Obama’s climate hawk takes flight

February 17, 2014 Updated: April 24, 2016

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry revealed he can conjure up charisma when climate change is concerned. In a speech to Indonesian students and leaders in Jakarta, the “climate hawk” (an aggressive supporter of action on climate change) made an impassioned call to the people of the world’s emerging economies to force the subject onto their respective national agendas. (Read the full text of Kerry’s speech here).

“Today I call on all of you in Indonesia and concerned citizens around the world to demand the resolve that is necessary from your leaders. Speak out. Make climate change an issue that no public official can ignore for another day. Make a transition towards clean energy the only plan that you are willing to accept,” said the U.S. Secretary of State.

Acknowledging the United States needs to lead the pack in global efforts and typically touting the progress his country has made at home, Kerry’s speech was a rallying cry to the rest of the world that we’re all in this together. Jakarta makes an appropriate place for his plea since, as Kerry noted, half the city could be underwater with just one meter of sea level rise. Southeast Asia’s perilous position with regards to climate change means this call to action must resonate here. Kerry highlighted not just the immeasurable human cost to this region but climate change’s crippling economic cost as well. He cited an analysis by the World Bank which found flooding costs in Asian ports could reach $1 trillion a year by 2050 without major infrastructure improvements. 

Now the U.S. Secretary of State waxing poetic and citing statistics about the need for a global effort to combat climate change is a true step forward. Surely his words will engage and invigorate those in emerging economics who are already feeling the heat. But the most significant portion of his speech came as a promise in just one paragraph that most of the world’s media missed while they were focused on his mocking climate deniers.

“That is why the United States is prepared to take the lead in bringing other nations to the table. And this is something that President Obama is deeply committed to. And as Secretary of State, I am personally committed to making sure that this work is front and center in all of our diplomatic efforts. This week I will be instructing all of the chiefs of our missions at American embassies all over the world to make climate change a top priority and to use all the tools of diplomacy that they have at their disposal in order to help address this threat.”

Stronger words may never have been issued for a diplomatic blitz. It’s easy to understate the importance of this statement but it is truly huge. Diplomatically the United States is still the world’s juggernaut. Having the full force of its many missions around the world pushing for climate action is a major development. Details remain fuzzy of exactly what that may look like, but offering the opportunity to curry favour with the most powerful nation on Earth (and the threat of its diplomatic wrath) will spur emerging economies to take climate change seriously. 

Considering Saturday’s announcement that the United States and China will collaborate ahead of COP21 in Paris in 2015, the picture becomes clearer. With Earth’s top two emitters bridging the developed-developing world divide and the diplomatic machinery of its most powerful nation focused on getting the rest of the world on board, a meaningful climate deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol could finally be possible. Especially if we start to see world-wide public pressure to make it happen.

Cautious optimism is of course required as again and again we’ve seen these conferences amount to vaguely worded failures. And lord knows there are still a host of seemingly insurmountable obstacles standing in the way. But if all goes according to Kerry’s plan, 2015 could finally be the year the world gets its act together on climate change. Now the question becomes: what will a global climate deal look like and will it be enough?