Leo addresses Kerry Initiative Climate Conference

Photo Credit: John Hassett

An appearance by Leonardo capped off a two-day conference put on by the Kerry Initiative, a program founded earlier this year by former Secretary of State and 1966 Yale graduate John Kerry, that also featured California Gov. Jerry Brown, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, former Secretary of State James Baker as speakers. Following a week of dramatic weather events, including tropical storms Harvey and Irma, Leo led a Q & A with John Kerry about the urgent need to take action on climate change. 

Below is a transcript of his speech

"Thank you, Secretary Kerry for that introduction.

Our country owes you a great debt for your lifetime of public service. I want to start today by thanking you personally for your commitment to our oceans and for fighting to stop the march of climate change before it is too late. 

Please join me in giving him a big round of applause.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I said at the opening of the trailer you saw for my documentary Before the Flood, we have known about the progress of climate change for over half century.

We have watched as storms, wildfires, and droughts have worsened, and as extinctions have become increasingly frequent. And some of us have also listened as the scientific community sounded alarm bells about climate change as far back as the early 1990s. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – or the “IPCC” – is made up of scientists from every country on earth, including its two biggest polluters: the United States and China.

This renowned body presents their unanimous, peer-reviewed findings to world leaders, UN agencies and the public – and when they have, the trends they reported are grim.

In 1990, they told us that climate change was real and being exacerbated by human-caused carbon emissions, primarily from burning fossil fuels.

In 1995, they warned that concentrations of this pollution were increasing in the atmosphere and would be with us for decades, even if we stopped polluting immediately. They also warned that the long-term economic impacts of doing nothing about climate change would be dire.

In 2001, they reported the situation was getting worse and that humans are likely to be the primary cause of climate change.

In 2007, their assessment included grim findings that foreshadowed an “increased frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events.” While Climate Change did not cause these storms, it is without doubt making them more extreme and destructive. This news hits so close to home given what many of our fellow citizens are facing as they rebuild across the Gulf, Florida and the Caribbean, and as they face still more powerful storms right now.

In 2014, their most recent report, the IPCC told of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide at the highest levels in the last 800,000 years. Alongside this astonishing fact, was their conviction that human influence on the climate system is clear: it is extremely likely – with 95 to 100% probability – that human influence is the dominant cause of climate change.

These facts have been presented to the world time-and-time again for decades. Quite simply, we are knowingly doing this to ourselves, to our planet and to our future, and the cost of our inaction is becoming clearer. 

Katrina: $108 billion / Sandy: $75 billion / Harvey: estimated to top $180 billion and Irma: no one knows just yet. The Mayor of Miami Beach told me that his city spent $400 million to raise the roads and install pumps to mitigate against rising seas; the City of Miami is imposing a $1 billion tax to install similar infrastructure; Boston estimates it will need over $10 billion to do the same thing to prevent catastrophic damage from the next Sandy or Irma that hits New England. And it is not just economic. The flooding this month in India and Bangladesh have caused over 1,200 deaths and displaced up to 40 million people.

Yet with all of this evidence – the independent scientific warnings, and the mounting economic price tag – there is still an astounding level of willful ignorance and inaction from the people who should be doing the most to protect us, and every other living thing on this planet.

Last December, I met with then President-elect Trump, and the head of my Foundation Terry Tamminen, who ran the EPA for California for 7 years, presented him with a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change while harnessing the tremendous economic potential of green jobs. We talked about how the United States has the potential to lead the world in clean energy manufacturing, and research and development. In fact, with the commitments from the Paris Climate Agreement, it could be the largest domestic economic opportunity in American history.

All we would need is the political will to see it happen.

Since our meeting, the world watched as this White House appointed Scott Pruitt, a climate denier, to the role of EPA administrator, and he has since proposed a roll-back on the protection of public lands, an end to EPA's oversight responsibilities for water pollution, and threated the future of the Clean Power Plan – a key to the United States’ efforts to reduce carbon pollution. We watched as this White House pulled us back from the Paris climate agreement, the landmark blueprint for containing global emissions and slowing the increase in global temperatures, and we listened as they said that the powerful forces of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma did not change the President’s mind about Climate Change. 

I still believe that the United States has the potential to lead the world on this issue. We can only hope that the President begins to see it too, before it is too late.

The White House is not alone in perpetuating the lie that there is any doubt about the science of climate change. Florida Governor Rick Scott banned the words “climate change” and “global warming” from state business. Unfortunately, no governor is powerful enough to actually “ban” climate change, and today residents of his state are rebuilding from devastation that could have been significantly less, if the state government was busy working for solutions rather than banning words.

And energy secretary Rick Perry, as Texas Governor, also denied the science of climate change and refused to take action, and today the state he once led is struggling to recover.

This utter lack of leadership by officials who choose first, to preserve their short-term political power, rather than ensuring the livable future of our planet, means that we must all do more now than at any other time in history. We must take matters into our own hands, to stand up and stand together on the issues that unite us. As Harvard Professor Gregory Mankiw told me in Before the Flood: "when the public is convinced, the politicians will fall in line quickly."

What all politicians in every nation on earth needs to know is this: we have the technology to meet 100% of our energy needs from clean, renewable, cost-effective sources that are available RIGHT NOW. What is missing in some countries is government policies that set bold goals and more leadership from the private sector, to reach out and grab hold of this tremendous opportunity, to be the drivers of innovation – to invest in these clean jobs and understand the economic potential for the future. 

For the past day and a half here at Yale, CEOs and leaders from some of the country's biggest companies have said very much the same thing. But now we need more action. Please consider this as a call to action, a challenge, to find new ways to power your factories and stores and delivery trucks; to help your millions of employees and customers to learn the facts about climate change and what they can do in their own lives to make a difference. And in any city, state, or nation where you do business – demand that politicians accept climate science and make bold commitments to change before it's too late.           

That is where all of us come in.

Every one of us must take action. That's why I created the LDF Foundation in 1998 and, in addition to funding the protection and restoration of wild places, endangered species, oceans and indigenous rights, my foundation supports the work of the Solutions Project, a trailblazing non-profit drawing the blueprints for every state in America and many countries around the world to transition to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2050.

We are also proud to support the UN’s Climate Finance Initiative that is helping cities to invest in climate-friendly infrastructure worth billions of dollars. Things like making buildings and lighting more energy efficient; replacing dirty fossil fuels with massive solar and wind farms; and ending the concept of waste by using everything that once was buried in a landfill.

We have recently launched the Planet Pledge Fund, to use donations from forward-thinking philanthropists to invest alongside institutional investors in these kinds of large scale projects all over the world. 

And today, knowing that actions speak louder than words, on behalf of LDF, I am proud to announce $20 million dollars in new grants from my foundation to over 100 organizations at home and abroad that are on the forefront of these urgent, existential challenges.

I urge you all to join us in this effort – to get involved as much as you can. After all our very future depends on your participation. So here are 3 simple things everyone can do:

First, vote in next year’s midterm elections for political candidates who admit that climate change is real, and that it’s one of the most important issues we need to address as a nation. And make sure the next administration believes in the science of climate change and is committed to bold action.

Second, use your power as a consumer. Educate yourself about the companies that are providing the most climate-friendly products and support them. Boycott the companies that fund climate denial or that contribute to the problem with their products. 

Third, organize and support the many highly-effect NGOs and charitable organizations that are working every single day on the ground to implement climate solutions, and to defend the last wild places on our plant that help mitigate the damage from the onset of climate change.  

For the students in the audience today, I urge you to become that next great climate scientist, economist, or public servant – like our host John Kerry – and commit your career to making a difference. 

There’s a lot of helpful information about all of these ideas on my foundation's website, but my urgent message to you today is to simply.....get involved.

Finally, I wish I could stand here and tell you that the impacts of climate change, including the most gut-wrenching events we've seen this year alone, won't be a part of your future – but that's simply not the case. 

After three years of traveling the globe making Before the Flood, where I spoke to countless people from all walks of life and saw first-hand the very real impacts of climate change that are already occurring, I can tell you this:  The harsh reality is that your future, your world, will be very different than it is today. There will be complexities and challenges for the natural world and humanity that are unprecedented, but, we can keep these devastating impacts from getting even worse – we can minimize them...if we all act now.

Time is up. The current events are a global wake-up call that must be heard all the way from you, to the private sector to Washington DC. It is too late for any of us to be too timid or too ignorant or too silent. We must all take action together now.

Thank you."

Last updated September 21, 2017

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