Climate, Environment, and Conservation: Remarks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
01/09/2017: Climate, Environment, and Conservation
Secretary of State
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much for a generous welcome to somebody who is about to become one of the most visibly unemployed people in America. (Laughter.) I am really thrilled to be here. Great, always, to be home, but it’s special to be here at MIT. And I want to begin by thanking Dean Schmittlein. Thank you very, very much. It’s a privilege to be here at Sloan. The reputation is enormous and respected throughout the world, as everybody knows. And Professor Vice President Maria, thank you – Maria Zuber, thank you very much for your welcome. And I’m very grateful to President Reif, who came over here earlier and we had a brief moment to discuss a few things, and he managed in that brief moment to wet my whistle about some exciting things that are happening over here, so I intend to follow up on all of that.
I particularly want to thank all of you for – MIT for the extraordinary things that are happening here every single day, and for all of the incredible work that you do to try to solve global problems, including climate change. And I am particularly grateful to the mayor, Mayor Marty Walsh. Thanks for coming over here. His leadership has been tremendous on this issue. He’s helped my hometown of Boston to reduce emissions and mitigate the harmful effects of climate change, and he’s leading the charge on this internationally. He was in Beijing last summer when together we were privileged to be there when the announcement was made that we will host here in Boston the third annual U.S.-China Climate Change Leaders’ Summit, and that will convene urban leaders from both our countries, but I am absolutely confident that this year for a lot of different reasons it’s going to be even more important than it might have been otherwise. And I intend, as Citizen Kerry, to be as involved as I can in helping to support that, Marty. So I look forward to working with you. And then, of course, the local efforts here are going to be essential in meeting the goals that we’ve set. I know a lot of people are worried what’s going to happen with the administration and so forth. The fact is mayors all across the country are engaged in their own efforts, as are governors, and I’m confident about the ability of those things to go forward.
So thank you for hosting me here today. I’m delighted to be here with all of you this morning. Thank you all of you students very much for being here, especially those who are skipping class. (Laughter.) As you know, I’ve only got about 10 more days as Secretary of State, which is just about the best job that anybody could imagine. So I’d kind of appreciate it if all of you at – here at MIT might just prioritize a way to repeal the laws of time and physics over the course of the next few days – turn these days into weeks and months. I see it on TV all the time; I don’t why you haven’t been able to do that. (Laughter.) I’d have asked Harvard to do that, but we all know where the real brain power is, right? (Applause.) You better applaud that; that’s the biggest gambit you’re going to get. But obviously, to my friends at Harvard, I’m just kidding.
But I have deeply appreciated the honor to serve, which is an honor – it’s a great privilege to be a public servant, I still believe that. Though the times are harder than they have been, I know the clock is ticking, but the truth is I am really looking forward to new adventures. And I very much intend to keep engaged in the public discourse and in the global affairs. I particularly want to continue to work on track two conflict resolution. And I guarantee you, because I’ve been doing it all my life, I will not stop speaking out about the issues that matter most to me and I expect to you too.
So today, I – (applause) – I really wanted to return here to Boston, and specifically to this campus, to talk about a subject that is central to the world agenda. And it is at the very heart of a crowded intersection of politics, diplomacy, science, academia, the private sector, and citizen action.
Now, MIT has contributed a lot already to the scientific advancement of our world – as much, really, as any institution, I think, in the country, and perhaps even globally – but you don’t need to be a student at this extraordinary school to recognize that the natural world is changing in obvious and deeply troubling ways. Last year – 2016 – was the hottest in recorded history and it made up 10 years in a row – 9 years in a row, actually, but 10 altogether – that constitute the hottest in recorded history – by far. All five of the hottest years on record have occurred within the lifespan of Twitter, just to give you a sense of what’s happening. The last decade was the hottest in human history, recorded history – and it was preceded by the second-hottest in recorded history – which was preceded by the third-hottest decade in recorded history. So common sense tells you that something is happening.
Glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate. Sea levels are rising three times faster than they did in the 20th century. The kind of intense storms that used to happen only twice or three times in a millennium are now becoming almost normal.
This is not some crazy coincidence. This is actually what scientists have been warning us was going to happen for a long time.
And unless we take the steps necessary to change the course that our planet is on, the impacts that we have already seen will pale in comparison to what we will witness in years to come.
Last month I traveled to McMurdo Station in Antarctica to meet with our scientists and to understand better what is taking place.
Antarctica contains ice sheets that are, in some places, three miles deep. And if that ice were somehow able to melt away completely – which won’t happen in the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years; it’ll happen over the next century, two centuries, the rate we’re going – but if it were to melt away completely because we are irresponsible about climate change, then in the coming centuries the sea level would rise between 150 and 200 feet.
I flew by helicopter over the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. I walked out onto the Ross Sea ice shelf, and I talked with scientists there on the front lines. And they were blunt, and everybody knows here especially that scientists – they don’t tell you conjecture; they tell you what the facts are telling them. That’s what science is about. That’s why we’ve placed a premium on listening to people who are scientists, at least traditionally. And the more that those scientists learn, the more alarmed they are becoming about the speed with which changes are currently happening.
When I was down there, the weather did not cooperate and I wasn’t able to travel to the South Pole. And researchers there gave me a few vials of air. I actually have one down in my briefcase; I was going to bring it up here to show you. I left it in my briefcase; I apologize. A little vial. And it’s got a label on it, and the label has a graph, and the graph shows the rise of carbon dioxide over a period of time. The air in this vial that they gave me, which is labeled “the cleanest air on Earth” – from the South Pole – has a CO2 concentration of 401.6 parts per million. Now, that is, for those of you who follow this issue, more than 50 parts per million above what scientists have been telling us for years is the tipping point with respect to the potential damage to the Earth’s climate – potential irretrievable, the tipping point, where you get into a catastrophic downslide the consequences of which we’re just not able to predict. That’s the cleanest air on Earth, 50 points above.
The problem is we continue to move in the wrong direction and add to that curve.
A scientist from New Zealand named Gavin Dunbar told me that what they’re observing in Antarctica is the canary in the coal mine. He warned, quote, “Some thresholds, if we cross them, can’t be reversed.”
In other words, we can’t wait too long to translate the science into the policies that are necessary to fix it. These scientists urged me, each and every one of them, to remind my own government, and governments around the world, and everyone that I can that what we do right now – today – matters, because if we don’t go far enough, fast enough, the damage we could inflict could take centuries to undo – if it can be undone at all.
We don’t get a second chance on this one.
I just want to comment quickly that if you ask yourself – there’s a sort of precautionary principle in public life – Marty knows this, Kevin knows this – that if you’ve got enough evidence that says to you the consequences are really going to be bad to the public writ large and you may not be able to – you take precautionary steps. And particularly, you take those steps if the not taking them presents you with absolutely existential catastrophe. So we’re presented with a situation where if we were to do things, we have enormous good that come from the doing it and there’s very little downside, but if you don’t do them, there’s only all downside.
Now, if we squander this moment for action, there is no speech decades from now that will ever put these massive ice sheets back together.
There’s no magic wand in any capital of the world that we could wave to refill all the lakes and rivers that will dry up or make arid farmlands fertile again. And when I talk about an arid farmland, I’m not talking about something down the road, folks. You can go almost anywhere in the world and find agriculture that is already negatively impacted by what is happening today.
And there’s certainly no golden trident that someone’s going to wield that’s going to hold back the rising sea levels as they encroach on our shores. Remember the picture a few days ago in the newspapers of water lapping over the sea wall in Boston? Regular high tide.
So we have to get this right. In Miami – in Miami Beach, the mayor is currently elevating roads and pumping out water on sunny days. We have to get this right now.
That’s why I’m here today. Now, as Maria mentioned in her introduction, I have been speaking out on this for a long period of time. The truth is I’ve been talking about climate change for decades. I started here as lieutenant governor when I took on acid rain and I was allowed to chair the governor’s task force as a lieutenant governor on acid rain, and we actually passed an amendment that dealt with acid rain and became part of the Clean Air Act, which I was privileged to help put in the Clean Air Act when I was working in the Senate. And that helped solve the problem. You don’t hear about it today. So we know how to do these things. And guess what, folks? It was done with a kind of cap and trade system. I’ve spoken at congressional hearings and I’ve spoken at global conferences, at small private meetings, at large international negotiations, but frankly, I’ve rarely spoken to a group that’s as critical to our collective success in combating climate change as here at MIT Sloan.
That’s not flattery. It’s just a fact that brilliant minds trained at MIT are behind some of the most transformative innovations in modern history. You can go back in time – the transistor radio, the radar, black boxes on aircraft, computer spreadsheets, microchips, advanced lithium ion batteries. And the students and faculty and alumni of this school are not just changing lives; they’re contributing to a whole economic future. Today millions of people around the world are employed by companies started by or co-founded by MIT alumni. In fact, if all the businesses that were started by MIT alumni were actually pulled together and they launched their own country, its GDP would rank 10th in the world. I bet you wish you had some stock in that. I’m sorry about that. (Laughter.)
So I think it’s safe to say that this community does know a thing or two about seizing economic opportunity.
And here is the point about climate change that is too often left out of the conversation: Never before – at least that I can think of – has the eliminating of such – the elimination of such a significant threat actually presented such an extraordinary level of opportunity. That’s what’s so confounding to me as we get in this debate.
The answer to climate change is not a mystery and it’s not awaiting discovery – at least, not every aspect of it. I just had a conversation a little while ago with the President, talking about whether we can find ways to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. I mean, there are all kinds of different things waiting for us. But by and large, we know exactly what has to be achieved, and that is a transition away from dirty, outdated sources of energy that we rely too heavily on in order to move to cleaner, more efficient sources. We need to rely more, obviously, on solar and wind – those are givens today – but also on sources like biomass and even nuclear.
I remember the intensity of the nuclear debate when I first started on the environment back in 1970 in the first Earth Day, and I was on the other side of it then. But given this challenge we face today and given the progress of fourth generation nuclear, go for it. No other alternative. Zero emissions.
And perhaps we have to rely on sources that are not yet discovered but that are being pursued relentlessly by researchers at institutions like MIT.
Now, I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that a fundamental transformation in the way that our world is powered is just there for the picking. That’s the problem. Powerful forces invested in the status quo are working against change. But the fact is that change has already started. We need to find ways to speed it up dramatically. That’s why I’m here today – because we are in a race against time.
Now, fortunately, the global community is more united than ever not just in accepting the challenge, but in confronting it with action. And that’s a good beginning, but it’s only a beginning.
A little over a year ago, the 196 parties – nearly every country on Earth – came together in Paris after much work leading up to it. We actually took major initiative in that when I went to China within a month and a half of being Secretary of State, and improbably we engaged in a dialogue with the Chinese that moved us away from the failure of Copenhagen towards cooperation so that President Xi and President Obama could stand up a year later together in Beijing and announce our mutual intended reductions and our plans in order to deal with climate. That changed the whole playing field. And as a result, in Paris we were able to adopt the most ambitious, inclusive climate change agreement in history. And in a powerful statement of the world’s broad commitment, that agreement actually entered into force, with nations rushing to be signatories and validators much quicker than anyone expected, less than a year after it was gaveled in in Paris. The United States and more than 120 other countries – representing more than 80 percent of the world’s emissions – have now formally joined the Paris Agreement.
But this agreement, in and of itself, is not going to solve the climate change problem. It doesn’t guarantee that we’re actually going to keep warming of the planet below 2 degrees Celsius, which is what scientists tell us is tipping point – let alone the 1.5 degrees that we set as an aspirational goal. Now, we knew this. This is not a betrayal. We knew this when we negotiated the agreement. We always knew that the power of this agreement – because it’s not mandatory and there’s not an enforcement mechanism, and that’s because of our politics, frankly – but the power of this agreement and its rapid entry into force we knew would be a clear signal that would be sent to the marketplace about the future. The energy market, my friends, is the largest market in human history. The market that made enormous wealth for a lot of people right here in Massachusetts and in California particularly and Texas, a few other countries – that was about a $1 trillion market in the 1990s. You all took part in that; that was part of the – it was the communications, computer, and so forth, technology market – $1 trillion market with about a billion users.
But the energy market is already a multi-trillion-dollar market with four to five billion users today and it’s going to go up to nine billion users according to most statistics within the next 30, 40 years. So it’s the confidence that the Paris Agreement gives investors and entrepreneurs and business leaders about investing in clean energy that makes it so important – that understanding that the marketplace is clearly and unambiguously got an opportunity that capital is going to drawn to and going to move to.
And the progress that the international community has made now already goes well beyond Paris.
In October of last year – by the way, we’ve sort of had the trifecta of international agreements this last year. We had the International Civil Aviation Organization, which established a sector-wide agreement with – for carbon-neutral growth. And why is this so important? Because international aviation is not covered by the Paris Agreement. And so if international aviation were taken in lump as an entity, if it were a country, it would rank among the top dozen sources of greenhouse gas emissions. So we needed to deal with it and we did.
A few weeks later, I was very pleased to be in Kigali, Rwanda, when representatives from nearly 200 countries again came together to halt the rise and instead phase down the global use and production of hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs, which, as we all know, are many times more impactful negatively on the environment than CO2. So they’re used in things like refrigerants. They’re a thousand times more potent than carbon dioxide, and by stemming the growing use of HFCs, the Kigali Amendment could single-handedly help us avoid up to a half a degree centigrade of the warming of Earth by the end of this century. At the same time, it opens up extraordinary opportunities for growth in a range of industries.
Now, each of these three steps that I’ve just described is important in their own right, but together they continually to help us move the needle in the right direction. And in large part it happened because global leaders finally woke up to the enormity of this challenge. Market forces are today, as I stand here at MIT, already beginning to shift.
Now, make no mistake, we are relying on the ingenuity of MIT and institutions like it, along with the private sector, to get this job done because government can’t get it done and won’t get it done. We need to push the limits of discovery to get us where we need to be. And today, more and more innovators and entrepreneurs are deciding to take advantage of the largest economic opportunity the world has ever known that I described. The genie is out of the bottle. No one can put it back in. The question is: Can it get its work done? Can the genie get the work done fast enough?
Over the past decade, the global renewable energy market has expanded more than six-fold. In 2015, investment in renewable energy was at an all-time high – nearly $350 billion. An average of half-a-million new solar panels were installed every single day. And for the first time since the industrial era began, more of the world’s money was investing in renewable energy technologies than in new fossil fuel plants.
In the United States, thanks in large part to President Obama’s leadership and our Congress moving in unusual bipartisan fashion on tax credits for renewable energy, investment then flooded to renewables. And as a result, domestic wind generation has tripled since 2008 and solar generation has increased 30 times over. In 2015, job creation in the U.S. solar industry grew 12 times faster than the average growth rate, and the number of solar jobs in our country has grown by more than 20 percent in each of the last three years.
In the United States, more people are now employed by the renewable energy sector than by either the oil or gas industry or the coal industry. And I’ll just note quickly, later this morning here I’m going to meeting with a number of leaders from MIT and other sectors as part of the State Department’s Innovation Forum in order to discuss the future of work and how the evolution of technology impacts job creation. I’m fascinated by this and it’s important to all of us as we witness this incredible technology revolution and change taking place.
As the benefit of automation spreads further and wider, one clear example of how our technological advancement can help to create jobs instead of eliminate them is the clean energy sector. The World Bank estimates that in the U.S., 1 million invested in renewable energy development and energy efficiency retrofitting yields as many jobs as the same amount invested in fossil fuels. The growth in this sector is benefitting communities in all 50 states of the United States, and by all indications it will only increase significantly in the years ahead.
Now, because of the clear trends that we are observing, today I am confident that the United States is going to meet all of the emission targets that we have set, not because of future government action but because of the market-based forces that are taking hold all over the world. The energy curve is bending towards sustainability and the market is headed towards clean energy. And like Moore’s law, as technology continues to evolve, the trend will only become more pronounced.
So the question now is not whether we will transition to a low-carbon economy. We will. I think most thoughtful people know that. We’ve already begun to, as I’ve described. The question we face today is whether we can accelerate that transition, whether we will excite the necessary investments to fully unlock the clean energy market of the future in time to avoid the catastrophe that we will inevitably see if we instead allow greenhouse gas emissions to keep going up and up and up.
Now, this really shouldn't be a tough call. But as I said, we face resistance of a strange combination of doubters and people making a lot of money off today’s paradigm. It’s what it’s all about. Now, I understand that in the short term traditional energy sources like coal may seem like a cheap option. You don’t know how many leaders I’ve talked to about this, and they say to me, well, we can’t really afford not to because coal is at 3 cents a kilowatt-hour. I’ve got to use coal. My budget won’t take the other. And there are a lot of special interests that are pushing hard to make that case every chance that they get.
But no surprise, my friends, they’re not telling the whole story. When you do the real cost accounting – and you all learn about that here – coal is neither cheap nor sensible. When you do the real accounting, you’ll immediately see that in the long term carbon-intensive energy is actually one of the costliest and most foolhardy investments that you could possibly make. And that’s because the final invoice for carbon-based energy includes a lot more than just the cost of building and operating a power plant or delivering the coal. The real accounting needs to fully consider all of the consequences, all the costs – that’s real accounting, which, in the case of dirty fuels, are enough to at least double or triple the more obvious upfront expense.
So if we’re going to be honest about our arithmetic, you got to add in the price of environmental and agricultural degradation, add in the reams of hospital bills for asthma and emphysema patients. Largest cause of children being hospitalized in the course of the summer is environmentally-induced asthma, and we spend billions on it. Add in the millions of deaths linked to air pollution caused by fossil fuels. Consider that a 2014 study found that up to six million people in China have black lung disease because they lived and worked so close to coal-fired power plants. There are nearly 20 million new asthma cases every year in India linked to coal, coal-related air pollution. And in the United States, asthma costs taxpayers more than $55 billion annually. These are real costs. And anyone who burns coal needs to burn into their brain these calculations.
And there is more. We also have to include the price tag of rebuilding after these devastating storms and flooding. Just in the first three-quarters of this last year, 2016, extreme weather events in the United States cost you, cost Americans – all our taxpayers – cost them nearly $27 billion in damage. In August alone, the floods in Louisiana cost 10 billion. Now, we know that there are always going to be some costs to dealing with extreme weather events. I understand that – not going to suggest that every part of the 27 billion. But I got news for you: When you start to have 500-year floods every year and you start to have weather extremes that are breaking millennia, you better stop and think about it. Climate change is projected to dramatically increase all of these already crippling costs.
So, ladies and gentlemen, we simply can’t have an honest decision-making process if we don’t have honest accounting, absent any obfuscation by special interest groups. And the initial costs that I just described are really just a glimpse of what the future could have in store if we fail to act. Just imagine: Massive increases in the price of maintaining infrastructure to control flooding and to withstand extreme weather events, unpredictable power outages, lost days of work and school due to extreme heat. All of this and more has to be added to any true assessment of the cost of high-carbon energy sources.
But critically – and this really is important – there is another and far too often ignored side to the ledger that I’ve laid out to you. Just measure what happens when we do invest instead in low-carbon energy sources. This is what I was talking about a moment ago about the upside and downside. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen to us if the climate deniers are wrong but we’ve made decisions to do what I’m talking about? Oh, the worst that could happen to you is you don’t have a lot of people going to the hospital for asthma. You have a lot more people working in clean energy. You live up to your environmental responsibilities for the future generations. You don’t have dependency on foreign oil. You don’t have to pollute – I mean, think, those are the worst things that happen. What’s the worst that happens if they’re wrong? The planet dies. I’ll take our, quote, “worst” over the doubters any day of the month, week, year.
So the first thing that becomes abundantly clear when you look at the ledger properly is that in reality we don’t face a choice between bad and worse, which they try to sell you. We don’t face a choice between protecting the environment or having jobs, no.
We face a choice right now between a slow-growing economy that is being held back by an over-reliance on fossil fuels versus an economy that is free to expand and grow by taking advantage of new technologies and sustainable sources of power. To be clear, pursuing cleaner, more efficient energy is the only way that nations around the world can build economies that will thrive for decades to come. And if we don’t do it, I’m telling you, the rest of the world’s going to go there.
Now, consider what has happened right here in Massachusetts as a test case over the past decade or so.
In 2007, we set a couple of goals. We pledged to build 2,000 megawatts of wind power capacity by 2020, and more than 250 megawatts of solar power by 2017. That was pretty ambitious thinking. In fact, it was unprecedented. But we knew that the potential benefits to the state were going to be enormous.
Fast forward to today, and Massachusetts has increased its clean energy economy by 75 percent in the last six years alone. We used a bulk purchasing program for residential solar in order to keep prices low. And because of that, there are now solar installations in 350 of Massachusetts’s 351 cities and towns. Clean energy in the commonwealth has become nearly a $12 billion industry. And it employs more than 100,000 people at 6,300 firms in every region of the state, and it is a perfect example of how quickly this transformation could happen and how far its benefits will reach.
Now, this kind of growth is happening all over the country, and American investors are increasingly seeing the handwriting on the wall. And that’s why, in the first nine months of 2016 alone, U.S. investment in renewable power generation approached $33 billion. But it’s important to remember that the renewable energy boom is not limited to fully industrialized countries. In fact, emerging economies like China, India and Brazil invested even more in renewable technologies last year than the developed world. China alone invested more than $100 billion. Ultimately, clean energy is expected to be a multi-trillion dollar market. And make no mistake: no nation will do well if it sits on the sidelines, choking on the fumes generated by obsolete technologies, and failing to share in the benefits of the clean-tech explosion.
Now, already today, millions of people around the world make a living in the clean energy industry. And the more the industry expands, the cheaper these sources of energy are going to become. Since 2009, solar prices are down 62 percent. Every part of the supply chain is trimming costs.
In many places, renewables have already reached cost parity with coal, and that’s by the old accounting. Think if you put the new accounting in. I know that a solar contract was recently let in Saudi Arabia at about 2.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. In some countries, they’re even cheaper. Last year, facilities in Chile and the UAE turned sunshine into electricity for well less than 3 cents a kilowatt-hour, and that’s half the average cost of coal by old accounting.
The bottom line is that the energy revolution so urgently needed is not remotely beyond our capacity. We know we can create and deploy energy technology that’s better, faster, smarter, more reliable, more accessible. We know we can boost our economy and create entirely new sectors of our economy. We can cut the amount of harmful carbon pollution hovering over communities. We can change the course our planet is on. We can build the future for our children and our grandchildren that they deserve.
And in doing so, we can put millions of people to work here in the United States and all over the world. And over the course of 38 years in public office, my friends, I have seen as broad an array of policy decisions as one can see, and I share with you there are very, very few as clear-cut as investing in climate action, where the pros outweigh the cons to such a staggering degree. Very few public policy choices present as much upside as this does, which is why it astounds me that people continue to resist this.
But even if we accept that action is necessary, success is not going to come without sustained commitment, without deep cooperation and creative thinking. And it won’t happen without confident investors and innovative entrepreneurs, and it certainly won’t happen without leadership all across every sector of the economy at all levels of government.
Now, I have spent, as you know, the last four years as President Obama’s Secretary and at his direction doing all I can to make sure that we are holding up our end of the bargain in Washington. But obviously, in less than two weeks, there’s going to be a new person in the Oval Office. Now, I’m not going to speculate about the policies that our president-elect and his secretary of state will choose to pursue, but I will tell you this: In the time I’ve spent in public life, one of the things I’ve learned is that some issues look a lot different when you’re actually in office, compared to when you’re on the campaign trail.
The truth is that climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s an issue that all of us should care about regardless of political affiliation. It certainly isn’t a partisan issue for our military leaders, who call climate change a threat multiplier, because the disruptions that it creates can exacerbate challenges all over the world because our own military readiness is adversely affected when our bases suffer the consequences of rising seas and stronger storms, not to mention the problem of climate refugees, climate-induced conflict over water, climate-induced conflict over food. You can run down a long list.
It isn’t a partisan issue for our Intelligence Community, who just this year released a report detailing the implications of climate change for national security, including threats to the stability of fragile nations and political tensions, rising food prices, increased risks to human health, the spread of contagious disease, and more.
It isn’t a partisan issue for mayors from New Orleans to Miami to Boston to New York, who are already working hard to manage sunny day floods and record storm surges caused by climate change.
It isn’t partisan for liberal and conservative business leaders, who are investing unprecedented amounts of money into renewables, voluntarily committing to reduce emissions and even holding their supply chains accountable to cut their overall carbon footprint up and down the corporate supply chain, the hierarchy.
And there’s nothing partisan about climate change for the world’s scientists, who are virtually unanimous in their conclusion that climate change is real, is happening, and is caused for the most part by humans and will have increasingly catastrophic impacts on our way of life if we don’t take dramatic steps to curb emissions quickly and sharply.
Now, whether we are able to meet this moment is as big a test of courage and vision as you will find. Every nation has a responsibility to do its part if we’re going to pass this test, and only those nations who step up and respond to this threat can legitimately lay claim to the mantle of global leadership. And with all of the real-world evidence and all of the peer-reviewed science and plain old common sense, there isn’t anybody who could credibly argue otherwise.
But at the end of our day, even our leaders can do only so much. I strongly believe, as I said a little bit earlier, that it’s not just governments that are going to take us where we need to go. It’s going to be innovators, researchers, entrepreneurs, business leaders, many of whom have been hammering away at this challenge for years and who will continue to create the technological advances that forever revolutionize the way we power our world.
Transformation most likely won’t happen overnight, but I promise you it is not going to take as long as some might think. Consider that less than three decades ago – I really remember this because we rewrote – we wrote the telecommunications bill of our country in 1999 – in 1996, and I remember – and I was a member of the Commerce Committee. We just had no real information coming at us about data management and data information, and the whole thing was about telephony. And within six months of passing it, it was dead. It was obsolete. That’s how fast things are moving.
Three decades ago, MIT’s own Tim Berners-Lee was still working on what was at the time called a, quote, “wide area hypermedia information retrievable initiative aiming to give access to a large universe of documents.” In other words, folks, the World Wide Web.
Today, every one of us can access the web with a device that fits in our pocket, devices that in this room alone – which I appreciate you all silencing for the duration – hold far more computing power altogether combined than the early space program that put an American on the moon.
Thomas Edison never underestimated the extent to which innovation could transform society. When he wasn’t working towards one of the thousand-plus patents that he accumulated over the course of his career, Edison somehow found time to reflect on his considerable success. And he concluded there are three great essentials to achieving, as he put it, anything worthwhile: first, hard work; second, stick-to-it-iveness; and third, common sense.
Today, it is clear that the transition towards a global low-carbon economy is in full swing, and every person in this room, indeed every person on the planet, has an interest in making sure that that transition happens as quickly as possible. As has been said several times, I’ve spent many years working toward that end, and I will continue to do so long after I leave the office in Foggy Bottom, and I hope alongside many of you. Because I am convinced that if together we put in the hard work, if we stick to the revolutionary course that we’re on and keep faith with the revolutionary spirit that is the heart of this country, if we refuse to get sidetracked by those who cannot see beyond the outmoded and downright dangerous energy sources of the past, and if we have the common sense to respond boldly to the urgency of this moment, then we will unlock the enormous potential of these opportunities for our businesses, for our communities, for our future.
Not only that, but like Edison with his light bulb and Bell with his telephone and the Wright brothers with their flying machine and Tim Berners-Lee with the World Wide Web, we will transform the way that people live. And in doing so, we will safeguard the future for generations to come. And ladies and gentlemen, there isn’t anything more worthwhile than that. Thank you all very, very much. (Applause.)