A conversation with John Kerry

The former secretary of state and current HEATED reader talks about his new climate initiative, World War Zero.

Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.

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Happy Monday and Happy December everyone! It’s getting pretty cold and dark outside, and it’s easy to get depressed when that happens. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you’re drinking enough water, because as WebMD says, “even mild dehydration may affect our moods and ability to concentrate.” Breaking a sweat can help too—I recommend doing 10 push-ups or sit-ups in the morning. Don’t let winter doldrums take you out!!

Also, thank you all so much for letting me take a break on Wednesday and Thursday last week. Because you were understanding, I was able to spend a few days hanging out with my family. Today, I feel re-energized and ready to get back to work.

Here are some pictures of the food I made:

Now let’s do news!

John Kerry is HEATED about the climate crisis

Celebrities: They’re just like us! John Kerry—former U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and Democratic presidential nominee—says he reads this newsletter. “I get it every day,” Kerry told me over the phone on Sunday night. “I get HEATED.”

Is he telling the truth, or just trying to flatter me? Who knows—it’s the constant question I ask myself about adult men these days. But what I do know for sure is that Kerry is pissed off about the state of the climate fight. And that’s why, over the weekend, he announced the launch of a new, star-studded group called World War Zero.

According to The New York Times—which broke the news on Saturday—World War Zero is “a new bipartisan coalition of world leaders, military brass and Hollywood celebrities to push for public action to combat climate change.” Its goal is “to hold more than 10 million ‘climate conversations’ in the coming year with Americans across the political spectrum.”

The goal of these conversations is not to push for a specific policy agenda, but to push people to prioritize the climate crisis and elect leaders who prioritize it, too. That’s essential to its bipartisan appeal, because there are some people in the group—like former Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich—who hold wildly differing views to many in the climate activist community. (Kasich told the Times, for instance, “If I’ve got to sign up to be an anti-fracker, count me out.”)

But Kerry says it’s essential to bring people like Kasich into the fray. “We've got to treat this like a war,” Kerry told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “It has to require decision making and organization and efforts that are just not taking place.”

That’s good rhetoric, for sure. But is a celebrity-laden group focused on bipartisanship the right vehicle for aspiring climate activists to throw their weight behind? I spoke to the Secretary on the phone last night to hear his case for World War Zero. My questions are in bold; Kerry’s answers are in non-bold.


Hi Secretary Kerry, thanks for taking some time to talk on a Sunday night. I guess I’ll just start by explaining what this is for, in case you don’t know—I write a newsletter about the climate crisis. It's focused on accountability, and the readership is very much people who are already interested in climate change. They're wondering what they can do.

I’m a reader, I’m a reader. I get it.

What? No way.

I absolutely am. I get it every day. I get HEATED. It’s very good. You took time off to do this, didn’t you?

Yeah, I quit my job to do it.

That’s what I read. I read that, I was very impressed. I think you’re on to something.

Thank you, I’m totally going to use that in my promos.

Anyway, World War Zero. For my readers, I’m guessing they’re probably looking at this new group and asking, “Is this something I can be a part of, is this something I want to be a part of?” So, can you in your own words—and I promise I’m going to ask tougher questions that this—give me a brief explanation of what World War Zero is, and how collaborative is it with other people?

It's totally collaborative. We want people to get involved at the local level. We want people to be engaged in World War Zero, or it won’t work. Everybody has to be on board.

The whole point is that right now, there's too much polarization. There's too much ideology. There's too much pitting people in one program against another, whether it's AOC and the Green New Deal versus a carbon fee—whatever it is. People are missing the point that right now, we're not collectively demanding accountability overall in the political structure to make climate change a primary issue. We've got to start there.

We've got to start by saying the basic overall plan we can all agree on is we've got to get to net zero, low carbon, no carbon economy by 2045, 2050, or earlier. The “or earlier” is very important to that discussion, because with the right leadership, we can do this earlier. We could make that happen.

But right now, no country in the world is getting the job done. The United States’ emissions are going up this year. Europe's going up this year. Russia's going up. China's going up. And that's completely, totally unacceptable. We have every reason to be upset about it.

So are you saying you say you're trying to create a floor, not a ceiling, for the climate conversation? Because I know the New York Times article said no one in the group is advocating for a specific set of policies.

There are people advocating for specific policies in the group. And there are differences of opinions within the group as to what those policies ought to be.

So, one person in the group may say, “We need a bridge fuel like natural gas for a longer period of time.” Others will say “No, we need to move to renewables faster.” That's a healthy debate.

But we shouldn't get lost in that debate before we get the kinds of people in Congress and elsewhere who aren’t deniers. We need to get people who say, “Yes, it's the biggest issue.” And we've got to sit in a room and hammer out some kind of compromise that gets us to a low carbon, no net carbon economy. And right now, we're not getting there.

So the purpose of the group, then, is just to get people to prioritize climate change and agree on that baseline that our biggest goal has to be net zero economy?

That is one purpose of the group. The purpose of the group is also to activate and mobilize people in a very significant fashion over the course of this next year or more to demand accountability, and change the politics of this issue. So that will come when people take climate change to the public arena, when they take it to the ballot box, when they lobby, when they make necessary personal choices in their own lives. We want all of those things to happen.

How is this different than Al Gore's Climate Reality Project trainings?

Al is doing a fabulous job. He's training people who will go out and be the organizers, the conveyors of information.

We are different in that we are joining the grassroots and the toproots in order to help do that. We have admirals and generals—people who are responsible for national security issues, who have already determined climate change is a national security issue—who could be particularly helpful going into a red state and helping people to become believers, and activists.

I think that we have a diversity of ideology, a diversity of generations, a diversity of backgrounds and walks of life. We have the former prime minister of Great Britain; we have the former president of Iceland; several former secretaries of defense. We think that they have the ability, joining with the grassroots energy of young people, to be extremely persuasive and add value to the overall efforts that are out there today. It’s a different approach. It's an approach that is unique right now, because Democrats and Republicans usually don't say anything together.

I'm glad you mentioned grassroots and diversity. Because there's a paragraph in the Times article that says that the World War Zero effort includes former presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Kasich, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ashton Kutcher—and they’re all white guys.

You know as well as I do that the environmental movement has long struggled to adequately work on behalf of people of color. And I know that there are a lot of activists who will read that paragraph in the Times and say, “How is this effort going to be any different than other ones that have historically left frontline communities behind?”

Well, we also have people like Al Sharpton. We’ve got people of color. Look—we have people who happen to have been secretary of defense, and they happen to be white. But I’m not going to apologize for the fact that they’re there. We also have people of color, we have women, and we are growing it. And there will be more women and people of color.

We are deeply focused on climate justice. It is the core of what we are fighting for. I talk about it in every comment I ever make publicly about what happens when diesel trucks are diverted to low income communities, because that's an element of the problem we face today. Low income people usually pay the higher price.

Yes, and I certainly don't mean to make you apologize for having white people in the group. That’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is, how can frontline communities be assured that they won’t be left behind in this discussion? They're affected most personally by this crisis.

There are several assurances. One is we have people of color who are supportive of this. And there will be more, as I said. Stacey Abrams is on board, for instance. She didn’t appear in that paragraph. She should have.

Right. I know you didn’t write the paragraph.

All I'm saying is, of course, you can't do this right unless everybody is included. And the other thing that I think vouches for the group is myself. I've been involved in this for years, and everybody who knows me knows that this is part of my climate slash political DNA—to be inclusive and to bring people to the table. We're going to do everything we can to make sure that happens.

(Note: After this interview, Kerry’s spokesperson Eli Zupnick sent this along, for added context: “Sec. Kerry is personally invested in making sure that environmental justice is a core part of World War Zero. He is actively recruiting a coalition that represents the voices of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and marginalized communities and other voices that haven't been adequately represented in the climate conversation. The list of founding members is just the launching point—and one of the goals of the kickoff is to expand the circle and bring more voices into the initiative.”)

Awesome. OK, here’s my other tough question. It says in the Times article that you guys have a starting budget of $500,000. Now, a couple weeks ago, Mike Bloomberg announced a climate change initiative that had a $500,000,000 investment. And he's just one guy. The people that were listed for your initiative are pretty rich people, right? So could you explain the dollar amount to me? Is $500,000 enough?

Well, $500,000 is just for the first week.

Oh, OK. That wasn’t clear.

Yeah. We have several million dollars raised. We're going to be raising millions of dollars. We're asking people at the grassroots level to contribute what they can, or want to. So there’ll be crowd fundraising. But we're also going to do individualized conversations with wealthy people. And I have a number of those coming up just this week, and one tonight. We're going to be raising money on that basis.

Ah, you’re talking to some rich people tonight?

I am talking to some wealthy people tonight, yes. And I'm going to try and raise money from them. And I'm talking to some during the week. We will raise serious money.

But our intention is also to do advertising, digital outreach, micro-targeting. And that also, by the way, is different from what a lot of people are doing. So we're going to be using state of the art people mobilization efforts, and joining with a lot of grassroots entities.

And again, we're not trying to be exclusive. We're not trying to dictate to anybody or to suggest anybody that this is the only road. There are many roads to take to become involved. I've been at this process for a long time. I'm a believer in pulling as many people to the table as possible. And we will work cooperatively with everybody.

I was hoping maybe you could expand a little bit on the personal place on where this initiative came from. There are obviously a lot of things happening in the climate movement right now, a lot of new groups and efforts. What personally made you decide that you needed to spearhead something?

Because it wasn’t getting done. Because it’s not happening. Because I’m a person who tries to get things done. And people who know me know there’s a level of impatience that manifests itself in trying to make things happen. That’s what I did as Secretary, that’s what I did as Senator.

I go way back in this. I did this when I was when I first returned from Vietnam. When I was part of Earth Day. When I became an elected official and led the fight as a lieutenant governor, working with Governor Sununu and Governor Celeste of Ohio. I led the efforts to try to get the acid rain issue dealt with in the 1980s when I became a Senator. I led the negotiations to the United States Senate for a climate deal that came out of the House, the Waxman-Markey bill, and brought [Republican Senator] Lindsey Graham in as a partner, and built that up till till we ran into a wall with the coal industry, which attacked Lindsey Graham an $800,000 effort in South Carolina.

So I've been at this fight for a long, long time. And I’m frustrated and angry that young people have to leave school in order to get adults to do what they’ve got to be doing.

Would you say you’re... heated?

Would I say I’m heated? Yeah, I’m heated.

Yeah!

I am heated. I think that anybody who understands the science cannot be content with where we are. And I say to people who I’m trying to enlist—you can’t retire. You can’t walk away from this fight. We’ve gotta get this done.

Thoughts?

What do you think? Are you gonna sign on to support World War Zero? If so, why? If not, why not?

E-mail your reactions to me. Tell me what you wished I asked, or what you wished he said. I’ll include some responses in tomorrow’s edition.

I’m at emily@heated.world.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks so much for reading HEATED.

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As always, if you have questions or comments on anything you read in this issue, or want to pitch me a story idea, my inbox is open: emily@heated.world.

See you tomorrow.