John Kerry on Protecting the Ocean Amid Climate Change

John Kerry, a lifelong ocean lover who has long advocated for the protection of their waters, is John Kerry. It’s this passion which led the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate to start the Our Ocean conference in 2014 during his time as Secretary of State in the Obama Administration. Annually, the meeting gathers countries, businesses and civil society in order to share information and to make further commitments for ocean protection. Kerry says that since then, the conference helped raise the visibility of the oceans as part of the climate conversation.

“We have succeeded, I think, in getting everyone to understand that you can’t solve the climate crisis without the ocean,” Kerry told TIME in an interview on April 13 on the sidelines of this year’s Our Ocean conference in the Pacific island nation Palau. “And you can’t solve the ocean crisis without reducing emissions.” This year alone, 410 commitments were made and $16.35 billion committed to ocean protection.

Although the conference focused on ocean-related topics, Kerry’s keynote address also touched on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how the events unfolding there highlight the urgency to accelerate the transition to an independent and clean energy future. TIME interviewed him to expand on these topics. The interview was edited to be more concise and clear.

It is the first time that an Our Ocean conference has been held on an island state in development, which is particularly vulnerable to climate change. What does it mean to be here at Palau to demonstrate your commitment to the protection of the oceans, and to the necessity to do so?

It’s not something too novel, because I’ve been in island states before, but it is very stark in the way that it clarifies the reality of their problems. You see the poverty and you see the reduced numbers of options and you can tune in much more easily to the reason that the impact of a marine protected area has more of a kick here than it does in places that are wealthier, whether it’s the state of Washington or Oregon or Massachusetts or California. It’s not easy or as disruptive here. It just reinforces that fact.

Palau is blessed in the sense that it’s got elevation and therefore sea level rise might not be the same thing as if you’re an atoll nation. If you’re an atoll nation it’s a more immediate crisis. However, the shortage of resources when it comes to the budget and the actual needs, is just an exclamation mark.

How do you see COP27 addressing ocean protection?

I think it’s going to begin to be time to have greater transparency and accountability of what people are doing and making certain that their mitigation efforts are taking place because if you don’t mitigate you cannot cure the ocean. Mitigation should be a key component of COP27.

Are you convinced that the oceans and their contribution to climate change are getting all the attention they need?

It’s all about getting started. The last several years have been an exciting time of building. I think what we succeeded in doing at Glasgow—when oceans got included for the first time in the body of text of COP—that was a huge step forward that signaled success with what started with the Our Ocean conference in 2014.

We have succeeded, I think, in getting everyone to understand that you can’t solve the climate crisis without the ocean. And you can’t solve the ocean crisis without reducing emissions. The warming of the earth and the acidic particulates that fall from the burning of fossil fuels are what’s changing the chemistry of the ocean. So that’s now fully baked into what’s happening at COPs.

It was touched uponEvents in UkraineIn your keynote speech at the conference. What can you do to keep climate change in the minds of people and inspire leaders to make progress against climate change?

Take a look at the progress made by Europe. Europe has tripled and doubled the amount of renewable energy deployment. Europe has decided to end its dependency on Putin’s gas. I think it regrets enormously the policy of the last years where they sort of played into this complacency and convenience, that it wouldn’t be weaponized, or Putin would never do something. Now people know what to do and are responding.

It is important that everyone stop fueling war. These are the terrible and dramatic consequences of regional dependence on fossil fuel.

U.S. officialsChina warned about sanctions should they support Russia’s war in Ukraine. Are you positive that China and America can remain partners in climate change efforts?

We’re putting that to the test right now. We’ve exchanged several calls in the last month and a half or two months. We’ve had a couple of Zoom meetings and we’re really trying to find out just how connected the issues will be.

Is the U.S.’s climate agenda in danger because of the Ukraine situation?

There’s a potential to affect it. It could be very or negative. Yeah. It could be today. We don’t know yet.

Continue reading:Already, the Biden Administration is calling on China to do more on climate change

A lot of Americans struggle to pay gas prices right now. How would you communicate your views on climate change to these Americans?

Rising gas prices have a big impact on people’s lives and I’m very mindful of that. We can make the most of our energy resources and stop being dependent on them. And the sooner we do that, the sooner we’re not victims of these kinds of price swings.

Which actions do you wish to see in the next ten years to combat climate change?

Everything. We’re way behind. We’ve known that, it’s no surprise. I’ve been saying that in speech after speech for a couple of years now. Even with Glasgow, we are still far behind.

COVID-19 clearly had an impact, and Ukraine also had an impact. But it’s much more the entrenchment of certain interests to protect themselves and to adopt strategies that will result in greater production of fossil fuel and an overt strategy to try to pretend it’s all due to Ukraine, which it’s not.

According to the IPCC, if trillions are to be spent on climate change mitigation and adaptation, it is imperative that we significantly accelerate our current pace of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This means that renewables must be deployed much more quickly. It means we will be able to transition faster to electric cars and also to limit methane. Each step must be speeded up. It is essential that we treat it as the serious issue that it truly is. Don’t just say the words; do the things. Take the steps necessary to transition.

It’s up to us to continue to use the technology we have, and to reduce our dependence on it enough to reach net-zero by 2050. It’s all linked. It’s all connected. [plan], my first question to them is, ‘what are you doing between 2020 and 2030?’ If you don’t do enough then, you don’t make it.

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