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Podcast: Authoritarians won’t defeat American values, says John Kerry

Podcast: Authoritarians won’t defeat American values, says John Kerry

TRANSCRIPT: Authoritarians won’t defeat American values, says John Kerry

John Kerry:

President Putin really has a much bigger challenge facing him with regard to his own economy and his own long-term economic future for Russia, which frankly dwarfs in my judgment, Ukraine, where he ought to be putting focus.

Ian Bremmer:

Hello and welcome to the GZERO World Podcast. This is where you'll find extended versions of my interviews on public television. I'm Ian Bremmer, and today, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has begun. As Putin mounts a nationwide attack from land, air, sea, and digital space, we are watching a worst case scenario play out in real time. It seems like a lifetime ago now, but just last weekend, I attended the Munich Security Conference alongside world leaders who were scrambling to avoid exactly this outcome. My conversations with them made clear that though the Ukrainian people will suffer immensely from Putin's war of choice, this is far more than a regional conflict. But while Russia's invasion of Ukraine is consuming the world's attention and will for some time, my guest this week argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin faces another critical long-term challenge to Russia's economy, one brought on by climate change. Here it's my conversation with US Climate Envoy, John Kerry.

Announcer:

The GZERO World podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company, understands the value of service, safety and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more. GZERO World would also like to share a message from our friends at Foreign Policy. How can sports change the world for the better? On The Long Game, a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, hear stories of courage and conviction, both on and off the field, directly from athletes themselves. Ibtihaj Muhammad, Olympic medalist and global change agent, hosts The Long Game. Hear new episodes every week on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Ian Bremmer:

Secretary Kerry, so good to see you again.

John Kerry:

Happy to be here. Thank you.

Ian Bremmer:

So as we're kicking off the Munich Security Conference, the thing I want to start with, of course, is everyone is so incredibly distracted with the potential of direct confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. To what extent, if at all, is that a distraction in the meetings that you're having with heads of state, with principles and trying to get climate moving? Does it matter-

John Kerry:

Well, obviously, look. It goes without saying that critical principles and values are at risk and at stake in this. It's not a small confrontation in that regard. Obviously, I wouldn't call it distracting. Will it consume a certain amount of focus? Of course, it should, but the key is to remember here that Ukraine, one way or the other, we're going to resolve it, ultimately, over X number of years, but climate crisis remains existential just as it was before the Ukraine crisis came up. If in fact, President Putin decides to go into Ukraine, it's going to have monumental impact on the ability and willingness of people to do what's necessary, because prices are going to go up on fuel.

The immediate response to economic stress is going to be trying to find the easiest way forward, and that's going to, unfortunately, inevitably result in more fossil fuel consumption. Could be very tough for the climate agenda. There's no question about it. Of course, there's going to be pressure to fill the gap, and that means that some of the choices we had available to us to try to follow through on Glasgow are going to be pinched. No question about it, but I think if leaders around the world stay focused, including, frankly, China and Russia. Russia has a profound climate problem.

66% of Russian territory sits on top of what used to be frozen land, and the permafrost is now thawing. Their infrastructure in cities built up there is in trouble, and their extractive infrastructure, the infrastructure with which they extract their gas is also in trouble in places. President Putin really has a much bigger challenge facing him with regard to his own economy and his own long-term economic future for Russia, which frankly dwarfs, in my judgment, Ukraine, where he ought to be putting focus.

Ian Bremmer:

Historically, Putin, at these global summits on climate, is someone that has been oriented in both the denialist camp and also in the, "Well, look at all the things that we can profit from. We're going to open up the Arctic. We'll have resources." Have you seen that change in recent years?

John Kerry:

Yes. He is definitively increasingly concerned about Siberia, about the tundra, about the fires they've had, and he appointed a very capable team to negotiate going into Glasgow. They understand they have a challenge, and they, I hope, are going to focus in on methane, which is particularly problematic because as the northern part of Siberia and Russia thaws, massive amount of methane is going to be released, and that is damaging the whole world, including Russia.

Ian Bremmer:

A final question on Russia. Over the course of the past month, your relationship, your engagement and your teams with the Russian climate envoy and them... Changed at all or still business as usual?

John Kerry:

No, we've been able to stay on a pretty clear track. The only problem is Russia is not among the nations that has taken on ambition sufficient to the task, and Russia is one of the top emitters in the world, together with China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, some others. We have a big job to do to bring them on board, and obviously, many of us would far rather that that was the battle in front of everybody here in Munich and elsewhere, rather than a rather retro diversion that he has confronted the world with.

Ian Bremmer:

Oh, sure.

John Kerry:

That's very sad. It's sad.

Ian Bremmer:

There's nothing more 20th century than potentially putting tanks into Ukraine.

John Kerry:

It's just so behind, in a sense, the times and the capacity we have to resolve these kinds of issues. I believe President Biden and Secretary Blinken have put very sound and strong proposals to Russia that if you really want to find a solution, you can. The issue is whether or not President Putin can see the wisdom of moving in a better and different direction.

Ian Bremmer:

One of the things, a positive step, that I think surprised the media, you had heard of course from the Chinese government, "There will be no oasis in the desert." In other words, the idea that when the Americans and Chinese are not trusting each other, collaborating on anything, they're not going to work with the Americans on climate. Turned out they are going to work with the Americans on climate.

John Kerry:

Well, I think-

Ian Bremmer:

How did that happen? How did we move-

John Kerry:

Well, we worked. We worked for an entire year negotiating with our counterparts. Two trips to China, two days each, a meeting in London for two days before we went to Glasgow, four days of meetings in Glasgow, and 35 virtual meetings in between, so we had a long series of negotiations over a year, and I think in the end, President Xi and China knew that the universality of this issue really trumped the idea that you were going to make it one of those other issues that you're going to fight over and join together.

We don't have time to do that. They don't have time to do that, and the truth is, and I think they realize this, the science tells us that we only have a small budget here during which time we can expend additional carbon before we bring on the worst consequences of the climate crisis, about eight years now. It's this decade, the decade of 2020 to 2030, that becomes the most critical decade in terms of responding to the climate crisis. I think China deep down understands that we have to find a way. It is imperative that we continue to work on this, notwithstanding a whole bunch of other very serious issues between Uyghurs in Hong Kong and Taiwan and business practices and South China Sea, missiles and so forth.

Ian Bremmer:

We have had plenty of problems with the Chinese, absolutely.

John Kerry:

There's just a host of things that we could be working on, but I'm convinced we can work on them. I believe there is a way to move forward. I think the right diplomatic equation can bring us both to the table in a way that allows us to at least address those seriously. Doesn't mean to resolve every one of them. I think any president gets certain number of things you can get done in a great power kind of confrontation over four years, but we have to try.

Ian Bremmer:

But would you define US-Chinese engagement on climate right now as broadly constructive?

John Kerry:

On climate? Yes.

Ian Bremmer:

You would.

John Kerry:

I would. I would say that China has accepted significant increased responsibility. China has put a very big plan on the table. We think and hope that we could tweak it in ways that could do more, but China has exhibited great seriousness of purpose about the climate crisis, and China, we have to remember, is not only the largest producer of renewable products in the world, it is also the largest deployer of those products. They have more solar deployed and more renewable wind, et cetera, than any other nation in the world. Of course, China's bigger, so they get there, but the truth is they're not ignoring that. They're not pretending that this is not a serious international issue that we all have to work on.

Ian Bremmer:

At the same time that China is working hard to address their own long-term need to transition to renewable energy, to what extent are they also becoming a significant competitor with the United States on new post-carbon technologies and-

John Kerry:

Well, they were a significant competitor with the United States long before the Biden administration came into office. There will be that competition, but there's that competition all around the globe. There are plenty of people vying to be the folks who break through on battery storage or breakthrough on green hydrogen or come up with a new electrolyzer or the production of hydrogen or any other number of technologies, but that's not bad. We need to chase those new technologies. The International Energy Agency tells us that in order to achieve net-zero 2050 or to achieve a 50% reduction by 2030, which is our goal, you have to bring about 44 existing technologies up to scale and we're behind in that effort. I think our energies would be far better put to the task of competing-

Ian Bremmer:

Effectively.

John Kerry:

... or working together in a consortium to actually join our scientific knowledge and capacities together to win this battle. That's the biggest thing we could do for humankind today.

Ian Bremmer:

Does it worry you that in the opening of the Chinese Beijing Olympics that Xi Jinping was talking to global leaders and saying, "Look, I don't think that the Americans are going to get there for net-zero and 2050"?

John Kerry:

Well, sure. It should concern everybody in the world. I think the meeting that President Putin had with President Xi produced a document which is unlike any readout of a head of state meeting that I've seen in the last 25, 30 years or more. It's a very significant statement about their antipathy, their chafing under the liberal order of the West in their sense that America's best moments have come and gone. They are genuinely attached to the narrative that this century will be the century of an authoritarian, different kind of governance. That clash does threaten the world.

That is a very serious misconception, I believe, on their part about the way forward by which we are all going to do better. The United States of America remains very strong. Very deep in our culture, deep in our business practices is the capacity to innovate and produce and whatever political problems we have today within the Congress or on the surface, very visible to everybody, we're going to continue to be the most powerful economy for years to come. We're going to continue to be able to break the barrier. Just look at what we did with respect to vaccines when we put our mind to it. Look at what we've done with respect to private enterprise and space and so forth.

Ian Bremmer:

So these leaders shouldn't be just paying attention to Washington, in other words?

John Kerry:

I think that it's a mistake. I think the American people have a unifying set of values that we don't feel particularly in the cacophony and the divisions of today, but I think deep down, threatened as a nation and threatened in a way of life, Americans will unite and come together as we have in the past, and we are to be reckoned with. Look at Russian economy. Russian economy is smaller than that of Spain. Russian economy doesn't really make very much. There's a serious challenge in Russia with respect to young people leaving and not feeling they have a future. There's a challenge in China as the population grows older, and the question is how are they going to be able to keep that engine of their economy moving? They tried to say, "Oh, you can have three children now," but people aren't doing it.

Ian Bremmer:

It's not changing.

John Kerry:

It's too expensive.

Ian Bremmer:

In fact, demographics are going in the other direction despite that.

John Kerry:

Exactly. You have to look underneath a lot of the surface noise and discern trend lines and have a sense of what's really happening. My judgment is that the West has frankly been made stronger by what President Putin has done, and it has unified NATO to some degree. It's brought people together. So now, let's try to break down these simplistic ways in which we find the differences, and climate is the perfect place to begin the process of proving we can cooperate together and of highlighting the very big, broad principles that should unite us. China is just as threatened as the rest of the world by the climate crisis.

Ian Bremmer:

By climate. Absolutely.

John Kerry:

If they don't work on this, we don't get there. Any one of those nations, China, India, Russia, Indonesia, they can make the difference as to whether or not we can hold 1.5 degrees warming as the limit. That's really what has to be put in front of people.

Ian Bremmer:

Even if the Americans can get there, and certainly, there's much more momentum today than there was a year ago, five years ago, I grant you that, but also, America getting there in terms of leadership for the rest of the world. The place where, when I see the Secretary General, he's most distressed, is the lack of effective conversations on equity, on the transitions between the developed and the developing, and even the minor beginning numbers of a hundred billion a year, we're not there yet. Is there momentum for that? How are those conversations for you going with the Indians, the Indonesians, those that just feel like they're not going to move unless we do more for them?

John Kerry:

Well, they're absolutely correct that we need to do more. Very simple. It's very frustrating to me and to many people who are trying to press the climate priorities because it doesn't take the world of money to solve this problem. It does take some money. A sufficient amount to leverage investment of trillions of dollars. The fact is that we are a 21 so or so trillion dollar economy. We saw fit to give a trillion dollar tax cut under the Trump administration to the wealthiest people in our nation, accentuating the divide, the inequities. In the doing of that, we've highlighted the fact that we can barely find a hundred billion dollars between all nations to put on the table to leverage the response to the climate crisis.

Ian Bremmer:

It's not even a Bezos.

John Kerry:

Well, Jeff Bezos has stepped up with the Earth Fund.

Ian Bremmer:

No, I know.

John Kerry:

He's put $10 billion into the effort. That's 10 times what other nations in many parts of the world have been able to summon, so I think that now, people need to understand. Glasgow moved the ball very far forward. We have momentum coming out of Glasgow because 65% of global economic enterprise has adopted plans that actually can reach a keeping of the 1.5 degree limit.

Ian Bremmer:

It was legitimately more successful than almost any expected from that-

John Kerry:

Much more so because we had not only a huge raising of ambition, but we had nation after nation, including Russia and China and India and others stepping up and putting forward real plans that can move us forward. For instance, India, Prime Minister Modi has set a goal of deploying in the next 10 years 450 gigawatts of renewable energy. We're partnering with India to try to help make that happen. We are prepared to bring finance and technology to the table to help do that, powerful as India is in its own efforts to do this, but if India does that, the significance is that India will be compliant with the effort to keep 1.5 degrees alive.

There are examples of the ways in which we can actually win this battle. Some people think, "Oh my God, climate crisis. There's no way we can do enough. There's no way we can do anything." That's not true. We actually can win the battle, and the IEA, the International Energy Agency, said that if you take all the promises put on the table, all the new programs, the First Movers Coalition, the deforestation initiatives, Bill Gates' initiative with UAE on agriculture, you put them all together, by 2050, the modeling says we would be at only 1.8 degrees of warming. I would not have believed that was possible before Glasgow. I see that. I say 1.8. Wow. That's, with the promises we have, achievable. Think of what we can do for 1.5 if we get 35% of the rest of the world to join us in that endeavor.

Ian Bremmer:

So you actually believe the soft commitment of 1.5 degrees total warming before we hit tipping point is still possible?

John Kerry:

It's a very difficult lift. Nobody should kid anybody about that. There are some scientists who will tell you we're already blowing past it. If we stay on the current course where we are today, not what was promised, but where we are today, there's no way we keep it. We will blow through it on the current course, but the challenge to all of us, therefore, is not to stay on the current course, is to summon the effort between nations to come together and agree that we're going to work in a consortia in order to provide some of the solutions. We're going to help each other develop the supply chains. We're going to actually work in a cooperative way to win the battle. That is the test. I think we have to break the mold. If we live the way we are doing right now, business as usual fundamentally, with more gas and oil being pumped and being used, with people not moving sufficiently to the renewables that are available today, then we're in trouble. Deep, deep trouble.

Ian Bremmer:

Last question for you. You said there are only so many things you can do in an administration. That's true for President Biden. It's true for Secretary Kerry. There are hundreds of things that are priorities for climate right now, but if there's one big thing that would make you more optimistic that you could accomplish while you're in your position of special envoy for climate before the end of Biden's term, it would be what?

John Kerry:

Raise the mitigation efforts of those 35% of the nations that are still hanging outside because they believe they are entitled to what they call carbon space, that you can use more carbon despite what the science says because you're owed it, because you haven't been developing for as long. The truth is you don't have to do that to develop. You can develop and keep a balance to your energy base by deploying huge amounts of renewable while we develop the technologies that will leapfrog so that at the end of the 10 years when we have cut emissions by 50%, we still have the 1.5 degrees alive.

We still have well below two degrees alive. Currently, we're on a track to blow through two degrees, let alone 1.5. This is the urgency, that people need to understand the promises are fine, but they don't get the job done. It's the implementation that gets the job done. We're working on something called implementation plus you implement the promises you've made and you raise the ambition and raise the effort between nations, and then we have a fighting chance. I think that's doable, and I hope and pray that we'll get there.

Ian Bremmer:

Well, John Kerry, you've got a lot of meetings to make that happen, but thanks for kicking off Munich with me.

John Kerry:

Thank you.

Announcer 2:

That's it for today's edition of the GZERO World Podcast, like what you've heard? Come check us out at gzeromedia.com and sign up for our newsletter Signal.

Announcer:

The GZERO World podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company, understands the value of service, safety, and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more. GZERO World would also like to share a message from our friends at Foreign Policy. How can sports change the world for the better? On The Long Game, a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, hear stories of courage and conviction, both on and off the field, directly from athletes themselves. Ibtihaj Muhammad, Olympic medalist and global change agent, hosts the long game. Hear new episodes every week on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

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