLS on Climate Change


Visiting Professor Roger Ballentine invited Senator John Kerry to speak to his Law of Climate Change class on January 16. Ballentine, the former Chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton, introduced Kerry as one of the most involved politicians in climate change policy. Kerry discussed his past involvement in climate change efforts, including his work on the Kyoto Protocol, and the future of climate change policy.

Kerry became involved in the international effort to address climate change as early as the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, which resulted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Although former President George H.W. Bush embraced a voluntary framework for emissions reductions, Kerry remarked that unlike other countries, the United States did not take any further steps leading up to the first Conference of the Parties in Berlin in 1995. Kerry characterized the Kyoto Protocol as a “significant accomplishment,” for getting the UNFCC Annex I nations (which include only developed or industrialized countries) to come together and set binding targets.

Although the Protocol was never presented to Congress for ratification, the Senate precluded the possibility of ratification when it unanimously passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution in a 95-0 vote. Kerry dryly noted that he had led the opposition to the resolution. Although the Byrd-Hagel Resolution was, for all intents and purposes, a rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, Kerry emphasized that the resolution really marked the Senate’s concern with the Protocol’s exclusion of the developing world from binding targets, and a fear that emissions from developing countries would thus “cancel out” the efforts of industrialized countries.

Kerry maintained that there has been a “shocking delay in people’s seriousness about [climate change].” This delay and the increasing seriousness of climate change risks, he said, have grave national security implications. Many of the states experiencing political turbulence are also states significantly impacted by climate change. Kerry expressed concern over outbreaks of malaria in new areas in Africa, and the possibility that lowlands such as the Seychelles islands could be wiped out by rising sea levels. Some of the most serious problems, he noted, will involve the law of the sea and the effects on our oceans, including acidification of the ocean and over-fishing.

Looking forward, Senator Kerry analyzed potential solutions for climate change. Currently, Kerry is working in Congress to bring a cap-and-trade system for emissions to the floor. He said that this is the most important current climate effort, and likened it to the cap and trade system for sulfur dioxide that he pieced together while Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts in the early 1980s as an effort to address acid rain. That system later became part of the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act.

Kerry said there was widespread opposition to the system: industry argued that it would end jobs, cost $8 billion and take ten years. Environmentalists estimated that the system would cost $4 billion and take five years. In the end, it cost somewhere around $2.5 billion and took about two and a half years. The lesson learned, Kerry said, is that no one can perfectly predict the costs of setting a national goal. “I believe in what will happen if we make a significant commitment to clean coal technology. But we don’t have time to screw around with this the way we are. This administration has adopted its own version of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s adage: the ‘fierce urgency of not now.'”

Kerry mentioned other efforts that he is leading, including a joint effort with Senator Ted Stevens to support three to five clean coal technology commercial projects, each using a different technology, so that the market can select the best approach. He also helped bring ocean acidification to the attention of Congress, and worked with Senator John McCain to lead the effort to raise CAFÉ standards (the fuel economy standards regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).

Although Kerry characterized the new standard of 35mpg as a ‘big victory,” the standards only go into effect in 2020. In contrast, he said, China will implement a 36mpg standard next year. “How,” he asked, “do you lead the world with a ‘head in the sand’ philosophy?”

Kerry also addressed concerns that climate change regulations will harm the economy. His own personal belief, he said, was that if the government put significant federal money of at least $7-9 billion per year into this issue instead of into Iraq, we would have “a stunning output transition in this nation.” Kerry acknowledged that the fight for this in Congress will be tough, but was optimistic about American businesses that are now advocating for a cap and trade program in order to have more certainty in the marketplace.

Kerry ended his lecture with a final argument for a strong climate change policy. “If we’re all wrong,” Kerry predicted, “here’s the downside: we’ll have reduced particulates in the area, reduced hospitalizations of children with asthma and respiratory problems. We’ll have more jobs because we’ve created new technology. We’ll have increased security because we’ll be less dependent on foreign fuel. We’ll have protected the environment and reduced species endangerment. That’s the downside, if we’re wrong. What if they’re wrong? Absolute catastrophe. This is not a complicated public policy issue. It’s a complicated political issue. That’s the framework in which we’re operating in Congress today.”

Kerry answered several questions from students from the law school, the Kennedy School of Government, and Harvard College who were in attendance. One question dealt with a formal commitment that many universities are making to go “green,” which President Drew Faust has not yet signed.

“Every single university and college in America has an absolute responsibility to adopt a completely carbon neutral, if not negative footprint, and engage in green sustainable technologies,” Kerry responded. “Any university with a multi-billion dollar endowment has an even greater responsibility.” Kerry also presented those in attendance with copies of his book, This Moment on Earth: Today’s New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future.