John Kerry at ODU

Yesterday, around noon, Secretary of State John Kerry stopped at ODU to give an address on climate change and national security.  I went, in part because it sounded interesting and I wanted to hear what he had to say, and in part because it was just across the street and required very little effort to attend.

During the event, I live-tweeted parts of his speech that particularly struck me, as a scientist and as a graduate student.  My tweets are at the bottom of this post, but you can also check out #KerryatODU for more if you are interested.  Or, you know, just visit me on twitter.

Now that I’ve had a day or so to mull over what he said, here are some of my thoughts and reactions to his speech.  In no particular order:

  • The US has a superiority complex.  I was under the impression that most of the international community held some scorn for us – for wasting time debating climate change instead of doing something about it.  Kerry’s speech had a strong theme of the US as a world leader, especially in setting standards for emissions.  Maybe my impressions are outdated and I need to do some more research, or maybe it’s just a matter of course, that a speech from a prominent politician is based on “America is awesome” rhetoric.
  • Science isn’t that simple.  I admit, I was slightly impressed when Kerry pulled out a quick explanation of how floating ice melting does not add to sea level rise, while land ice melting does.  However, it was a glaring example to me of how the public could misinterpret science.  What he said was true, but that doesn’t mean that changing amounts of sea ice don’t matter.  Sea ice has more complex interactions with the whole climate system, including insulating the ocean and reflecting incoming solar radiation.  So, while I applaud the attempt to bring in simple science concepts, I think we actually need more acknowledgement of the complexity of climate science, and trust in the ability of scientists who are trained to understand and interpret climate change.
  • One speech isn’t enough.  There were many times during the speech where I thought to myself: good point, but what about mentioning these other associated issues?  Then I realized that this 30 minute speech was going on 45 minutes.  There is so much to say about climate change, and so many intricacies to discuss, that one speech will never be enough to cover it.  This led me to two conclusions.  One, that what he did say is a good snapshot of what the current administration is prioritizing.  And two, that it’s up to the rest of us to keep the conversation going and get the information out there.
  • A military talk for a military audience.  Norfolk, VA is a hub of military activity from all branches, and a lot of points in his speech reflected that.  The focus was not on humanitarian aid for people adversely affected by climate change.  Instead, he used the speech here to announce a new task force to analyze regions of the world that are under the combined influence of local political instability and high risk of extreme events from climate change.  Climate change doesn’t cause political instability, but it can make already unstable situations worse.  Areas that combine both factors are threats to US national security (and probably the security of other nations as well).

Overall it was an interesting speech.  I was happy to hear such a strong message of “climate change is caused by us and we need to fix it” from the US government.  And if focusing on national security and military matters is how the US becomes more involved in climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, well, that’s not a bad outcome either.  What do you think?

Here are my tweets directly from the speech (and one bonus one from ODU):