While President Trump was threatening to blow up North Korea during a speech at the United Nations, former Secretary of State John Kerry started this week with a two-day event at Yale University, where he is a distinguished fellow for Global Affairs, to discuss the future of climate change policy and the Paris Climate Accord. The event drew big names, from GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt to California Gov. Jerry Brown to Leonardo DiCaprio.
I had breakfast with Kerry on the second day of the event, during which he was more than eager to blast Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris agreement and to discuss the future of America’s economic leadership on clean energy.
In the last few days, there has been a lot of talk about whether the U.S. is actually going to pull out of the Paris climate deal or not. What is your view of what’s going on?
The inescapable fact is that Trump is not putting America first by pulling out of something for a phoney reason – for a nonexistent burden. There is no imposed burden by the world. Every country makes its own decision about what to do. If he wanted to change the targets, that is within the framework of the agreement to do – you don’t have to get out of Paris to do it. Getting out of Paris is completely contrived and an extremely damaging step. It doesn’t put America first, it puts America last.
It makes America walk away from the leadership that we have shown for years now. The Paris agreement was not some overnight back-room move on a real estate action. It was ten years in the making, enormously hard to get at, a product of a major diplomatic effort, and he’s just walking away from that. He threw it away. He threw away America’s leadership. That’s extremely damaging to our credibility, it’s damaging to the momentum, which is critical, and it’s damaging to America’s economy.
There are countries, now, that will not look to the United States for solar contracts, or for wind opportunities, or whatever. It makes it harder for our companies. They have to go out and fight against a perception that America is a laggard. I think it’s just shockingly divorced from the reality of how the world works and what the challenges are in climate change.
People can relate to lost jobs. Solar jobs grew 17 times faster than the American economy last year. That is a major growth arena. Wind technicians are the single fastest growing job in America today. There are huge economic opportunities in the world’s largest market, which is energy. The energy market is the biggest market in the history of planet earth. Unlike many other markets, where you have little niche groups where people are users, you have everybody in the world. It’ll be nine billion people in 20 or 30 years who are energy users, and they will pay for that energy.
That’s why companies, against all odds, have been slugging it out for ten or 15 years to get market share and get a foothold, because they see the size of this market. Trump, who prides himself on being a great businessman, is turning his back on the biggest market in the world.
Will the U.S. hit the emissions reductions targets that were set in the Paris agreement?
We’re halfway there, now, in 2017, and the targets are for 2025, so I’m convinced we will. We’re going to see an exponential reduction in price and increase in capacity of clean energy – already, next-generation solar panels are more efficient, cost less. And that progression is going to pick up over the next few years.
Does that mean Trump’s decision to pull out of Paris is irrelevant? Because if we’re going to hit the targets anyway…
Of course it’s not irrelevant, because we’re so far behind the eight ball in terms of the goal, which to keep warming below two degrees Celsius. In Paris, we did not set a mandatory emissions reduction schedule that will guarantee that we will achieve the two-degree goal. We knew that leaving Paris, unless a lot of things happen that are good, we’re not going to make it. But the magic of Paris was, we sent the signal to the marketplace, where 196 countries are all committed to moving this direction. Indeed, last year, because of that, twice as much money was invested in alternative renewable sustainable energy than in fossil fuel. That’s never happened before.
So it’s worked. But if we had the administration moving full speed in that direction, you’ve got a whole different set of options about what you can deploy. Then you’re in much better shape to try to meet the two-degree goal – that’s the difference. That’s why it’s so frustrating. And so deeply important.
Do you see a carbon tax getting traction in Congress in this political climate?
No, not from this Senate, and not from this White House, at this moment. But I do see it. I think it’s going to happen at some point in time, whether it’s in four years or … eight years, I don’t know.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse recently introduced carbon tax legislation. He’s trying to move that now.
And he’s right. One of the lessons I talk about occasionally is how [former] Sen. Teddy Kennedy would put the health care bill up in the Senate for 25 years, and for 20 years we knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere, but then it began to become ripe. You’ve got to keep pushing, you’ve got to keep your idea out there.
Now that the U.S. is stepping back from climate leadership, will China step up? They are moving very quickly to develop solar energy and electric cars, and U.S. companies are shifting their emphasis to China. Aren’t there likely to be big economic consequences for this in the U.S.?
Yeah, there are a lot of risks.
So how do you think about that, broadly?
I think the Trump move is going to cost us our businesses, and already has cost them enormously. It has forced people to go to China. Already China had carved out for itself, because of its solar panel production strategy, massive dumping and price changing and consolidation … now it’s just unfettered. The door is wide open. I hear companies making decisions to shift operations to China as a result.
I have great confidence in our capacity here in the U.S. We’re still the world’s largest economy any time soon. But ultimately, we’re not going to be – China’s going to be, just by mere size. So we need to be aggressive and moving forward in every way we can to sustain our economic position in the world. Since World War II, while we were helping countries rebuild with the Marshall Plan, we’ve always been a good partner. On occasion, we’ve been able to make a bad business decision and still win, because we were so far ahead, and because of our size. That’s not true anymore. You have a lot of countries in changed economic positions, and they’re as competitive as everyone else. The U.S. cannot afford this kind of a gap in our performance. That’s what I worry about. That’s why what Trump is doing is very harmful. U.S. companies are shifting their attention to China and abandoning what could have been a major economic frontier, here in the U.S. I don’t know if it’s going to be recoupable.