John Kerry: Global Climate Change Puts ‘Life Itself at Risk’

The U.S. Presidential Envoy for Climate, Kerry urged universities to address climate change in keynote speech at Talloires Network Leaders Conference

As the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry’s mission is not an easy one: Get countries to face the reality of what needs to be done “to tame this beast of climate degradation that’s taking place all around the world.”

Kerry, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and longtime U.S. senator who served as secretary of state under the Obama administration, was the keynote speaker at the 2021 Talloires Network Leaders Conference (TNLC), co-hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School.

The Talloires Network of Engaged Universities is a coalition of 417 universities in 79 countries who have committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of their institutions. The Talloires Network secretariat is housed at Tufts, and President Anthony P. Monaco chairs its steering committee.

Global climate justice was one of the pillars of this year’s gathering. Kerry was introduced by Rachel Kyte, F02, dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts, who pointed out that Kerry has called climate change “an existential threat. That means life and death, and the question is, are we behaving as if it is? The answer is no, and John Kerry seeks to change that.”

Kerry’s keynote address took the form of a conversation with Alan D. Solomont, A70, A08P, dean emeritus of Tisch College, and it was pre-recorded, as Kerry is currently in Europe attending pre-negotiations for the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.

Here are three takeaways from Kerry’s discussion with Solomont at the TNLC, which you can watch in full here.

‘The climate issue bears the truth of injustice.’ For decades, climate change has "discriminated against the poor and the powerless," Kerry said. “If you look at where diesel trucks go through a city and spew their fumes, kids in those communities wind up with health problems like environmentally induced asthma, because there's an imbalance in the way we focus on the consequences of the choices we make.”

He referred to a recent conference call with representatives from Pacific Island nations, who were “beside themselves and exasperated. Their islands are literally being overrun by water, swamped, flooded, and their people driven out. But they have nothing to do with [creating] the problem that they are facing.”

He also cited fossil fuels, particularly coal, as a major contributor to air pollution, from which millions of people die each year. “We have to address this challenge of dealing with the environment, but also address the injustice that's been written in the systems for long time. We can’t do it at the expense of disadvantaged communities.”

Countries, including the U.S., must be held accountable. Kerry called the upcoming Climate Change Conference a “critical meeting to get the world on track, raise ambition, create momentum, and at least begin to hold countries accountable.”

He pointed to two ways in which the U.S. has committed to leading the effort and sharing the responsibility. In September, President Joe Biden announced that he will aim to double financial aid from the U.S. to developing nations to help them confront the climate crisis, for a total of $11.4 billion per year. Kerry hopes this will spur other countries to contribute even more than they have.

Biden also launched the Justice40 Initiative, which is a whole-of-government effort to ensure that federal, state, and local agencies work toward Biden’s promise to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities. “Every single department of government now has to consider climate consequences, climate impact, and climate implications of every decision that we're making,” Kerry said.

Universities need to be as carbon neutral as possible, as fast as possible. Kerry encouraged colleges and universities to take steps to decrease their campuses’ carbon footprints, such as renovating dormitories and classrooms to improve energy efficiency, considering where food is purchased from and how much transportation is required, and switching to electric vehicles.

As places where ideas are exchanged and fact-based research is valued, colleges and universities “have a gigantic role of making sure that every student who comes to their institution is going to leave as a public citizen who is going to vote and be active in helping to make our democracy work. What is the foundation of truth on which we are being asked to act? That's the role of the university.”

Angela Nelson can be reached at

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