VIDEO-Remarks at NYC Climate Week Opening Event

Thank you. Well, Steve, thank you very, very much for a generous introduction. More importantly, thank you for reminding me, but I really should be doing that. Sam Adams sounds great. (Laughter.) Sounds very appropriate right now. I’m really delighted, I very privileged actually, to be able to share thoughts with this distinguished gathering of CEOs and government officials, leaders in the environment, and I’m particularly happy to do so at a time where climate week is coinciding with the Secretary-General’s climate summit. And I’m very grateful to the Secretary-General for bringing leaders together from around the world in order to put this issue where it really ought to be, obviously.

I thank Brigadier General Steve Cheney for his very kind, warm introduction. For me, it’s personally extremely gratifying to see somebody with his national security experience – a graduate with the Naval Academy, 30 years in the United States Marine Corps, was commandant of the Marine training camp at Paris Island – and is bringing his leadership skills to this conversation. As everybody here knows, too often climate change is put into an “environmental challenge” box, when in fact it’s a major set of economic opportunities and economic challenges, it’s a public health challenge, and it’s also unquestionably – and this is something that the American Security Project is deeply focused on – an international security challenge.

And when you think about terrorism, which we think about a lot today; poverty, which is linked obviously to the levels of terror that we see in the world today; and, of course, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – all of these are challenges that don’t know any borders. And that’s exactly what climate change is. Importantly, climate change, without being connected in that way to everybody’s daily thinking, in fact, ranks right up there with every single one of the rest of those challenges. You can make a powerful argument that it may be, in fact, the most serious challenge we face on the planet because it’s about the planet itself. And today, more than 97 percent of all the peer reviewed studies ever made confirm that.

But despite the scientific consensus, we are collectively still allowing this problem to grow, not diminish. I was privileged to take part in the first hearing of the United States Senate in 1988 with Al Gore, Tim Wirth, a group of us – Jack Heinz – all of whom joined together in order to begin to learn about it. That was the first hearing at which Jim Hansen announced that climate change was here and happening. 1988. And then I attended the Earth Summit in Rio two years later when many of us gathered, and George Herbert Walker Bush appropriately sent a delegation and we made a voluntary commitment to create a framework for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And then, of course, Kyoto followed and Buenos Aires and Copenhagen and many other places where we’ve had the so-called COP meetings, the Conference of the Parties, to follow up on the conversations. The truth is, however, that during all of this time, notwithstanding the focus, we are not meeting the challenge.

In 2013, last year, we witnessed the largest single-year increase in carbon pollution that causes climate change – the largest single increase in 20 years. So it is about time that world leaders come to the United Nations to recognize this threat in the way that it requires and demands, and it gives me hope that this global summit may actually produce the leadership that is necessary to try to come together and move the needle, to take advantage of the small window of time – and I mean that – the small window of time that we have left in order to be able to prevent the worst impacts of climate change from already happening.

When we began this discussion a number of years ago, we were warned by the scientists that you had to keep the greenhouse gas levels about 450 parts per million in order to be able to hold to the 2 degree centigrade possible allowable warming taking place. Then, because of the rate at which it was happening, the scientists revised that estimate and they told us, “No, no, no, you can’t do 450 anymore. It’s got to be 350 or we’re not going to meet the standard.” And I, unfortunately, tell you that today not only are we above 450 parts per million, but we are on track to warm – having already warmed at 1 degree – we’ve got 1 degree left – we’re on track to warm at at least 4 degrees over the course of the next 20, 30, 40 years, and by the century, even more.

So this is pretty real. And what is so disturbing about it is that the worst impacts can be prevented still – there is still time – if we make the right set of choices. It’s within our reach. But it is absolutely imperative that we decide to move and to act now. You don’t have to take my word for it. You don’t have to Al Gore’s word for it. You don’t have to take the IPCC’s word and the Framework Convention, all those people who are sounding the alarm bells. You can just wake up pretty much any day and listen to Mother Nature, who is screaming at us about it.

Last month was the hottest August the planet has experienced in recorded history, and scientists now predict that by the end of the century the sea could rise a full meter. Now, a meter may not sound like all that much to a lot of people, but just one meter is enough to put up to 20 percent of the greater New York City underwater. Just one meter would displace hundreds of millions of people worldwide and threaten billions in economic activity. It would put countless homes and schools and parks, entire cities, and even countries at risk. We all know that climate change also means heat waves, water shortages. I can show you parts of the world where people are killing each other today over drought and water. There’s a potential of massive numbers of climate – what we call climate refugees. And obviously, this also has huge implications for agriculture on a worldwide basis.

Scientists predict that in some places climate change will make it much more difficult for farmers to be able to grow major staples like wheat, corn, soy, and rice. I was in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam earlier this year and year before, and I saw firsthand the impacts of climate change on the great rice production center of that part of Southeast Asia. And it’s not only farmers who suffer; it’s the millions who depend on the crops that the farmers grow. And the scientists further predict that climate change is also going to mean longer, more unpredictable monsoon seasons, and we’re already seeing that in levels of rainfall that are taking place in one day that used to take place in a month or in six months. Extreme weather events.

Nobody can tell you – no scientist can stand up in front of you and tell you that one particular storm or one particular event was the direct result. We don’t have that direct correlation at this point in time. But we do know that all of these scientists in that 97 percent are predicting that there will be greater intensity to the storms, that there will be much more disastrous effects, if we continue down the current path. You all who live here remember too well what happened just with Super Storm Sandy flooding the subways and the shorelines and destroying homes, businesses, and lives. So New Yorkers understand this by experience.

So I also want to understand – want everybody to understand that despite these relatively draconian realities that we face – and they are – there’s also a huge amount of good news staring us in the face. That’s what really makes this so extraordinarily frustrating, to be honest with you. Common sense is not particularly common right now. (Laughter.) We have this opportunity to be able to make a certain set of choices, and that’s why President Obama has stepped up unilaterally, because we don’t have a Congress that yet completely buys into it and we have one house particularly that not only doesn’t but fights back against the science, and over the past five years the United States has actually done more to reduce the threat of climate change domestically, and with the help of our international partners than in all of the 20 years before that. Just in the last five years.

We’re laying the groundwork for a clean energy economy of the future. And today, thanks to President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the United States is well on our way to meeting our international commitments to seriously cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. That’s because we’re going straight to the largest sources of pollution. Just yesterday, I convened a meeting of foreign ministers for the first time to sit down and talk about this among foreign ministers as we plan for the Lima, Peru meeting in December and then plan for Paris next year.

We are targeting emissions from transportation, from power sources that account for 60 percent of the dangerous greenhouse gasses that release. And the President has put in place standards to double the fuel efficiency on cars on American roads. We’ve proposed regulations that will curb carbon pollution coming from new power plants and similar regulations to limit the carbon that is coming from power plants that are already up and running. And just last week, the President announced an aggressive series of steps alongside leading private sector partners to cut emissions of highly potent greenhouse gasses like methane.

At the same time, since President Obama took office, the United States has upped our wind energy production more than threefold, and we’ve upped our solar energy production by more than tenfold. We’ve also become smarter about the way that we provide energy to our homes and our businesses, and as a result, today we’re emitting less than we have in two decades. And we’re contributing to a range of global and multinational initiatives as well in order to pioneer new, shared approaches that reduce global greenhouse gas pollution.

And I’m pleased to announce today that the United States will be contributing $15 million to kick-start the World Bank’s new pilot auction facility. This initiative will set up a guaranteed price for each ton of methane that project developers are able to cut from their facilities, which means that these developers, we hope, will be much more inclined to cut methane from livestock, landfills, waste treatment facilities, because they’ll be able to do so with the confidence that they’re going to be able to get an adequate if not better return on their investment. And this is especially important for those of you – and I assume that’s everybody here – follow this so closely. Methane is 20 times more dangerous and damaging than carbon dioxide. And I hate to say this to you, but among the many challenges we face, in parts of the world where the permafrost is melting, you have automatic natural emissions of methane. There are places in the world you can go where the methane is bubbling up through the ocean, that you can take a match and light it and it will ignite. And we have serious methane challenges, how do you capture this methane, in various parts of the world.

The United States is not able – this may be stating the obvious – to do this alone. I went to China early this year – or last year, actually, when I first went to China as Secretary – and proposed to them that we elevate climate change to a ministerial level and make it part of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China. They grabbed onto it, and we had our second round of that this year in Beijing and actually have made significant progress in coming to mutual understanding about steps we can both take, because together, China and the United States represent about 45 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of the world. And so if together we can state ambitious goals for next year, our hope is that will act as a major incentive to other countries to come along and to become part of this effort. (Applause.)

Obviously, it’s particularly difficult because – I also went to India and I spoke with Prime Minister Modi about this – there are other challenges with other countries – Indonesia, other nations. What happens is if the United States were to be perfect and we eliminated all emissions, we still would see all of those gains eradicated by one of these other countries if they continue to put coal-fired burning plants online at the rate that they currently are.

So this is an enormous challenge. And this is why the United States is prepared to take the lead in order to bring other nations to the table. And as Secretary of State, I promise you I am personally committed to making sure that this is front and center in all of our diplomatic efforts. That’s why yesterday I convened a group of foreign ministers for the first time. We agreed that we would meet again next year to hold all the nations that were there accountable and to measure ourselves about what the targets are we set as we go into Paris next year. It’s hard to believe that that’s the first time ever that many foreign ministers – not climate ministers, not environment ministers, but foreign ministers who set foreign policy came together in order to discuss this topic.

But it is not going to be the last time, we assure you. I’ve also set a directive to every single one of our 275 missions, embassies, consulates, that the chiefs of mission are to put this issue on the front burner in all of our interventions with our – with the host countries wherever they may be.

Now, this is going to require an all-out effort. And well before Paris, we need to make sure that the major economies of the world are publicly putting forward their mitigation goals, and the United States needs to do that before March of next year, and we are committed to doing that. The 2015 UN agreement is not going to be the final step towards solving climate change. But I’ve got news for you; it’s going to be the most important one we’ve had perhaps since Kyoto and may be the demarcation point for the reality of whether we have a chance of getting there or don’t.

So over the next 15 months, we need all of you to use whatever pressures you can in order to try to help make this happen. I’ll just tell you that I led the efforts in the United States Senate to try to get climate legislation in the last two years before I became Secretary. We actually built up to 55 votes. We had 55 votes ready to do something. We arrived at an agreement with the major oil companies – Exxon, Chevron, BP were all – Shell – had all joined in, and we were in a position where we were able to actually put a fee on carbon through their voluntary participation in this effort. And regrettably, at the last moment two things happened. One, we had the BP oil spill in the Gulf the weekend – the Friday before the Monday we were supposed to announce this deal, and in the intervening time because they were distracted, coal started to spend money on TV in America and scare people. And so everybody here needs to think hard about the relationship of campaign contributions to outcomes. That is critical to our getting there. (Applause.)

Now, let me give you the best news of all because it really is good news. I believe it’s exciting. The market that made America wealthier than we have ever been made was not the 1920s, not the folks – J.P. Morgan who built this library and the Rockefellers and the Fricks and the Carnegies and others – great time of wealth, no income tax and all the rest of it. We actually made more money and more people wealthy to a greater amount in the 1990s than in any other time in American history. And every quintile of American income earners saw their income go up during that period. Everybody did well. That came from a $1 trillion market with 1 billion users. It was the tech market – computer, personal computer, communications, et cetera.

The energy market that is staring us in the face today, staring a nation like the United States of America that actually doesn’t even have a national energy grid – a lot of people don’t realize that; we have an East Coast grid, a West Coast grid, a Texas grid, and up in the north around Chicago, out to the Dakotas, we have a line of connection. That’s it. There’s a gaping hole in the center of America. We do not have a national grid. A country that doesn’t have a national grid is sitting here in the year 2014 with extraordinary possibilities of building new energy connections, new energy production, new energy sourcing. If Cape Wind ever gets built in Massachusetts, it can’t sell to anywhere but in the immediate vicinity. You can’t take solar thermal from the four corners of Colorado and New Mexico, et cetera, California, and – if it were being produced – and transport it to Minnesota or to Chicago or cold parts of the winter. You can’t do that because we don’t have the ability to transmit.

Think of the jobs that could be created if we moved in that direction. Think of the competitiveness America that would be created if we began to embrace the possibilities of that economy. Because the economy we’re looking at, the energy economy of the future, is a $6 trillion market with 4 to 5 billion users today, and it’s going to go up to 6 to 9 billion users over the course of the next 50 years. It’s the mother of all markets with the most extraordinary opportunity if we could begin to have a price and – you see solar and you see wind beginning to now on the kilowatt-per-hour basis get closer and closer – we build in some incentives, we could make these decisions if we wanted to.

And so we’re looking at the possibility here of $90 trillion going to be invested in infrastructure, in the world’s cities, in agriculture, in energy systems. It’s an unprecedented opportunity to drive investment into low-carbon growth, which would bring enormous benefits in terms of jobs, health, business. I’ll tell you, having been 30 years in the – almost 30 years in the United States Senate, I saw so many issues cross our plate where they were real tradeoffs, and you struggled to be able to get to a place where you said I could vote for that and survive, and you had enough to be able to say to people why you’re doing it, what their benefit was.

This – this solution to climate change is a win-win-win-win-win if people would stop and really look at it. We’d reduce the number of kids who got – largest cause of hospitalization of children in the course of the summer in the United States of America is the impact of asthma induced by climate – by diesel fuels and gas and the climate. Huge cost. All kinds of other health implications for people, environment implications for people. Obviously, we would have greater energy independence. We’ve had far greater security. You build up all of the things that would benefit us, not to mention this $6 trillion economy and the jobs that are available to us, and the impact would be absolutely stunning.

So I just say to all of you: At the end of the day, we have to rise above politics. We have to recognize the moral obligation that is part of this and the benefits that we could sell to people all across the country. It doesn’t cost more to deal with climate change; it costs more to ignore it and to put our head in the sand and continue down this road of obfuscation and avoidance, and we need to make that clear to people in this country. (Applause.)

The guy who built this library that we’re privileged to be in today said that the first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you’re not going to stay where you are. (Laughter.) So I hope everybody here in this week will make a commitment that this is the year, this is the time, we are the people who are going to make the decision not to stay where we are; we are going to live up to our responsibility. There isn’t a philosophy of life or a religion in the world – not one – that doesn’t have at its core the responsibility of the stewardship of Earth and our responsibility to future generations. Our chance to live up to it is now.

Thank you all very much. (Applause.)