With Void in Climate Leadership, Kerry
Initiative Lays Out a Post-Paris Agenda

At Yale this week, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a two-day event, the Yale Climate Conference, to highlight what business, civic, and government leaders are doing — or can do — to combat the threats of climate change.
The Yale Climate Conference, a two-day gathering of influential political, diplomatic and business leaders held on campus this week, was organized in part to fill a void, said former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Despite the growing threat of climate change, “a silent killer that compounds its destructive power daily,” too many leaders charged with protecting national interests are ignoring the problem or responding with downright mockery, Kerry told an audience at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies during the conference’s kickoff on Monday.
“Climate change is routinely proving itself a force of mass destruction,” Kerry said. “And given the science that we are seeing first hand every single day with fearsome reality, citizens deserve a response from those who are responsible for guiding the future. They deserve a response exhibiting the urgency which this challenge deserves.”
But the conference, hosted by the Kerry Initiative at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, wasn’t just about what the White House isn’t doing on climate change. More importantly, Kerry said, this nonpartisan event was about what other leaders in business and government — particularly at the state and city levels — are doing.
“We’re not here to debate the science,” Kerry said. “We’re here to lay out an agenda, and to measure where we are and measure where we have to go and how we’re going to get there.”
The five panel discussions, all moderated by Kerry, included key business, political, and diplomatic leaders, including James Baker, former U.S. Secretary of State; Jerry Brown, governor of California; Hank Paulson, former U.S. Secretary of Treasury; Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric Chair of the Board; and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
The two-day conference began at Kroon Hall, where Kerry hosted a discussion on the future of energy. Participants included Ernest Moniz, former U.S. Secretary of Energy; Jonathan Pershing, former U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Climate Change; Tony Earley, former CEO and Current Executive Chair of the Board, PG&E Corporation; Heather Zichal, former Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change; and Mark Boling, CEO of 2CNRG.

During a two-hour discussion, the panelists explored the prospects for achieving bipartisan support for climate action, the role of the marketplace in supporting innovation, the frustrations posed by the U.S. regulatory framework and aging infrastructure, and the prospects of such alternatives as small-scale nuclear power.
They also discussed what it will take to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement — particularly since the Trump Administration indicated that it would pull the U.S. out of the agreement — and whether that will even be enough to meet the threat of global climate change.
We are heading to a low-carbon future. It may be a bit rockier without federal leadership… but that’s where the world is going.
— Ernest Moniz, former U.S. energy secretary
Moniz, who served as energy secretary under President Obama, said the Paris Agreement was a vital step toward a clean energy transformation. Achieving those goals will require, among other things, advanced innovations in energy efficiency and decarbonized electricity generation.
But getting there will require a commitment from the federal government that currently is sorely lacking. In addition to expressing its intent to exit from the Paris Agreement, he said, the White House has also withdrawn support for a second step achieved in Paris — an agreement by 20 countries to double clean energy investment over five years.
This, he said, will “disarm” an important part of the U.S. innovation agenda.
“We are heading to a low-carbon future,” he said. “It may be a bit rockier without federal leadership… but that’s where the world is going. And that means a multi-trillion-dollar global clean energy marketplace. Putting aside the overarching climate objectives, it’s not a very good move to also undercut our competitive position in that clean energy marketplace.”
In the U.S., Earley told the Kroon audience, there is already a model for reducing carbon emissions and achieving a healthy economy: California. It took several years, he said, but the state has found a mix of programs and policies that has achieved a cleaner and more efficient energy economy.
Energy efficiency has been key in keeping electricity demand steady, even as the rest of the U.S. has seen steady increases in per capita demand. The state largely leans on greenhouse gas-free energy sources. And it has achieved a successful cap-and-trade system that was recently extended through the support of utilities and environmentally friendly businesses.
“And yet the economy is as strong as it’s ever been in California,” he said. “So people who say you can have one or the other, it’s absolutely wrong. You can have both.”
For Heather Zichal, who served in the Obama administration, the commitments being made by the private sector offer hope during a discouraging time. “Not only have they changed what they’re doing,” she said, “they’re changing how they’re doing it.”
For instance, companies like Honeywell, which manufactures air conditioners, are urging the Trump Administration to protect the Montreal Protocol, a 1987 global agreement designed to phase out ozone-depleting substances.These companies have spent three decades developing strategies to comply with the protocol, she said.
“And they are in the White House and they are saying, ‘Do not walk away from this, do not screw this up, because for us it’s business certainty and predictability. And that’s more important than anything else.’ And that perspective is important for policymakers to hear.”
All businesses thrive on certainty, agreed Boling, CEO of 2CNRG, which develops low-carbon energy solutions. But the realities of climate change have made it increasingly difficult for companies to make capital investment decisions.
A Texan, he says he gets funny looks back at home because of his commitment to fighting climate change. But he tells them that he isn’t working to fight climate change despite his role in the energy sector, but because of it.
“Everything I’ve learned tells me that the right thing to do is also the smart thing to do,” he said. “Everything I’ve learned tells me that the enormous changes that are going on in the energy industry right now will lead to enormous opportunities if we get smarter, faster.”
“While climate change may have started out as a moral imperative, and has now also become an economic necessity.”
Exploiting the opportunities will require a synergy of technology and policy, Moniz said. “I have absolute complete confidence in the technology side,” he said, “that at least with appropriate investment we’re going to keep making the kinds of progress we have made — and we will make it in some of these other domains we have described as critical.”
He’s even relatively optimistic on the policy side, he said, particularly having seen the response from state, city and business leaders after President Trump announced the U.S. exit from the Paris Agreement. Such leadership, he said, will eventually “bubble up” to the federal level.
While climate change may have started out as a moral imperative, and has now also become an economic necessity.
— Mark Boling, CEO of 2CNRG
Pershing, who has worked on climate policy for both the Department of Energy and the State Department, cited a piece of the Paris Agreement that is seldom discussed. In it, he said, there is a paragraph that discusses goals for the year 2050. It’s an important to keep in mind the wider scope.
“Instead of saying, ‘What’s the next thing I’m going to do? What’s the next iteration of the incremental change I want?’ it pushes us in a different direction. It says, ‘Where do I want to be? What’s the vision that I have for my energy economy, for my carbon and climate economy, at the middle of the century?’”
This approach, he said, will yield not just one template for confronting the climate challenge but dozens of strategies for decarbonization that can be adapted and utilized by a range of stakeholder groups — at the state level, the city level, the corporate level, and different national levels.  
“I think what we have in Paris is a roadmap for that, and it has to be followed up, and we have to implement it… As it was famously said many years ago, it’s not a silver bullet. It’s silver buckshot. And you have to hit all of these targets going forward.”
PUBLISHED: September 21, 2017
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.