Anvay Tewari

With a lineup of speakers that included Leonardo DiCaprio, California governor Jerry Brown LAW ’64 and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, the Kerry Initiative held its inaugural conference on Monday and Tuesday.

The conference’s five sessions each focused on different facets of climate change and featured leaders from a wide variety of fields. Three of the panels were sold out and during the final one, members of the Yale community almost completely filled Woolsey Hall, which seats about 2,650 people.

“We are not here to debate the science, we’re here to lay out an agenda and to measure where we are, and where we have to go, and how we are going to get there,” Kerry said in his opening remarks to the first session.

In the first session on Monday, Kerry discussed the future of energy policy with a panel of experts in their respective fields. The conversation centered around the intersection of the public and private sectors in the effort to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The panel included representatives from both sectors, as Moniz was joined by two public servants -— Jonathan Pershing, the former State Department’s special envoy for climate change, and Heather Zichal, Obama’s former climate and energy adviser — as well as leaders of the Pacific Gas and Electric Corporation and Southwestern Energy.

“Despite what you hear from talking heads and political pundits, there is nothing partisan about this issue,” Kerry said in his opening remarks. “Extreme weather events do not come with a D or an R after the names Harvey or Irma.”

Moniz touted the importance of a comprehensive push for increased energy efficiency in transportation and industry. He also spoke to the benefits of renewable energy — especially biofuels, hydrogen and nuclear energy — and the recent advancements in carbon capture technologies.

“You can dramatically reduce carbon emissions and have a healthy economy at the same time, and California is example No. 1,” said panel member Tony Earley, current executive chair of the board at the PG&E Corporation, a California-based utilities company. Earley attributed California’s success to a focus on energy efficiency, the cultivation of alternative energy options and a successful cap-and-trade program.

The second Monday session, held at the School of Management, focused on exploring the role of the private sector in the fight against climate change. Kerry kicked off the conversation by saying that he left the government “convinced” that the climate change problem will only be solved because the marketplace will move to find the solution.

“What we did [with the Paris Agreement] was send a message to the marketplace that 196 nations were all simultaneously going to commit to move in the same direction,” Kerry said.

He added that last year, for the first time in history, twice as much money was invested in sustainable energy than in fossil fuels.

Panel member and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson highlighted the necessity of a policy network including laws on “carbon pricing” — charging companies per each ton of carbon dioxide they emit into the atmosphere — and reducing greenhouse emissions.

Another topic that cropped up throughout the discussion was the necessity of investing in risky, long-term projects that do not generate immediate rewards. One proposal involved creating initiatives among multiple companies to diminish risk. Bank of America Vice Chairman Anne Finucane, for instance, mentioned the bank’s creation of the Catalytic Finance Initiative, which now has nine participating companies and has committed $8 billion to fund projects in clean energy and sustainability.

The first Tuesday session focused more broadly on efforts undertaken by states, cities and international organizations to combat climate change, especially in light of the current political situation in the U.S. and the still ongoing debates on whether the problem even exists. Panelists included California Gov. Jerry Brown LAW ’64, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, World Bank President Jim Kim and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

All panelists spoke about the number of things they did in their offices already — for instance, Hidalgo spoke about reducing air pollution in her city and Brown mentioned the reduction of oil use in California — and agreed that many efforts to combat climate change still occur at the local government level, regardless of whether the country itself remains in the Paris climate change agreement.

Still, panelists emphasized the need to talk more about climate science in the media and to get politicians to recognize the urgency of the situation.

“We have a bunch of troglodytes in too many high places,” Brown said. “[A troglodyte is] a dweller in a deep, dark cave. That is a metaphor for the level of enlightenment of those in charge of our political structure in Washington today.”

The fourth session consisted of a conversation between Kerry and former U.S. Secretary of State Jim Baker, with a brief interlude that included video messages from Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

The discussion served as a commentary on the role of U.S. leadership on energy and climate issues, as well as an exploration into new avenues for bipartisan efforts.

In his address to the audience, Baker proposed a market-based plan for combating climate change that he believed would bring conservatives to the table. The proposal consisted of four pillars that Baker said would satisfy the Republican demands that energy policy not economically hinder the country, and yet still accomplish the Democratic aspirations to rein in the environmental damages incurred by industry.

The closing session, featuring Kerry and DiCaprio, focused on what everyday citizens could do to fight climate change.

“I will tell you after all these years of experience in public life: If you don’t do this, if you don’t decide that you’re going to be the agent of change and accountability, it isn’t going to happen,” Kerry said. “It really isn’t going to happen.”

DiCaprio spoke about his foundation, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which works on combating climate change and developing sustainability. He also listed actions that the public can take, such as voting for politicians who believe in climate change, encouraging everyone to use clean energy technology and working on minimizing the individual’s impact on the environment.

In conversation with Kerry, DiCaprio recalled his teenage experiences of seeing movies about rain forests, which inspired him to be an environmentalist. Kerry spoke about his experience taking part in the first Earth Day in 1970, which was celebrated by 20 million people, as well as the subsequent actions the people took to target politicians not concerned with environmental problems. Later, these actions brought about the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency because “environment became a voting issue,” Kerry said.

“My message to you is this: I urge each and every one of you to join this effort, to get involved as much as you possibly can,” DiCaprio said. “For the students in this audience today: I urge you to become that next great climate scientist. That next great economist. That next great public servant and commit your career to making a difference on this issue.”

The attendees of the sessions spoke highly of the conference.

“I was mostly struck by their engagement with both the human and the economic costs of the issue,” said Sara Tridenti ’19, who attended the final session.

William Field ’20, another attendee, said he was thrilled to hear from Kerry and DiCaprio as he had previously heard the two speak at the Our Ocean Conference years ago.

“Both men could afford to sit on a beach somewhere, but choose to devote themselves to this existential cause,” he said.

Anastasiia Posnova | anastasiia.posnova@yale.edu | @asposnova 

Daniel Dagerdaniel.dager@yale.edu