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John Kerry says U.S. can't reach climate goals without global cooperation

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The broadest law ever aimed at lowering carbon emissions in the U.S. has been in place for a year now, and it couldn't have come at a more critical time. Last month was hotter than any other month in recorded history, and all summer, the world has seen a cascade of climate emergencies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

NORAH O'DONNELL: Violent storms in this summer packed with extreme weather and excessive heat.

DETROW: Hundreds are dead or still missing from wildfires in Hawaii, and much of the U.S. suffered under extreme heat this summer.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Devastation and heartbreak as you saw parts of historic Lahaina town destroyed.

DETROW: Hurricane season is only just beginning, but a tropical storm has already hit Los Angeles, of all places.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The first tropical storm to move into Southern California in more than 25 years.

DETROW: All summer, we've talked about this as a preview of what living with climate change could be like. President Biden's climate envoy, John Kerry, gave a speech in Scotland last week all about it.

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JOHN KERRY: Around the world, people are moving because they can't grow food, because they are flooded, because they can't live and work in the extreme heat, because the air that they are forced to breathe is clogged with pollution - greenhouse gas pollution that kills someone prematurely every five seconds around the world.

DETROW: For our Sunday cover story, we talked to John Kerry about the administration's efforts to curb climate change, and we'll also get a reality check about whether it will be enough to meet their ambitious goals. First, Kerry is preparing for the next major climate summit, which will be in Dubai, and he joins us now to talk about it. Secretary Kerry, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KERRY: Thanks for having me. Glad to be with you.

DETROW: Let's just pick up with the global context here - hottest recorded months ever. Extreme weather all around the globe. You've got the wildfires in Hawaii. We are talking about ocean temperatures off Florida as hot as a hot tub. So I've got to start by asking whether, in a sense, it is already too late for these negotiations you have been so focused on.

KERRY: Well, it can't be too late. We can't allow it to be too late. I mean, this is a matter of - it's an existential issue. And it would be the height of irresponsibility not to do everything possible that we can to avoid the damage that the scientists are telling will come with increasing half a degree or degree of warming - point tenths of a degree.

DETROW: Yeah. So the conversation for so long that you have been such a big part of is keeping the increase under 1.5 degrees Celsius. That was the conversation at Paris going forward. It's framed so many conversations. Is that goal too late to accomplish at this point in time?

KERRY: We don't know. But the evidence is very clear that we probably are going to surpass it. But then many scientists argue that it's - that you're able to claw back, that you could come back from the overshoot of it. We don't know precisely. But just the mere speculation that that is a real possibility ought to drive us to take much greater steps to be able to do everything we can do in order to, you know, to respond to the crisis.

DETROW: The line of the speech that has gotten the most attention - I want to talk about it. You said, now is the time for all of us to join together and take a more critical step. There should be no more permitting of any new, unabated coal-fired power anywhere in the world, period. I've got several questions about that, starting here in the U.S. You talked about the, you know, 90% renewable energy coming online. The Inflation Reduction Act certainly does play a huge role in speeding up that transition. But I'm wondering, does it undercut your call for a big shift like that when, at the same time, the administration is approving huge new oil drilling projects like Willow?

KERRY: No, I don't believe so. I don't believe it undercuts - I mean, it may undercut it in some people's minds, but does it in reality? No. And the reason is that we are full-square in this transition. But at the same time, we have to keep our economy moving, and you have to be able to supply the demand that American citizens and others around the world are exercising in order to be able to go to work and get to the hospital and do the things we do to daily live. But the key here is to stay on the curve, stay on the downward trend that gets us to the goal.

It doesn't all have to happen by the COP in December. It doesn't all have to happen by next year. It has to happen that by 2030 - 2030, seven years from now - we need to achieve at least a 45% reduction in the emissions. And then going on from 2030 to 2050, we need to hit the net-zero target. And I assure you, remarkable transformations are coming online through American ingenuity and global ingenuity and innovation and entrepreneurial efforts. So I'm very excited about what is happening right now, and I really think we're at the beginning of a turning point. Are we where we need to be on the target? Not yet, but I believe we can get there.

DETROW: You recently went to China to resume conversations on climate that had hit a snag. I don't know if you got a chance to watch the Republican presidential debate a couple of days ago, but former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was one of the few candidates who seemed to actually take climate change seriously. She said it is real. It's a serious concern. But her answer was something we've heard a lot before from Republican contenders of what the U.S. does doesn't really matter unless China and India are doing the same thing. You're talking about phasing out coal-fired power plants. I just saw a report that said China is still permitting two new coal-fired plants a week. How do you get China on the same page when it comes to coal?

KERRY: Well, it is absolutely essential that China sign up and undertake major changes to their coal policy. And it is accurate that we can't get where we need to go - no one in the world can - if other countries aren't also doing this. But it is not accurate to say we can't do anything or shouldn't do anything because someone else isn't. Now, in the case of China, they've got to change that coal policy, and hopefully they will because it's in their interest. And they'll do it not because we're saying they have to do it. That's not going to work. They'll do it because they understand that that's their contribution to the rest of the world as well as to their own citizens.

DETROW: In 2021 in Glasgow, you came on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED to talk about the agreement you had struck with your Chinese counterpart at the COP then. The day the agreement came in place, you came on to talk about this. It was an agreement to speed up greenhouse gas reduction efforts between the U.S. and China. You really talked it up as something that was promising. A couple years later, has China kept its end of that agreement?

KERRY: Well, the problem with what happened in terms of our ability to be able to continue - we were working - we had a working group. We announced that we would create that at that time, but we weren't able to get it completed because the visit to Taiwan wound up with a disruption in our ability to even talk. The Chinese suspended as a result of the Taiwan visit, and we had about a year go by before we were able to renew that. I just renewed our conversations about a month ago or so, and now we are trying to come back together to have these discussions.

DETROW: That's Secretary John Kerry, who is President Biden's climate envoy. Thanks so much for talking to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KERRY: Great to be with you. Thank you.

DETROW: Now, if the Biden administration is going to succeed at lowering the country's carbon footprint, the Inflation Reduction Act will have to succeed. The sweeping law went into effect a year ago. Rebecca Leber covers climate for Vox. I asked her whether the legislation will be effective and if the public even knows about it.

REBECCA LEBER: This is probably going to be a huge problem for the Biden administration in implementing the law because it relies so heavily on incentives that it matters if people know about them. So just the polling that's come out so far on the IRA - very few Americans have even heard of the law. They have little awareness what it's doing around climate, let alone the specific incentives that can be quite complex of how to reap these tax credits and eventually rebates to get money off that purchase for things like a heat pump or a car.

Another piece here will be how states implement their programs because states have a really important role to play in communicating to consumers how things like rebates will work. So we've yet to see any of this roll out. This will come probably at the beginning of 2024, and that will be the really big test for whether consumers are going to take up the IRA on all of these incentives.

DETROW: Let's talk about the carbon reduction side of this, though, because we are coming at a time where we saw the hottest month ever. We saw all sorts of extreme weather this summer that's only going to get worse. Do the carbon reductions that this law is trying to get to happen at a fast enough pace that is needed for the United States' big picture goals and for the broader world goals of keeping temperatures down?

LEBER: Most projections out there say that it will reduce emissions about 40% by 2030, which isn't quite all the way that we need to go to get to Biden's goal of reducing emissions by half by that point. So there are some ways, though, that the IRA might speed along this transition. One is these big block grants to states and local groups to reduce pollution in their communities and to help electrify their communities. So these are the kinds of projects that can actually help in terms of air pollution and water quality but can also benefit by transitioning from fossil fuels at the local level.

Another way that the law could have a really big impact in a shorter term on climate change is what it does around methane emissions. Because methane is a short-acting pollutant, it warms the atmosphere a lot faster than carbon dioxide, and it's our second biggest problem when it comes to climate change. The law imposes a price on methane, so oil and gas producers basically have to start reducing their methane emissions. And that can have a big impact if this part of the law is taken seriously and implemented well in the next few years because this is something we need to tackle now if we have any chance of containing warming to the global targets under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

DETROW: That's Rebecca Leber, a senior reporter at Vox who covers climate change. Thank you so much.

LEBER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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