Secretary John Kerry visits McMurdo

Secretary of State John Kerry visited McMurdo Station on November 11, becoming the first Secretary of State to travel to Antarctica, and the most senior U.S. government official ever to do so. The Secretary visited McMurdo in the wake of the establishment of the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area in the Southern Ocean off the Antarctic coast by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The US was among the original sponsors of the treaty that was eventually also ratified by two holdout nations: Russia and China.  At 600,000 square miles (1.55 million km2) it is the world’s largest marine reserve (see also the official press release from the Council for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources). The area is home to half of the world’s population of Weddell seals, our study subjects. The reserve officially opened on December 1st 2016 and bans commercial fishing in these international waters for the next 35 years.

Secretary Kerry’s visit included a stop at the Cape Royds Adélie penguin colony and Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod hut. Unfortunately for the Secretary, poor weather conditions thwarted his plan to visit South Pole station (canceled flights to Pole are more rule than exception). He did find time to address the McMurdo community, commending researchers and support staff (~900 souls) for their work. Below is a transcript (with some editorial liberties, so not an official record) of his 30-min speech, mostly dealing with climate change. He thanked the McMurdo community (including scientists working on the sea ice, glaciers, volcanoes, Dry Valleys etc., NSF representatives, and contractors) for keeping McMurdo the centerpiece of Antarctic research and for their ongoing efforts and for being an integral part of the effort to curb the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. Afterwards, a couple of us had the chance to rub elbows with Secretary Kerry in the Chalet (NSF headquarters in McMurdo).

Manu meets John Kerry

Secretary Kerry started his address by noting that he had been above the Arctic Circle several times. The undeniable, factual, verifiable retreat of the arctic sea ice is the poster child for global warming directly caused by greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere by human activity, closely tracks atmospheric CO2 levels. This was his first trip to Antarctica (he has now visited all 7 continents; personally, I’m still missing Africa and South America). On his most recent trip to the Arctic, he was made aware by scientists that millions of metric tons of glacier ice are being dumped into the ocean, and was encouraged to visit Antarctica where the potential effects of climate change on the massive ice shelf covering the continent could be even more dramatic. The depth of ice on the Antarctic ice shelf reaches a staggering three miles. If every bit of that ice melted, sea levels would increase a whopping 180 feet. That scenario is unlikely to happen but we are moving in the wrong direction; even minimal melt of the ice shelf will increase sea levels by multiple feet, causing flooding concerns for densely populated areas worldwide (including in the US, looking at you Florida!).

As chair of the Arctic counsel, running arguably the most active program in history, Secretary Kerry is uniquely qualified to point out the challenges we are facing when combating climate change.  He has a long and distinguished record fighting for a clean environment. As far back as 1970s, he helped organize (with Gaylord Nelson, Rachel Carson and others) Earth Day in response to a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara and the fact that people were living next to toxic dumps in Woburn.  In 1970, there was no Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but in response to massive protests (by an estimated 20 million Americans), conservation and protection of the environment became a political flashpoint and a voting issue: seven of the so-called dirty dozen (the twelve votes in the US congress that never voted in favor of environmentally-friendly policies) lost their races, igniting a new fervor to take action. The EPA was created and signed into law in 1970 by Richard Nixon (it is a but unclear what the future of the EPA is). In the next few years, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), the Coastal Zone Managing Act (1972), the Clean Air Act (1970), and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974). As Lieutenant-Governor of the great state of Massachusetts from 1983-1985, John Kerry co-chaired a task force on acid rain in response to widespread incidents of fish dying in lakes, streams, and rivers. The task force managed to pass a trading mechanism for sulfur, de facto taking acid rain as a major problem off the table, and in the process illustrating that human-made climate issues can be remedied if adequate and well–thought out action is taken. By 1984, the US Senate (including John Kerry, Al Gore, Tim Wirth, and Frank Lautenberg) increasingly focused on climate change. In 1988, Jim Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration famously declared that climate change is here. Unfortunately, the voluntary mechanism for dealing with reducing emissions passed in 1992 by delegates at the Rio Earth Summit didn’t work. Similarly, the Kyoto treaty (1997) didn’t pass the US Senate, in large part as a result from coal companies spending millions of dollars scaring people in elected office and preventing them from enacting common sense legislation (where have we seen that before, *cough* NRA *cough*).  Also in Copenhagen, efforts to bring the world together to act decisively on climate change failed.

Even though this process has and will continue to be marred by ups and downs (there are rumors in Washington that efforts are underway to undo what has been accomplished under the Obama Administration to prevent the earth from warming more than 2°C), there are reasons for renewed hope and enthusiasm. A solution for climate change is no longer a pie-in-the-sky utopia but rather depends on how we choose to power our vehicles, houses, plants etc.  Secretary Kerry visited China and put together working groups that lead to the announcement by the Obama administration that both the US and China (the world’s biggest polluters, being responsible for 15 and 25% of global carbon emissions, respectively) were going to set targets for reduction of emissions.  This announcement ignited a fire under the effort to bring nations together: at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, 194 countries committed independently to different plans to reduce emissions in order to keep temperature change under 2°C. The agreement was ratified by 125 countries and went into effect on November 4th 2016.  A follow-up meeting in Marrakech in November demonstrated to the world that the implementation of the Paris agreement is underway.  The widely accepted notion, supported by current scientific knowledge, that man-made climate change is here/real/impacting our lives, and the world-wide willingness to address it, has already led to new investments in technology that will allow people across the globe to make the right energy choices.  One of the persisting fallacies is that these renewable sources of energy (wind, solar, etc.) are more expensive than fossil fuels, resulting in developing countries still bringing coal fire plants online at an alarming rate despite the Paris agreement. Yet, the cost of solar is now comparable or even less than coal (~3 cents/kw/h). In fact, when taking into account “hidden” cost of burning fossil fuels (including billions of dollar spent yearly to fix damage from increasingly violent storms, lost ability to grow crops due to lack of water, or to treat health care issues such as cancer and asthma caused by particles in the air), renewable energy becomes the only rational and economical choice.

The work of scientists worldwide, including in Antarctica, is now providing the high quality data needed to unequivocally prove to even the staunchest of disbelievers what is happening to our climate. In fact, most of the predictions made by reputable scientists are coming to fruition at a faster and more alarming pace than expected: 500-year floods are occurring every year, fires are ripping through forests at extraordinary rates, storms are more severe than ever. Last July was the hottest July in recorded history. Last June was the hottest June. 2016 was the hottest year. The last decade was the hottest decade (following the 2nd and 3rd hottest decades).  Applying a fraction of the $8 billion spent yearly to clean up the mess left behind by climate change related disasters would go a long way to help develop new renewable energy technologies that will allow people worldwide to make the smart and obvious choice.

I guess the counter arguments are strong too (sigh). Therefore, we have to stand ready to carry this message forward because there are still people who either don’t understand or are unwilling to accept (for whatever reason) that making the wrong choice could be catastrophic. We need to get more people engaged to look at the science, understanding that this is not a choice between living better and giving things up. All of this is achievable while living better at the same time. Countless new jobs are to be created in building the infrastructure of the new energy for the world.  Energy is already the biggest market in human history as a multi-trillion dollar market with 4-5 billion users, expected to go up to 9 billion in the next few decades (in comparison, the 1990 market was ~ 1 trillion with a billion users). Energy is a ready-made marketplace. Nobody should be satisfied with the short term, so-called cheap choice (rushing to fire up new coal-powered plants) to meet consumer demand. We should make the choices that are already available today to use alternative renewable sustainable energy which in and of itself will create a jobs and infrastructure revolution around the world.

Both in public and in private, Secretary Kerry encouraged us to continue to push back against (and I paraphrase) a faction of ignorant politicians basing ridiculous statements on unsubstantiated claims by a couple of industry-sponsored “scientists” or snake oil salesmen, unfortunately poisoning the well for too many folks. Our changing climate is already impacting our lives and will continue to do so, ever more dramatically. We should not allow the changing political landscape to thwart efforts aimed at mitigating the effect of the undeniable rise of temperatures and shifting weather patterns across our globe.  As scientists, and despite a preponderance of evidence strongly suggesting otherwise, we realize and acknowledge that our predictions could be wrong and/or that mankind’s ability to shape Earth’s climate may be limited. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to continue to sponsor climate research, so the policy makers can stand on the most solid footing of understanding that our scientists can provide. We need to know what is happening, so we can anticipate and make smart choices. Maybe it won’t be necessary to take certain steps, but we need to know based on proof (and not the voices in in some online echo room). The problem is that if the nay-sayers and delayers and deniers are wrong, the result is absolute catastrophe. However, the worst that can happen from making smart energy choices is cleaner air (unless you believe smog is also a Chinese-made hoax), better health, decreased dependence on fossil fuels, more green jobs, and we would live up to our responsibilities to protect the environment.

Towards the end of his lecture, Secretary Kerry, who visited 90+ countries during his tenure as Secretary, assured us that the urgency with which we need to address climate change is catching on. The rest of the world is not going to abide by scofflaws, and is not going to tolerate people walking away from their responsibilities. It is evident that no one country can solve this problem. Even President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, whose company has a long track record of funding climate change denial, agrees that the risk of climate change exists but has thus far failed to clearly comment on whether action should be taken.

In closing, Secretary Kerry reminded us that every country has to be part of a global push to curb man-made climate change. We are all in this together and many countries are actively working on policies to deal with not only climate change, but also pollution. Billions of dollars have been raised, including at the 2016 ocean conference in Washington DC hosted by Secretary Kerry and featuring President Obama, to conserve oceans, protect fisheries, and reduce pollution and acidification.  Perhaps everyone should spend some time in Antarctica to be reminded of its extraordinary beauty and of the importance for us to live up to our responsibilities as guardians of our planet. Finally, the Secretary addressed the recent recent death of Dr. Hamilton as an example of how people are willing to take risks and live under difficult circumstances to collect the data needed to guide our future behavior.