That Kerry interview, whewww
A BBC interview with Biden's climate czar over the weekend is causing quite the stir.
Happy Monday, everyone! I hope you all had a lovely last two weeks while I was away on vacation. I’m excited to get back to the news.
First, a brief housekeeping note. Due to a mix of profound personal and technical ineptitude, my e-mail inbox ballooned to an uncontrollable state over the last two months. I tried to sort through all 13,000 unread messages over vacation, but it was too much. Eventually I threw up my hands and marked everything as read. So: If you e-mailed me in the months of April or May, and did not get a response, please re-send your e-mail. I’ll get back to you this time. (Sorry).
Also: there’s been a lot of news over the last two weeks that we’ve missed. Personally, I’ve been most interested in these stories:
JPMorgan’s recently-announced climate pledge, which looks to me a lot like Exxon’s climate pledge, which is like the suckiest of all sucky climate pledges. (By Hannah Levitt for Bloomberg).
A new paper on oil company propaganda from Harvard University’s Naomi Oreski and Geoffrey Supran, who look at how Exxon has tried to shift blame for the climate crisis to consumers over the years. (By Amy Westervelt for Rolling Stone).
The Washington Post’s latest branded content creation for the American Petroleum Institute, which technically isn’t a “story” because no one has written about it yet but is something I am just continually bewildered by.
The argument for massive investments in direct carbon removal technology right now, prompted by two recent but wildly different studies projecting future sea-level rise. (By Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic.)
I’m still catching up, too, so if there’s any news from the last two weeks that you think is still worth writing about—including the stories above—let me know.
The main item I want to focus on today is John Kerry’s interview about President Biden’s new climate pledge with British journalist Andrew Marr, which aired on the BBC on Sunday.
It was one of the toughest but fairest interviews I’ve seen of Kerry since he became “climate czar”—aka, the Biden administration’s de facto international spokesperson for his plan to slash carbon emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030.
What made it so tough was Marr’s demand for specificity about how the U.S. would go about achieving such massive reductions in such a short period of time. Rather than asking Kerry to explain, broadly, “how will you do it?” Marr asked targeted yes-or-no questions about how Biden planned to tackle some of the U.S.’s biggest climate problems, like coal and rampant consumerism.
He also got Kerry to admit he’s counting on 50 percent of future emissions reductions to come from technology that hasn’t been invented yet, which … whew.
Aside from that, the answers Marr got highlighted what I’d call a significant “boldness gap” in the Biden administration’s climate rhetoric. The administration is extremely comfortable using bold language to make climate promises, and extremely uncomfortable using bold language recommending specific action.
Kerry promised repeatedly, for example, that the U.S. power grid would be carbon-free by 2035. And yet he twice refused to definitively say that the U.S. would ever mandate coal’s removal from it.
Kerry’s more wishy-washy answers—which you can read in full after the jump—are most likely a political calculation. If he said the U.S. might phase out coal; or that nutritional guidelines might encourage less meat-eating; or that some aspects of normal American life might change in the rapid transition to a clean energy economy; Republicans would obviously fully freak out.
But Republicans are going to fully freak out no matter what Kerry does or doesn’t say. My take is that it’s a better strategy to be honest with Americans about the sacrifices they might have to make in a race to preserve the future. Maybe Kerry is right; maybe we’ll invent a bunch of wild stuff and we won’t have to change anything about how we behave. Honestly, I hope that is true! But I think it’s dishonest to say that’s the only, or even most likely, path. I think people deserve to be told the whole spectrum of possibility. (I make this argument more in-depth in this 2019 piece for The New Republic, if you’d like to take a closer look.)
Anyway, overall it was a well-conducted interview, and it 100 percent inspired me to become better at interviewing. You can watch it here, or I transcribed it below if you prefer to read.
Andrew Marr: Would the U.S. pledge to stop using coal altogether?
John Kerry: Over time, that’s happening anyway in the marketplace. The marketplace has made a decision about coal. You couldn’t build a new coal-fired power plant in the United States because you can’t finance it. Nor even in Europe and other places. Korea just made a decision with respect to not funding external coal. Japan, other countries are thinking about that now. We’ve been pushing very hard for countries to move away from fossil fuel and toward alternative, renewable, sustainable energy sources. And I think, again, the marketplace is going to be making that happen.
AM: But that’s in terms of new power stations. Meanwhile, right at the moment, you in the United States have the world’s second-largest fleet of coal-fired power stations. Around 11 percent of the total. And the U.N. Secretary General says, “phasing out coal from the electricity sector is the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5 percent degree goal.” Now, if you are leading, surely you’re determined to phase out coal entirely?
JK: We are. It’s already been happening. There are many of those plants that have phased out. We have about 58 of them slated for phase-out now, and more to come.
AM: Do you have a date for the ending of coal-fired power station in the U.S.?
JK: As soon as it’s feasible, practical, it’s gonna be happening. It’s happening right now. We are moving to alternative, renewable energy. Our incentives are towards renewable, alternative energy. Seventy five percent of the electricity that’s new that came online in the last years came online through renewables. So we’re gonna do what we need to do to do our fair share of this and take the leadership role and we’re doing it now.
AM: If the U.K. calls at COP26 for the ending of all coal-fired power stations, the United States will support that?
JK: Well, it dep… again, what’s the phase-out schedule? Is it reasonable? Is everybody working in the same direction? There are questions I’m sure President Biden will want answered. But he is leading this charge to move America onto renewable energy and we’re already doing it. So I can’t speak for the president on that specific proposal but we are behaving in the way that we are talking, which is moving toward alternative and renewable as fast as we can.
AM: There is, perhaps, a wider point about consumption. Now, consumption by the average single American leads to about 17.63 tonnes of CO2 every year. That’s about 3x the average for a Chinese person or 10x the average for an Indian person. Is the real problem, frankly, that Americans consume too much?
JK: It depends on where the energy source is. Yes, we are producing too much carbon, no question about it. The United States is the second-largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and we’re determined to turn that around. A year ago, two years ago, it was 15 percent. It’s now down to 11 percent. And if you look at the track that we’re on, we’re going to be moving very rapidly to a new economy, building out a new grid, moving toward alternative renewable energy, also pushing the curve on discovery of new technologies, whether it’s green hydrogen or whatever. There are a lot of possibilities out there. Bill Gates is pursuing a small modular next generation nuclear capacity. We’re going to find our way to zero emissions as fast as possible. President Biden has set a goal already of getting the entire power sector of the US totally carbon free by 2035. And we’re on an aggressive schedule already to achieve that.
AM: While U.S. emissions overall are going down. Emissions from the agricultural sector—which is, I think, about 11 percent of the total—are going up, and quite sharply. Isn’t the brutal truth that at some time, you’re going to have to tell Americans to eat less meat?
JK: Not necessarily, because there’s a lot of research being doe now that will change both the way meat is produced, cattle are herded and fed. There’s research being done that actually reduces the amount of methane. So we don’t know some of the answers to some of these. But I guarantee you, the United States of America is not only setting the goal but is moving rapidly on track to reduce all of our emissions to become carbon free in the power sector by 2035 and to do what other countries are doing also Europe and elsewhere to move as rapidly as possible to net zero. I want to, and I know President Biden wants to get there as rapidly as we can. And he is going to push the technology curve as much as we can to hopefully come up with the new technologies that will make that happen much sooner than some of the target dates that people hear about today.
We recognize that President Biden ran on this. It’s one of the top four issues that he is focused on, is the climate crisis. And he is determined that the United States will not just talk about it but will lead in our efforts to transition to this new energy economy. And I’m convinced we’re not only going to get there, we’ll get there sooner than people think.
AM: It sounds to me as if you are relying very heavily on technology to sort all this out, rather than changes in consumption, changes in lifestyle. I remember very vividly, President George Bush Sr. saying “the American way of life is not up for negotiation, period.” and that is still your message, isn’t it?
JK: I think it’s a false choice you’re presenting people. You don’t have to give up quality of life to achieve some of the things we know we have to achieve. That’s the brilliance of some of the things we know how to do and will do. I think we’re determined we’ll move in that direction as rapidly as possible.
But here’s the reality for you, and for anyone who’s thinking of the rapidity of this transition. I am told by scientists—not by anybody in politics, but by scientists—that 50 percent of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero by 2050 or 2045 as soon as we can, 50 percent of those reductions are going to come from technology that we don’t yet have. That’s just a reality. And people who are realistic about this understand that’s part of the challenge.
So we have to get there sooner, rather than later. We know that. But look at what we did to push the creation of vaccines. To go to the moon. To invent the internet. We know how to invent and innovate. And we’re going to put every effort we have into making this transition happen as fast as possible. And I’m not going to join the pessimists who think we are sitting around waiting for some new technology.
Today’s newsletter is free to the public because of readers who fund its mission. With your support, we can not only keep it free, but help it grow.
Catch of the Day:
This is Fish with a new haircut.
Just kidding. It’s my parents’ dog, Mason. I got to give him lots of pets over Mother’s Day weekend because my family is fully vaccinated now. I hope you get to give all the dogs in your family lots of pets soon, too.
OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED! If you’d like to share this piece as a web page, click the button below.
To support independent climate journalism that holds the powerful accountable—and to receive HEATED’s reporting and analysis in your inbox four days a week—become a subscriber today.
If you’re a paid subscriber and would like to post a comment, click the “Leave a comment” button:
Stay hydrated, eat plants, break a sweat, and have a great day!
I love how Americans think we have some kind of amazing "quality of life" that must be defended. I know this is subjective on my part, but broadly speaking we spend more, consume more resources, cause more environmental damage and aren't real any more happy than other developed nations. Sounds like kind of a raw deal honestly.
Thank you for including the transcript.
Happy you’re back. But glad you got to take a break.