Universities must challenge US Congress on climate change – Kerry

It is the role of universities to ensure that their graduates are “public citizens” who not only vote but also hold to account the United States Congress, says the first Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry. Congress is not acting with the urgency that must be applied to climate change, he told last week’s conference of the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities.

More than 100 students, professors and university leaders from 28 countries gathered with some 400 attendees at the virtual conference hosted by Tufts University and Harvard University. “Global Institutions, Local Impact: Power and responsibility of engaged universities” was held over the course of four days beginning on 30 September 2021.

This article on engaged research is published by University World News in partnership with the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

On 2 October – the same day he met with 40 ministers in Milan to prepare the groundwork for the upcoming Climate Summit in Glasgow – via a recorded video, John Kerry delivered the keynote address at the conference.

The message delivered by the lifelong politician who served as the US secretary of state from 2013 to 2017, could not have been more different from that of the previous US administration.

In place of former president Donald Trump’s claim that global warming is a “Chinese hoax”, President Joe Biden’s special envoy declared: “First of all, the climate crisis is very real.”

Climate injustices

Later in his talk, Kerry spoke the language of United Nations reports and climate scientists. Nations must prevent the world from exceeding 1.5 – that is, global warming must not be allowed to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

At the beginning, however, he personalised the developing tragedy.

People of Pacific Island states “are beside themselves. They are exasperated,” Kerry said. “They have nothing to do with the problem they are facing” due to rising sea levels caused by melting ice caps. They are “literally being overrun by water, swamped, flooded, and driven out” of islands they have inhabited for thousands of years.

Kerry did not cite Tufts University professor of urban and environmental policy and planning, Julian Agyeman, one of the presenters in the “Just Sustainabilities” session held the following day. But the US diplomat showed familiarity with Agyeman’s argument that environmental degradation and the effects of climate change reveal fundamental injustices.

The vast majority of the people killed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or who drowned in New York this past September, were either black or Latinx. Agyeman blames policy and planning decisions “that were the results of segregationist and white supremacist thinking”. Racial minorities were relegated to the lowlands of New Orleans or, in the case of New York, to basement apartments that had no emergency escape routes.

For his part, Kerry said: “The climate issue bears the truth of injustice.” For years, he added, the climate crisis has “discriminated against the poor and powerless”.

Kerry showed righteous indignation at the cost exacted from minority communities by the burning of fossil fuels. Taking a page from Agyeman’s critique of urban planning, he pointed at the highways of Boston – and, indeed, most cities in America and around the world.

His words recalled the Romantic poet William Blake’s “Dark Satanic mills”, as Kerry asked those at the Talloires Network conference to picture diesel trucks going through the city, spewing fumes.

There is, he continued, imbalance in the way we focus on the consequences of the development choices we make, including ignoring “why a lot of kids in disadvantaged communities wind up with environmentally induced asthma… if not cancer”. Ten million people die each year from pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, he said.

An existential threat

Pollution is an existential threat, Kerry told the conference moments before donning a rhetorical lab coat. “Life itself is at risk. The species of the planet are at risk. The capacity of all of us to survive [is threatened because] 50% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. [And yet] the ocean is being degraded rapidly by what we’re putting into it.”

Simply rejoining the Paris Accord, as Biden did shortly after becoming president, doesn’t “get the US off the hook”, as Saleemul Huq put it. Huq is director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at Independent University, Bangladesh.

Kerry admitted: “No, everything won’t get done in Glasgow.” Still, he underscored important steps forward, including Biden’s “whole government approach”. Under it, every department has to consider climate consequences and impacts in every decision made.

Equally important is America’s chequebook. Just days earlier the US doubled its contribution – to US$11 billion – to the US$100 billion that the United Nations says is needed to help poorer countries deal with climate change and implement programmes to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Roles of universities

John Kerry entered politics when the speaker of the US House of Representatives was his fellow Massachusettsan, Thomas P ‘Tip’ O’Neill, who is famous for saying: “All politics is local.”

And there is nothing more local than jobs. Accordingly, Kerry spent a large part of his address on jobs; though his examples are American, the concern for people’s livelihoods and the template he sketched applies to other countries. Environmental challenges cannot be tackled “at the expense of disadvantaged communities, at the expense of jobs”, he said.

Although he didn’t mention it, Kerry was speaking of the infrastructure bill presently being held up in the US Congress.

Transitioning to the new energy economy, which includes Biden’s pledge that by 2035 all electricity produced in the US will be carbon free, presents huge economic opportunities and “countless jobs” for workers ranging from tradespeople to specialists in artificial intelligence quantum computing.

According to Kerry, colleges and universities have two important roles in helping transition to a carbon neutral economy.

The first is being a role model. Dormitories and other buildings must be refitted so that heat is not wasted. Food services should prioritise purchasing that minimises transportation. University and college fleets should be electric.

The second role is perhaps more important and goes to the Talloires Network’s raison d’être: fostering civic engagement. Exemplified for example by Mohak Thukral, a student at OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat in India and founder of Project Kushal Society, which is dedicated to removing barriers to education for young LGBTQ people in Ludhiana in Punjab.

Kerry contrasted coming of age in the era of president JF Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and others – when Kerry’s generation felt, “We can make a difference, and we went out to do that” – with today, when Americans cannot “even decide what the basic facts are” about climate change. Or, by implication, how best to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is the role of universities to ensure that their graduates are “public citizens” who not only vote but also hold to account US Congress which, as he put it, “is not reflective of the urgency that needs to be applied” to climate change.

The situation is so dire that universities can no longer keep the intellectual powers of their professors and researchers inside the campus gates. “I think there’s a fundamental responsibility for the university not just to teach its student body, but to be responsible for teaching the community and the world around it.”

Had Kerry named his keynote address to the Talloires Network, he couldn’t have done any better than to use a sentence that appears near the end: “Democracy doesn’t work on autopilot.”