In a speech to students in Jakarta, Indonesia this February, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry referred to climate change as “the greatest challenge of our generation.” In a recent speech to the foreign ministers of the world’s largest 20 economies, Kerry also placed climate change amongst ISIS and Ebola on the list of the biggest threats facing the international community.
“While we are confronting [ISIS], and we are confronting terrorism and we are confronting Ebola, this also has an immediacy that people have come to understand. There is a long list of important issues before all of us, but the grave threat that climate change poses warrants a prominent position on that list,” said Kerry.
In the short term, from the perspective of a member of the executive branch with only 2 years left in office, Kerry is wrong. ISIS — with worldwide recruitment, advances in Iraq and Syria and uses of social media to broadcast extreme acts of violence — is undoubtedly one of the largest, most urgent threats to the international community. In a broader context, his emphasis on the long-term global threat — which affects all individuals regardless of nationality or political affiliation — is important. It’s tough to justify leading the fight against climate change when wars and disease are a more imminent threat to the world at large, but it’s noble not to let it remain ignored.
Kerry’s comments coincided with the UN climate summit that took place this weekend in New York City. The meeting inspired protests from more than 570,000 people in a total of 161 countries. The New York protest drew marchers like mayor Bill de Blasio, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and former U.S. President Al Gore.
Although Kerry and the Obama administration in general are pushing to make citizens aware of the immediate steps required to help resolve climate issues, Gore is perhaps the best example of how environmental issues should be helped by those with power, stature and money. After narrowly losing in the 2000 election, Gore essentially eschewed politics to focus on his environmental activism. From to donations and speeches, climate change has become the core issue to which Gore dedicates his time. He can claim that climate change is the largest threat to society because that’s his mission — whereas Kerry has a duty as Secretary of State to respond to the foreign policy issues that pose a more direct threat to American citizens. It’s important not to take Kerry’s words too far out of context, but he does have an obligation to keep the priorities of U.S. foreign policy in order.
After winning the 2007 Academy Award for Documentary Feature for An Inconvenient Truth, Gore said the following: “My fellow Americans, people all over the world, we need to solve the climate crisis. It's not a political issue; it's a moral issue. We have everything we need to get started, with the possible exception of the will to act. That's a renewable resource. Let's renew it.” In a long term context, Kerry’s speech is once again calling for the international community to renew their will to act.
For countries like China, India, Canada and Australia — which The Guardian notes were all absent from the climate summit — finding that will may be difficult. Like any foreign policy issue, the progress of Kerry and other world leaders is stalled by those that refuse to cooperate. The aforementioned four countries are significant polluters, and the refusal of nations to cooperate in global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions could have negative consequences for all. The same is true of the continued resistance of Russia in regards to wars in Ukraine and Syria. When the world doesn’t agree on what threatens them most, it’s difficult to act.
The science that supports climate change should cause the type of urgent response that would inevitably occur if an asteroid was headed towards earth. Instead, the subtle and slow-working environmental threat is difficult for many to perceive as being truly threatening. ISIS and ebola could wreak havoc today, climate change may only impact future generations. It’s Kerry’s job to balance all of those threats, but with only two years left in office his attention should also be focused on finding solutions to the more pressing issues of our time.