John Kerry On The Biden Administration's Climate Strategy : Consider This from NPR In his first round of interviews since President-elect Joe Biden announced John Kerry would be his special envoy for climate, the former Secretary of State tells NPR why restoring American credibility on climate issues will be a key challenge for the Biden administration. Kerry spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep.

NPR's Nathan Rott reports on another climate ambition for the incoming administration: conserving 30% of America's land and water by 2030.

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John Kerry: Restoring American Credibility On Climate Change 'Not So Simple'

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If you're talking about big global problems, problems that require cooperation from countries all around the world, the coronavirus pandemic is nothing compared to climate change.


STEVEN CHU: There will be no vaccine, magical shot for climate change. And it's going to have a more profound impact on the world at large, if you can imagine that, than what we're going through today.

CORNISH: Steven Chu has a Nobel Prize in physics. He was also secretary of energy in President Obama's administration. He spoke to NPR this week about the incoming Biden administration's ambitious climate goals.


PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN: It's not going to be easy, but it's necessary. I'm committed to get it done.

CORNISH: Biden has pledged to rejoin America in the Paris climate agreement, the global carbon reduction plan President Trump backed out of. And he's talked about making America effectively carbon neutral in just 30 years.


BIDEN: And put our nation on the road to net-zero emissions by no later than 2050.

CORNISH: Steven Chu says many airlines, car companies, oil and gas companies are already moving in the direction of clean energy. The question for the Biden administration is how to make that happen faster.


CHU: You have to demonstrate that this change is going to be good for not only the health but the economy and everything else. Hopefully, the American public will have no trouble trying to understand that when it comes to your own, your family, your children's health, it's worthwhile.


CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - the Biden administration doesn't just have to convince the American public that fighting climate change is worthwhile; it has to convince countries around the world that America itself is committed to the task. Coming up - Biden's new international climate envoy, John Kerry, on how he intends to do that.


CORNISH: From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Thursday, December 10.


CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The coronavirus has killed more than 1.5 million people around the world this year, but that devastating number represents just a fraction of the people killed every year by air and water pollution - more than 9 million people each year, according to a recent U.N. report.


RENEE SALAS: Climate change and air pollution have the same root cause - the burning of fossil fuels.

CORNISH: Dr. Renee Salas is an emergency room physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. She contributed to another recent report published in the medical journal The Lancet, which surveyed more than 800 countries around the world, and it found that two-thirds of those countries expect global warming to significantly compromise their public health infrastructure in the future. That could include rolling blackouts during heat waves, damage from flooding or hurricanes or simply too many sick or injured people.


SALAS: It's been a tough year for all of us on the front lines in emergency departments.

CORNISH: For Salas, who spoke to NPR's Rebecca Hersher, it's been excruciating to see cascading failures in the U.S. health system and to know that climate change will drive even more disasters in the years ahead.


SALAS: Our nation is not adequately prepared for global-scale health challenges, including climate change.


BIDEN: It's happening everywhere, and It's happening now, and it affects us all.

CORNISH: In his presidential campaign, Joe Biden made climate change a central issue. Now that he's president-elect, one policy his incoming administration has outlined is a goal to conserve 30% of all U.S. land and water by the year 2030 - 30 by '30.


BIDEN: It requires action, not denial. It requires leadership, not scapegoating. It requires the president to meet the threshold duty of the office, to care - to care for everyone.

CORNISH: Other countries around the world have made similar 30-by-'30 pledges. NPR's Nate Rott has this look at just how realistic those plans are.


NATHAN ROTT: If you're wondering why, in the midst of a global pandemic, the incoming Biden administration and countries are talking about conserving a chunk of nature, here's a good blunt answer from the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres from a recent conference.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken. Dear friends, humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal.

ROTT: Suicidal because we depend on nature. We depend on bacteria in the ocean for the oxygen that we breathe, forests and wetlands to filter our water and shield us from pathogens like COVID-19, pollinators for our food.

ENRIC SALA: And we cannot replace the services that nature gave us for free.

ROTT: Enric Sala is a marine biologist and a National Geographic explorer in residence, which he says is every bit as cool as it sounds.

SALA: The president of a country, when he saw my business card said, oh, explorer in residence, can we switch jobs for a month?

ROTT: Sala agreed. The president did not.

SALA: Every year, we are using more resources than the Earth can replenish in that year. We are acting as if we have 1.6 Earths.

ROTT: Clearly, he says, that's unsustainable. Sala was part of a team of scientists who published a paper last year explaining in detail how the global community needs to protect half of the planet by mid-century if we want to avoid the worst-case climate change scenarios and prevent the loss of those benefits we get from nature. The idea of half-Earth, as it's called, is not new. E.O. Wilson, one of the world's top biologists, wrote a book about it a few years ago.

SALA: But we need to start with something.

ROTT: So Sala and other scientists proposed protecting 30% of the Earth's land and water by the year 2030 as a starting point. It helps that 30 by '30 is, you know, kind of catchy. Here's Jacob Malcolm, the director of the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife.

JACOB MALCOM: Thirty by '30 - can't get much simpler in terms of how you communicate it with people.

ROTT: And he says that simplicity is really important, especially when we're talking about these huge, complicated, seemingly unsolvable issues like climate change and biodiversity loss. But is it achievable? Malcolm says yes. Already, 12% of the land and 26% of marine areas are protected in the U.S. through national and state parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges. How do you get the rest of the way?

MALCOM: If you have an administration that says, let's mobilize the federal government to incentivize protections for these areas, then I think that we can make huge progress.

ROTT: That means working with private landowners in the Eastern U.S. in places where there's little federal land and leveraging the full power of the federal government in the West, where there's a lot of it. Biden has plans for the latter. Two of his rumored potential nominees for interior secretary, a job that manages more than a fifth of all the country's land, have proposed separate pieces of legislation in Congress that would set a 30 by '30 goal. Deb Haaland, a Democrat and U.S. representative from New Mexico, is one of them.

DEB HAALAND: You know, right now, our public lands emit 25% of carbon into the atmosphere. That is a tremendous amount.

ROTT: That's 25% of America's carbon emissions. Whether or not Biden has support in Congress, Haaland says it's clear that the administration will shift away from fossil fuel development and move towards renewable energy sources. And she says it will act to protect more areas, protecting humanity down the road.


CORNISH: Nate Rott covers climate, the environment and the American West for NPR.

It's worth pointing out that for some Democrats on the left, Joe Biden's climate ambitions aren't big enough. Namely, he stopped short of endorsing the Green New Deal, the massive infrastructure and clean energy proposal from progressive lawmakers, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

During the campaign, Biden did propose a $2 trillion climate plan, but unless Democrats win control of the Senate, that level of spending might not be possible, which means a lot of Biden's actions on climate may come down to executive orders and international agreements. To that end, he's created an entirely new position in the federal government - special presidential envoy for climate. And the first person to hold that job will be former senator and Secretary of State John Kerry.


JOHN KERRY: We have to raise the ambition of every nation in the world in order to get this job done. And our task - my task, specifically, will be to help negotiate that around the world.

CORNISH: In his first round of interviews since his new job was announced, John Kerry told NPR that the new administration's international work on climate change will start with rejoining the Paris climate agreement. He spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep.


STEVE INSKEEP: Is it simple for the United States to rejoin the Paris Agreement?

KERRY: Yes, it's simple for the United States to rejoin, but it's not so simple for the United States to regain its credibility. And I think we have to approach this challenge with some humility and with a very significant effort by the United States to show that we are serious and we really are back.

INSKEEP: Is this going to be a problem, though, when you're negotiating with other countries in coming months? They will look at you, and they can say, Secretary Kerry, we know that you agree with climate science and that you want to do something, but you're part of an administration that we can only be sure will be there for four years. And who knows what happens after that with the United States?

KERRY: Well, that question will certainly be raised, but I think there's a very clear answer to it. First of all, I believe that Donald Trump is an aberration and more - a lot more, but I won't go into all of that. What is clear is that the marketplace itself, globally, is moving in this direction. Just today, there's an announcement by a company that is promising to be net-neutral in carbon production by 2040. The day before, I spoke with an airline's president, and he talked about what his airline is going to be doing - spontaneously, automatically. Real businesspeople, real leaders within the business world understand that this is an imperative. They also understand that there's money to be made in producing the products. Anybody who has the breakthrough on battery storage is going to have the key to the future.

INSKEEP: China, of course, has a number of companies that want to be the world leader in wind, in solar, in electric cars, in electric batteries, every kind of climate technology. Do you see China as a threat, as an opportunity? What's the right word?

KERRY: Well, I think one shouldn't look for one word to describe the complexity of the relationship with China, but it's a critical relationship. I - as secretary of state, I had the privilege of going to Beijing and meeting with President Xi and the Politburo. And we brought them on board after failure a few years earlier in Copenhagen at the meeting of the parties. And we were able to announce our mutual intended reductions and then work together towards Paris.

So even as we had big differences about intellectual property protection, about access to the marketplace, about currency, about the South China Sea and other things, China understands we are not going to have a meeting of the minds on every issue. But countries have to work together to eat away at those differences.

INSKEEP: Will the United States have to make dramatic progress domestically against climate change in order to be a leader globally?

KERRY: We will have to do our fair share. Absolutely. And we will have to - and that's not hard to do because we've already been doing a lot of it. I mean, I talked to - a few days ago to the head of a big oil company. And they understand that changes are coming and that things need to be done to move to American leadership in these new technologies.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in your conversations with energy companies that you're referring to. Are they reaching out to you because of your new position? Are you reaching out to them because they need to be on board with what you're doing? What's going on?

KERRY: I'm reaching out to them because I want to hear from them. Right now, we're not able - you know, we're not in - we have to wait till January 20 before we engage substantively promoting any policy. But I'm listening to what their needs are and how they view the world so I can begin to understand better what the possibilities may be once the president is sworn in on January 20.

INSKEEP: I'd like to ask about this particular democracy that we're living in, Mr. Secretary, and how you address a long-term problem like climate change in this democracy. There is a minority of people that doesn't agree with climate science. And we're in a country where a minority of people can stop a lot of what you would see as progress. Do you feel that you understand how to make progress, given the unique challenges in this country?

KERRY: I believe the way we make progress is by delivering, by showing people very specifically what the benefits are, what the facts are and by building a consensus. I mean, that is the process of democracy. It's been made harder in these last years because of denialism that has been exacerbated purposely by entities and by politicians. But I do believe the marketplace actually has the ability to be a very powerful force for good and for things to happen. And politicians can kind of get in the way and provide some road bumps, but they're not going to stop what's happening now.

CORNISH: John Kerry, President-elect Joe Biden's new special envoy for climate. The Biden transition team is expected to announce Kerry's counterpart, a White House point person on domestic climate policy, in the coming weeks.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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