Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) pledged yesterday to make climate change a top priority as secretary of State as he sailed through a mostly genial confirmation hearing before the committee he still chairs.
Testifying before his Senate Foreign Relations panel, Kerry sidestepped a question about his views on the controversial $7 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline project. But he jumped at a chance to swat down a Republican senator who declared carbon constraints a threat to the U.S. economy, and he defended the need to abate climate change as a jobs and security imperative.
"Climate change is not something to be feared in response to. It's to be feared if we don't," Kerry said, citing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data showing more than 3,500 U.S. communities shattered heat records last year and noting the billions spent mopping up disasters from wildfires in the West to Superstorm Sandy in the East. Meanwhile, he said, America has barely begun to tap the $6 trillion global clean energy market.
"I will be a passionate advocate about this, but not based on ideology. Based on facts, based on science. And I hope to sit with all of you to convince you that this $6 trillion market is worth billions of American jobs and we better go after it," he said.
Kerry's testimony came on the heels of a loud call by more than half the Senate demanding the Obama administration quickly approve the Keystone XL pipeline project that would ship about 700,000 barrels of crude daily from Canada's oil sands to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. It also comes as President Obama himself promises renewed attention to climate change.
A longtime champion of climate action and an intense observer of the U.N. treaty process, Kerry said in no uncertain terms yesterday that he will make global warming a priority. While security issues from Iran to Syria dominated the three-hour hearing, Kerry also wove climate, food security and competition for scarce resources into a broad new narrative of diplomacy.
"More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy," Kerry said. "The world is competing for resources and global markets. Every day that goes by where America is uncertain about engaging in that arena ... is a day in which we weaken our nation itself."
Vague comments about Keystone
Addressing the threat of rising global temperatures would be a central part of his efforts, Kerry said, arguing that foreign policy is "not defined by drones and deployments alone" but also by humanitarian aid, fighting disease and promoting freedom. "It is defined by leadership on life-threatening issues like climate change," he said.
When Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a leading climate skeptic who opposes restrictions on carbon pollution, argued that the administration could harm the U.S. economy by enacting new regulations particularly given the skyrocketing emissions of China and India, Kerry was quick with a challenge.
"The opportunities of energy policy so vastly outweigh the issues that you're expressing concerns about," he said. "We've got to get into the energy race. Other countries are in it. This is a job creator. I can't emphasize that strongly enough."
When it came to Keystone, though, and the decision he likely must make about whether to approve the pipeline, Kerry offered only vague comments about the "ongoing statutory process" and legal consultations.
"It will not be long before that comes across my desk, and at that time I will make the appropriate judgment about it," he said.
Meanwhile, a seemingly technical aside between Kerry and Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) about executive agreements could have implications for the climate debate.
Risch tried to get Kerry to agree that congressional executive agreements -- which need only a simple majority of both chambers to pass rather than the two-thirds of the Senate required to approve a treaty -- are inappropriate attempts to avoid Congress. Kerry, though, noted that Republicans and Democrats alike have entered into such agreements and said there are times when it's necessary -- like when "ideological restraints" block action.