"We are on a Course Leading to Tragedy": At U.N. Talks, Kerry Delivers Urgent Plea on Climate Change

December 12, 2014
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The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru, has entered its final day of scheduled talks. Deep divisions remain between wealthy and developing nations on emission cuts and over how much the world’s largest polluters should help poorer nations address climate change. On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Lima and made an impassioned plea for all nations to work for an ambitious U.N. climate deal next year in Paris. Kerry said time is running out to reverse "a course leading to tragedy."


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AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from COP 20, the United Nations Climate Change Conference here in Lima, Peru. The talks have entered their final scheduled day as deep divisions remain between wealthy and developing countries on emission cuts and over how much the world’s largest polluters should help poorer nations address climate change.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Lima and made an impassioned plea for all nations to work for an ambitious U.N. climate deal next year in Paris. Former Vice President Al Gore and lead U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern attended the speech. Kerry said time was running out to reverse a course leading to tragedy.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: It seems that every time I speak at an event about climate change, someone introducing me, as Todd did today, said, "John Kerry has been to every major gathering since Rio." And it’s true. But I’ll tell you something: That’s kind of troubling, because it was in Rio, as far back as 1992, when I heard the secretary-general, as Al did, when we were there, declare, quote, "Every bit of evidence I’ve seen persuades me that we are on a course leading to tragedy."

That was 1992. This morning, I woke up in Washington to the television news of a super-storm rainfall in California and Washington state—torrential, record-breaking rain in record-breaking short time. It’s become commonplace now to hear of record-breaking climate events. But this is 2014, 22 years later, and we’re still on a course leading to tragedy. So this is an issue that’s personal for me, just as it is for you, absolutely. ...

And at the end of the day, if nations do choose the energy sources of the past over the energy sources of the future, they’ll actually be missing out on the opportunity to build the kind of economy that will be the economy of the future and that will thrive and be sustainable. Coal and oil may be cheap ways to power an economy today in the near term, but I urge nations around the world, the vast majority of whom are represented here at this conference, look further down the road. I urge you to consider the real, actual, far-reaching costs that come along with what some think is the cheaper alternative. It’s not cheaper.

I urge you to think about the economic impacts related to agriculture and food security, and how scientists estimate that the changing climate is going to yield—is going to reduce the capacity of crops to produce the yields they do today in rice or maize or wheat, and they could fall by 2 percent every single decade. Think about what that means for millions of farmers around the world and the impact it will have on food prices on almost every corner of the world, and particularly as each decade we see the world’s population rise towards that nine-billion mark. Then factor in how that would also exacerbate the human challenges, like hunger and malnutrition. Add to that the other long-term-related problems that come from relying on 20th century’s energy sources and the fact that air pollution caused by the use of fossil fuel contributes to the deaths of at least 4.5 million people every year and all the attendant healthcare costs that go with it.

And for everyone thinking that you can’t afford this transition or invest in alternative or renewable energy, do the real math on the costs. Consider the sizable costs associated with rebuilding in the wake of every devastating weather event. In 2012 alone, extreme weather events cost the United States $110 billion. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines last year, the cost of responding to the damage exceeded $10 billion. Even smaller-scale disasters bear a hefty price tag, and the overall cost to businesses from the severe floods that hit parts of the United Kingdom earlier this year was an estimated 1.3 billion. You start adding up these 100 billions and 10 billions here in country after country, and think if that money had been put to helping to subsidize the transition to a better fuel, to an alternative or renewable, to cleaner, to emissions-free, to clean emissions capacity.

Those are just the costs of damages. Think of the costs for healthcare due to pollution. Largest single cause of young children in America being hospitalized during our summers is environmentally, air-induced asthma that those kids suffer. The agricultural and environmental degradation is palpable. So, my friends, it’s time for countries to do some real cost accounting.

The bottom line is that we can’t only factor in the cost of immediate energy need or energy transition. We have to factor in the long-term cost of carbon pollution. And we have to factor in the cost of survival itself. And if we do, we will find that the cost of pursuing clean energy now is far cheaper than paying for the consequences of climate change later. Nicholas Stern showed us that in a study any number of years ago. And we still need to get all of our countries more serious about doing that accounting.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State John Kerry speaking in Lima, Peru, at the U.N. Climate Change Conference. Kerry is the highest-ranking U.S. official to attend the U.N. Climate Change Conference since President Obama took part in the 2009 Copenhagen talks and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended. While Kerry spoke for 30 minutes, he never addressed an issue on the minds of many: of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. Kerry must make a final recommendation to President Obama about whether the $8 billion pipeline should be approved.


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