John Kerry on protecting the ocean from climate change

John Kerry is a lifelong lover of the ocean and a lifelong advocate for their protection. It was this passion that led the US President’s special climate envoy to launch the Our Ocean conference in 2014 when he was Secretary of State in the Obama administration. The annual meeting brings together countries, civil society and businesses to cooperate and commit to strengthening the protection of the oceans. In the years since, according to Kerry, the conference has effectively raised the profile of the oceans in the climate debate.

“We’ve been successful, I think, in making everybody realize that you can’t solve the climate crisis without the ocean,” Kerry told TIME in an April 13 interview on the sidelines of this year’s Our Ocean conference. year in the Pacific island nation. Palau. “And you can’t solve the ocean crisis without reducing emissions.” This year alone, 410 commitments have been made and $16.35 billion has been pledged for ocean protection.

Although the conference focused on ocean-related topics, Kerry’s keynote also touched on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how events there underscore the urgent need to accelerate the transition to an independent and clean energy future. Speaking to TIME, he expanded on these issues. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This is the first time that an Our Ocean conference has been held in a small island developing state, which is particularly threatened by climate change. How does being here in Palau confirm your commitment to protecting the oceans and the need to do so?

It’s not something too new, as I’ve been to island states before, but it’s very striking in how it clarifies the reality of their problems. You see the poverty and you see the reduced number of options and you can understand much more easily why the impact of a marine protected area has more impact here than in more affluent places, be it the state of Washington or Oregon or Massachusetts or California. Obviously managing it here is a much more difficult or disruptive process for people. So I think that just underscores that.

Palau is blessed in the sense that there is elevation and so sea level rise may not be the same as if you are an atoll. If you’re an atoll, it’s a more immediate crisis. But nevertheless, the lack of resources, when you hear how big the budget is or what the needs are, it just puts an exclamation mark on it.

What do you want to see from COP27 in terms of protecting the oceans?

I think it’s going to start to be time to have more transparency and accountability of what people are doing and making sure that their mitigation efforts are happening because if you don’t mitigate, you can’t heal the ocean. So I think mitigation getting a sufficiently central place in COP27 is the big key.

Do you think the oceans and their role in climate change are now getting the attention they deserve?

Start to. I think the last few years have been a building process. I think what we managed to do in Glasgow – when oceans were first included in the body of the COP text – was a huge step forward that marked the success of what started with the Our Ocean conference in 2014.

We succeeded, I think, in making everyone understand that we cannot 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 particles that fall from burning fossil fuels are what are changing the chemistry of the ocean. It’s now fully integrated with what happens at COPs.

You touched events in Ukraine in your keynote address at the conference. How do you get people to think about climate change and get leaders to move forward on climate change when there are so many competing priorities?

Look at what Europe is doing. Europe has doubled, tripled on the deployment of renewable energies. Europe is breaking away from dependence on Putin for gas. I think he very much regrets the politics of the last few years where they kind of played into this complacency and convenience, that he wouldn’t be militarized or Putin would never do anything. So now people are warned and respond clearly.

The sooner everyone stops fueling the war, the better. The downsides of the region’s reliance on fossil fuels have been dramatically and horribly exposed and highlighted.

US officials have warned china on sanctions should they support Russia’s war in Ukraine. Do you think China and the United States can continue to partner on climate change?

We are testing that right now. We have exchanged several calls for a month and a half or two months. We’ve had a few Zoom meetings and we’re really trying to figure out how related the issues will be.

Does the situation in Ukraine jeopardize the American climate agenda?

There is a potential to affect it. Could it be negative or very negative? Yeah. Is it today? We do not know yet.

Read more: The Biden administration is already calling on China to do more on climate change

There are a lot of Americans struggling to afford gas right now. What would be your message to them on climate action?

Rising gas prices have a significant impact on people’s lives and I am very aware of that. But the fastest thing we can do is stop being so dependent on fossil fuels, like gas and oil, and transition to a clean energy economy. And the sooner we do that, the sooner we won’t fall victim to these kinds of price swings.

What actions do you want to see taken over the next decade to fight climate change?

All. We are far behind. We know that, it’s no surprise. I’ve been saying it speech after speech for a few years now. We remain far behind, despite Glasgow.

Obviously COVID-19 had an impact on that and, of course, Ukraine had an impact on that. But it’s much more the entrenchment of certain interests to protect themselves and adopt strategies that will result in more fossil fuel production and an overt strategy to try to claim that it’s all due to Ukraine, which doesn’t is not the case.

The IPCC report makes it clear that if we are to avoid trillions of dollars being spent to clean up the worst consequences of the climate crisis, we must dramatically accelerate the pace at which we are currently combating greenhouse gas emissions. This means much faster in our deployment of renewables. That means much faster in our transition to electric vehicles, much faster in our efforts to contain methane. At each step, we must accelerate. We have to treat this as the existential problem that it is. Don’t say the words, but do the things and take the steps necessary to transition.

We just need to keep using the technology we have today, so that we can still reduce enough by 2050 to reach net zero. Everything is connected. If anyone comes up with a net zero 2050 [plan], my first question for them is, ‘what are you doing between 2020 and 2030?’ If you don’t do enough, you won’t get there.

TIME is a media partner of the Our Oceans conference.

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Teresa H. Sadler