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On Earth Day: A Conversation with Former Secretary of State John Kerry

Ocean Conservancy CEO Janis Searles Jones chats with ocean champion and Former Secretary of State John Kerry

Ralph Alswang
© Ralph Alswang

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry sat down with me to talk about our ocean. During his tenure at the State Department, Kerry led the Arctic Council, helped to create the Our Ocean conference series and championed ocean causes.

While you were at the State Department, you and your team conceived of and launched the Our Ocean conference series. Now that it’s headed into its fifth year, I’m curious what really drove you to start that ocean conference series and what you see as its lasting legacy.

Well, what drove me to start the Our Oceans conferences was literally a passion for the oceans, coupled with a growing anxiety, fear, for the state of the oceans and for the direction that we’re going in. What excites me is this year it will be in Bali, Indonesia, the next conference. The year after that, Norway has already spoken for it. They want to do it. The year after that, Palau wants to do it. I just was at meetings where the Russians informed me they want to do the one after that. We’ve got this building momentum for people to learn and do something about it.

At the first ocean conferences we did, the first four of them, we have raised 18 billion dollars to be put into enforcement, research, increased capacity to understand exactly what’s happening, and efforts to protect marine areas. So we now have 12.4 million square kilometers of ocean, larger than the size of the United States, has now been, in the last four years, set aside for marine protected areas. So we’re starting something, but we got a lot of work to do to catch up.

You chaired the Arctic Council [during your time as Secretary of State]. I’m curious what you see as the Arctic Council’s next steps, why the Arctic is important to the U.S. as a nation.

Well, there are many, many reasons why the United States has interests in the Arctic and we’re among the key nations that border the Arctic that form the Arctic Council. You have Russia and Denmark, which has rights and we have rights, and Canada, and so forth.

A lot of nations want in on it and the reason they want in on it is that the economic zones of countries that are adjacent to, abutting the Arctic have initial rights for commercial exploitation. As the ice recedes, areas that previously had not been accessible become accessible. So extraction is a particular concern. So our interests are in making sure that whatever development takes place, takes place under rules and rule of law, and is manageable, and is sustainable.

Given where we are federally right now, what advice would you have for climate advocates, for ocean advocates to breach this gap?

I can remember a movement, which I was part of back in the early 1970s, when we didn’t have an EPA. We didn’t have a clean drinking water or safe drinking water law. We didn’t have a coastal zone management law. All of that came because people were inspired to organize around the first Earth Day and then they took that and put it into legislative reaction. When that happened, politicians suddenly listened. So, my advice to people is don’t lament it. Don’t sit around wringing your hands. Don’t say, “Oh, it’s bigger than me. I can’t do anything.” That’s not true. There is absolutely a role for anybody concerned about oceans to link with climate and anybody concerned about climate to link with oceans. These are one and the same. They are integrally linked because everything about the flow of the oceans, the great currents, the Gulf Stream, El Niño, all these things are affected by climate and what is happening with climate.

[To address marine pollution and ocean plastic], one of the things that we can do to be most impactful is to [address] waste management and collection in developing countries. As Secretary of State, you have been a lead negotiator in coalitions of countries to really tackle some of these complex problems. I’m curious whether or not you think we are capable of solving the plastic problem and what pathways you see there.

Any human problem, human created, is subject to being solved, changed, fixed. There are things we could do that would quickly reduce the amount of plastic that is exposed. Maybe put a premium on people collecting it before it goes in the ocean. Get a bunch of kids in beach communities that are daily in the summer, “This is your job. This is your summer job. This beach is never going to have a piece of plastic on it.”

The Our Ocean conference is going to be in Bali [this October]. Indonesia is one of the countries that really popped out with the science paper [Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Jambeck et al.,] as one of the top five countries where waste management and the lack of waste management and collection [could have a major impact in addressing ocean plastic]. Increasing investments in financing and figuring out how to support those infrastructure investments seem to be an important part of the solution. For [people who] want to do something to make sure [the ocean] is protected and remains resilient–what advice would you give to them?

If you want to look down into water that’s clear, if you want to have a swimming experience somewhere in your life, if you want to go to a beach that isn’t littered with, whatever it is, think about it and think about our responsibility to do something about that. We depend on the ocean for a vast percentage of the Earth’s protein that people consume. We depend on it for huge amounts of jobs that people have. We also depend on it for the oxygen, as I said, that we breathe. It’s three-quarters of the face of the planet is ocean. We could have been called Ocean not Earth. It’s vital to the existence of life on Earth and it is also vital to the quality of life on Earth. Those two things ought to motivate people enough.

I think that was a pretty brilliant way to wrap up the conversation. Thank you very much.

My pleasure. Thank you.

Credit- Ralph Alswang
© Ralph Alswang

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