John Kerry: ‘No-One is Exaggerating When They Call This an Existential Threat’

Patrick Goodenough | October 29, 2021 | 12:43am EDT
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U.S. special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)
U.S. special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

( – Four days before the U.N.’s latest climate megaconference opens in Glasgow, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry in a speech on Thursday characterized the battle ahead as one in which “the stakes could not be higher,” and said that “no-one is exaggerating when they call this an existential threat.”

“Let’s be clear,” Kerry told an audience at the London School of Economics, “the time for debating the causes of climate change is long over and the time for action is also long overdue. And needless to say, the stakes could not be higher.”

Kerry said the Paris climate accord reached six years ago had not achieved the commitments needed from countries to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times, but it did “pull us back from the brink.”

He cited stepped-up emission-reduction commitments from governments and a growing realization by the private sector that the cost of inaction was greater than the cost of action.

“For the first time in modern history, more investment went into renewable energy than went into fossil fuels.”

At the same time, however, Kerry referred to a recent U.N. report finding that there remains a “gap” between what countries have pledged to do and what is needed to keep warming below that 1.5 degree mark by the end of the century.

“The world must work together to close this gap,” he said, with the responsibility lying mainly with the world’s top 20 economies, which together account for 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.


Kerry noted that “some countries are still building new carbon-polluting coal [power] plants and planning to break ground on more – this while others have demonstrated that they can meet future energy needs with clean, renewable power.”

He did not name it, but China – the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – is planning to build 43 new coal-fired power stations, according to a report published over the summer by the Global Energy Monitor and Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said last April that his country would start to phase out its use of coal from 2026. China has also pledged to peak its carbon emissions by 2030, and become carbon-neutral by 2060. (Xi is attending neither the Glasgow meeting nor the preceding G20 summit in Rome this weekend at which climate will be a central focus.)

‘Not ideology, not politics’

Kerry said there was a need now to “significantly accelerate our efforts.”

“That is a judgment, not of me or of President Biden, or of anybody in politics. It’s the judgment of the best science and mathematics,” he said. “That’s what this is about. Not ideology, not politics, it’s about mathematics and physics.”

“According to the most recent report from the scientists at the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the so-called IPCC, devastating consequences await us if global temperature rises above 1.5 degrees,” he continued. “And we are now already just about at 1.2.”

Kerry pointed to phenomena around the globe blamed on global warming, including a summer heatwave in Britain, deadly flooding in Germany, deaths in Texas during a winter storm and in flooding in New York City basement apartments.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “No-one, no-one is exaggerating when they call this an existential threat – just ask the people of the Marshall Islands, Fiji, or in the vulnerable nations of the world.”

“So that is what makes this the decade of decision. And now we must make it the decade of action. To prevent catastrophe, the scientists tell us that we must cut our global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030 in order to get to net zero by 2050.”

“We head to Glasgow in that context, and I head to Glasgow an optimist.”

Kerry ended his speech with an anecdote, saying a climate activist taking part in a hunger strike outside the White House told him recently that “they’re angry, fed up with a system that they see as not moving fast enough, tired of empty words and broken promises.”

“And I know people all over the world feel that way. And they should. I told him he was right to be angry. We should all be angry.”

“But I also believe this momentum we are seeing is real and meaningful and grow-able.”

COP26 – the 26th “conference of the parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, begins in the Scottish city on Monday. President Biden arrived in the Italian capital early on Friday morning to take part in the G20 summit, before flying to the opening of COP26.

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