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A Call to Action: Former Secretary of State Urges Student Engagement in Fight to Stop Climate Change

February 25, 2019
by Colin Poitras

Speaking to a packed house in Harkness Auditorium, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Yale School of Public Health students and others across the university to use their voices, education and votes to combat climate change, a struggle he described as nothing short of a matter of “life and death.”

Kerry came to Yale on Friday (February 22) to discuss climate change policy as a guest of the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH), the Yale Climate Change and Health Initiative (CCHI) and the Yale Institute for Global Health (YIGH). YSPH Professor Robert Dubrow, M.D., Ph.D., faculty director of CCHI, served as the event’s moderator.

Dubrow began the conversation with a rhetorical question: “Why are we having a conversation about climate change at a school of public health?” He then suggested that climate change policy is also public health policy. “This is enormously a matter of public health,” Kerry agreed.

One of the architects of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, Kerry painted a dire picture of an overheating planet Earth that is threatening human existence. The Greenland ice sheet is melting four times faster than 10 years ago. Oceans are warming 40 percent faster. We could see massive population dislocations and huge food system disruptions that will harm public health. Meanwhile, we continue to generate electricity with coal, causing black lung disease among miners and asthma attacks in children.

“Things are happening faster and with greater damage than we ever imagined,” said Kerry, a 1966 graduate of Yale College and the Distinguished Fellow for Global Affairs at Yale University. He repeated scientists’ warnings that we have 12 years to prevent another 0.5 degree centigrade increase in average temperatures worldwide or suffer the consequences.

Calling climate change a “catastrophe in the making,” Kerry said simply, “we are not getting the job done.”

“The reality is that we are, by acts of omission and commission, living out what I would call a mutual suicide pact because of the massive changes that are going to take place on our planet,” said Kerry, who founded the Kerry Initiative at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs in 2017. The Kerry Initiative tackles pressing global challenges through teaching, research, and international dialogue.

CCHI utilizes Yale's multidisciplinary expertise and global reach to educate and train future leaders and catalyze innovative research to address climate change, widely considered to be the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century. The initiative recently launched an 18-week, online certificate program on climate change and health—the first such online certificate for working public health and related professionals offered by a U.S. school of public health.

Martin Klein, M.P.H., Ph.D., CCHI’s executive director, said that CCHI is a member of the Lancet Countdown, a major international collaboration that issues annual reports on global progress in climate change and health. In addition, CCHI is initiating a Connecticut Countdown that will track climate change and health indicators in Connecticut in order to better inform policymakers and advocates. Klein said the program could become a model for other states.

While Yale’s leadership in climate change and health research and educational programs are vital to raising awareness and informing the debate on the critical issue of climate change, Kerry said he is increasingly convinced a grassroots movement is needed to push today’s political leaders to act.

“We need to do what we did back in 1970,” Kerry said. “Now I’m not a retro guy who believes that everything that happened in the 1960’s and 70’s was nirvana; but believe it or not we got some things done.”

Kerry said that upon his return from the Vietnam War, the first thing he did was not lead protests against the war—although that happened a short time later—it was getting involved in Earth Day.

“We brought 20 million Americans out of their homes on a single day, all of them together saying we do not want to live next to a waste dump where you may get cancer; we don’t want to live next to a river that catches fire;…we don’t want to live in a city where you can’t see from one side of the city to the next.”

The movement led to the passage of The Clean Air Act, The Safe Drinking Water Act, The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The point I’m making,” Kerry said, “is that we, as citizens, are not making (climate change) the voting issue it needs to be.”

“What we have to do now is go back to the street, go back to the activation of citizenship and get people to make 2020 the year to tell politicians if you’re not prepared to vote for the things we need to do to have a sustainable green economy, then you’re out!” Kerry said. “And that’s it. It’s that simple. That is the only thing I can think of that is going to save us from ourselves.”

Looking to coalesce the energy of millions of Americans he believes ardently want to address climate change, Kerry said he is working with former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and others to launch an international campaign for climate action. There are tentative plans for an international “day of action” next year to bring worldwide attention to the cause through marches and Live Aid-style concerts, he said.

Kerry emphasized that to turn things around we need the involvement of bright, energetic young people like those at Yale to get it done. “Young people are the key to this,” said Kerry. “I think we have to go back into our high schools and universities across the country. During the Vietnam War we had teach-ins, we brought people to campuses…we need to inspire people to recognize their own power to make a difference. Historically, it has always been young people who were at the center of a movement for change and that has to happen now.”

Kerry encouraged everyone present to think of things they can do to get engaged, such as sponsoring a public seminar, visiting local schools, and organizing community events, efforts he described as the “spontaneous combustion” needed to drive the movement from the ground up.

“I know it’s daunting,’” Kerry said. “Everybody is wondering, ‘Can I really make a difference?’ And the answer is yes. Yes, you really can and you must.”

Kerry ended by quoting South Africa’s first president and anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson R. Mandela.

“Nelson Mandela said, and always remember, ‘It always seems impossible until it is done,’” Kerry said. “Let’s get it done.”

YSPH Dean Sten H. Vermund called Kerry’s remarks “inspiring” and said the school was honored to have such a distinguished leader in climate change advocacy visit the school and speak to students.

“Secretary Kerry’s urgent message on the need to mobilize public health voices to help educate our communities and inform policymakers of the very real threats from climate change reinforces the kind of public engagement we encourage for all of our students,” Vermund said.

Saskia Comess, an M.P.H. student at the School of Public Health and a CCHI graduate fellow and research assistant, said that Kerry’s view of climate change as a public health issue is exactly the message of CCHI.

“Climate change is increasingly being viewed as a preeminent public health issue, and Sec. Kerry's visit to YSPH and his remarks affirmed the critical role of public health students and professionals in climate policy and action,” said Comess, who also helped organize Friday’s event.


The Yale Climate Change and Health Initiative is supported by a generous grant from the Overlook International Foundation. Its directors, Richard and Dee Lawrence, also co-founded Cool Effect, a program that identifies some of the best carbon emission reduction projects in the world.

Anyone interested in supporting the Yale Climate Change and Health Initiative can do so by clicking here.

View a recording of the Kerry’s talk at

Submitted by Denise Meyer on February 25, 2019