In a recent visit to Yale, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States must reassert itself as a global leader if we are to address the threat of climate change and other global health challenges in a world steeped in political discord.
Speaking to a capacity crowd of hundreds in the Yale School of Medicine’s Harkness Auditorium, Kerry said it is critical that the United States shoulder its international leadership responsibilities and resume its role as an “indispensable nation” in order to help the world counter the enormous challenges that lie ahead.
“What happened to the country that went to the moon and invented the internet?” said Kerry during a discussion about foreign policy, politics, and global health sponsored by the Yale Institute for Global Health (YIGH) and the schools of public health, medicine, nursing.
“If we get working, we are going to solve these problems. I’m absolutely convinced of it,” said Kerry, a 1966 graduate of Yale College and Yale’s Distinguished Fellow for Global Affairs. “The question is not whether we will get to a low, no net carbon economy, the question is whether we will get there in time and that is up to all of us.”
Moderator Saad Omer, director of YIGH, noted that some U.S. taxpayers question why they should pay for health programs in other parts of the world. Or in other words, Omer said, “Why should a mother in Kentucky pay for vaccine programs in Kathmandu?”
“Because it will make her and her community safer,” Kerry said. He then described how the United States authorized $30 billion to create the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or PEPFAR in 2003, the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in history.
“We are now on the brink of the first generation of children being born AIDS free,” Kerry said. “And that makes everybody better off.”
Kerry said America’s attention to global health is not just an exercise in “soft power” but something vital to the safety and security of the U.S. and countries around the world. The U.S., for instance, also played an important role helping stem an emerging Ebola outbreak during President Barack Obama’s administration, Kerry said.
“It was essential for the U.S. to step up and offer leadership,” Kerry said.
With a novel coronavirus now threatening the health of millions and other global health challenges being driven by climate change, Kerry said it is imperative for the U.S. to not only get involved, but to lead.
“We are on the cusp of a new age of health threats,” said Kerry. “I don’t want to sow fear, but it is a scary time largely because we’re not responding adequately, we’re not preparing, we’re not educating people about it.”
Speaking directly to the Yale audience, Kerry said individuals currently involved in the natural sciences, medicine, nursing and public health, have a critical role in what he described as “a genuinely perilous moment” and “the fight of our lifetime.”
“You all have a big part in this battle because you are the folks who, within the various strata of society, have credibility,” Kerry said. “You are the validators of things that people in public life have lost the ability to validate. We are trapped in a place in our politics where there is no referee for truth anymore.”
Nowhere has that battle been more evident than in the climate change debate. The former Secretary of State voiced his frustration with the United States’ lack of leadership in pursuing the goals of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
“What confounds me and angers me is that we do not have the leadership that is summoning the world to the table to treat this like a war, which is literally what we have to do,” Kerry said.
Yet Kerry said there is still room for optimism.
Despite the ongoing use of coal-fired power plants around the world and financial institutions investing more than a trillion dollars in future coal power, there is still a chance the damage from climate change can be checked, Kerry said.
“What is most aggravating is that we can win this battle,” said Kerry. “It’s totally there to be won.”
If the U.S. were to lead a global effort and invest more in cutting-edge research into alternative energy sources – solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal – it would begin to turn the tide.
“We have to organize ourselves in a way that takes advantage of our technological skill, our innovative skill and our entrepreneurial capacity,” Kerry said. “If we can do that, we can win this battle still.”
Yet we appear to be going in the opposite direction, Kerry said. He cited the failure of last year’s international climate change conference in Madrid to set metrics for countries that have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, one of the driving forces behind our warming planet.
“The problem is not our capacity to do it,” Kerry said. “It is our lack of will power, the lack of seriousness of purpose on a global basis and that is what leadership is supposed to be about.”
In an attempt to galvanize an international response to fight climate change, Kerry has launched World War Zero, a bipartisan, international effort to engage voters and make climate change a key issue in upcoming elections. Kerry said younger voters, those 18-25 and with the most at stake in the climate change battle, must get more involved. Their turnout in the last presidential election was just 19 percent.
“If we can get that voter turnout to 40 percent, 50 percent or 60 percent, we are going to win back our future in this country,” Kerry said to sustained applause.
Kerry’s visit to Yale was the first in a new global health speaker series sponsored by YIGH.