Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ’66 opened the Yale Climate Conference this week by comparing the threat of rising global temperatures to the danger posed by a rogue state acquiring nuclear weapons.

While our political leaders rightly respond urgently to a North Korean nuclear test, Kerry said, they have not addressed global climate change with same immediacy and resolve.

“We are here because too many politicians who have a responsibility to defend our nation and the planet are hardly doing so by ignoring the devastating impact of climate change,” he said, calling climate change “a silent killer that compounds its destructive power daily and threatens the lives of literally billions of people.”

Hosted by the Kerry Initiative at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, the conference convened business, political, and diplomatic leaders to set a policy agenda for addressing climate change.

“We are not here to debate the science,” Kerry said. “We are here to lay out an agenda, and to measure where we are, where have to go, and how to get there.”

The nonpartisan conference’s five sessions, each moderated by Kerry, were open to the Yale community. They featured prominent leaders from business and public sectors, representing both major political parties, who have committed themselves to fighting climate change. The sessions, which all drew large crowds, approached the topic from specific angles, such as the future of energy policy, bipartisan approaches to confronting the challenge, and state and local efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Panelists included Ernest Moniz, former U.S. secretary of energy; Henry Paulson Jr., former U.S. secretary of the treasury; James A. Baker, former U.S. secretary of state; California Governor Jerry Brown; Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo; Jeffrey Immelt, chair of the board of General Electric; and Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio, an environmental activist and U.N. Messenger of Peace with a special focus on climate change. (Watch four sessions of the conference online: “The Future of Energy”“The Role of the Private Sector”“State, City, and International Efforts”; and “Citizen Engagement and Activism.”

Paris Accord only the first step

Several speakers criticized President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which 196 nations committed themselves to capping the rise of global temperatures this century to no more than 2 degrees Celsius — although the panelists acknowledged that the pact only represented an important first step toward meeting the challenge.

“We are way behind where we need to be, even with Paris,” Kerry said. “The good news is that we are racing ahead in technology. The good news is that we already have the means to meet this challenge, right now.”

Moniz, during a session on energy policy hosted by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, pointed out that the Paris climate meetings reached a second accord, signed by 20 nations, that focused on developing technologies needed to meet carbon emission targets. He expressed disappointment that the Trump administration’s proposed budget would greatly reduce funding for the innovation initiative.

Moniz asserted that the world is heading to a low-carbon future with or without the White House’s leadership.

“That is where the world is going and that means a multi-trillion dollar global clean energy marketplace,” he said. “Putting aside the overarching climate objectives, it is not a very good move to also undercut our competitive position in that clean energy marketplace.”

Transitioning to clean energy

Paulson, during a session on the private sector’s role at Yale School of Management, said transitioning to a low-carbon economy is massive but essential task.

“These are industries of the future,” said Paulson, treasury secretary under George W. Bush. “If we don‘t do it, China is already doing it, and we’ll fall way behind.”

Enlisting the support of business and investors requires creating a policy framework that reduces potential risk and incentivizes private investment in clean energy enterprises, he said.

“Business can and do a lot, but when we’re looking at mitigating these long term global risks and taking an insurance policy out — that’s the role of government,” he said.

Immelt, speaking during the same session, offered an example of how transitioning to clean energy creates job opportunities.

“We have 1,200 people in Grand Forks North Dakota that make wind turbine blades,” he said. “They’re making close to $30 an hour. Their parents worked in mines. They worked on farms.”

Bipartisan action on climate change

In a session on bipartisan approaches to combating climate change held at Yale Law School, Baker, a longtime leader of the Republican Party, described his ongoing initiative with former Secretary of State George P. Schultz, also a Republican, and Paulson to implement a carbon tax that would pay dividends to taxpayers as a way to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases without increased regulation. The session included recorded messages by Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham calling on their colleagues in Washington to address climate change.

“I believe it is our responsibility to safeguard our environment and protect the planet,” McCain said. “Climate change is real and requires pragmatic problem-solving to address.”

Politics of climate change

California Governor Jerry Brown, speaking during a session on state, local, and international efforts at Woolsey Hall, asserted that gaining the support of business leaders is key to improving the politics of climate change.

“They are a very powerful pillar of the Republican Party,” he said, adding that business leaders can help persuade Republican elected leaders to begin embracing the science of climate change.

In July, Brown signed legislation to extend California’s cap-and-trade program, the only of its kind in the country, to 2030 with a companion bill to reduce air pollution locally. The legislation passed by a two-thirds majority of the state legislature, including eight votes from Republicans.

“We could not have gotten this if the chamber of commerce, the business roundtable, the farm bureau, and the western dairymen had not supported it,” he said. “You’ve got to get business. That’s it.” 

Washington Governor Jay Inslee urged the crowd at Woolsey Hall to become personally engaged in supporting political candidates who understand the threat of climate change and are poised to do something about it.

“We need Elis knocking on doors and using your social networks to elect people in state legislatures that can affect state policies, city council members that can affect city policies, and senators and presidents,” he said. “We need that right away.”

DiCaprio to students: get involved

DiCaprio, who spoke to a near-capacity crowd at Woolsey Hall during the conference’s last session, echoed Inslee’s call to action.

“I urge each and every one of you to join this effort — to get involved as much as you possibly can,” he said. “Your own future depends on your participation on this issue.”

He advised the crowd to take three simple steps: First, vote for candidates who support action on climate change. Second, support businesses that have climate-friendly products and practices and boycott those that do not. Finally, support nonprofit organizations working to implement climate solutions.

“For the students in this audience today, I urge you to become that next great climate scientist, that next great economist, that next great public servant like our host John Kerry here tonight, and commit your career to making a difference on this issue,” he said.

Founded in 2017, the Kerry Initiative is an interdisciplinary program that tackles pressing global challenges through teaching, research, and international dialogue. A key part of the initiative includes conference and other events intended to develop new approaches to solving global challenges.


This piece originally appeared in YaleNews.

Watch a video with highlights from the event

See more photos from the conference