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John Kerry urges MIT audience to lead the way to a clean energy future

“No nation will do well sitting on the sidelines choking on the fumes generated by obsolete technologies,” secretary of state says.

By Amy MacMillan Bankson  |  January 9, 2017

2016-Kerry

John F. Kerry. Photo: Bryce Vickmark

With his days in office waning, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry appealed to the scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs in the MIT community to aggressively pursue solutions to climate change.

Kerry spoke to an audience of approximately 200 people at the MIT Samberg Conference Center today, urging his listeners to work quickly to solve the climate change dilemma regardless of the changing presidential administration.

“The truth is, climate change should not be a partisan issue,” Kerry said, noting that glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate and sea levels are raising three times faster than they did last century. The past year was the hottest year on record.

Crediting progress at the state and local levels around the country, Kerry applauded his home state of Massachusetts, which has solar installations in 350 of its 351 towns. Since 2011, the state’s Clean Energy Results Program has advanced environmental protection by developing and promoting renewable energy goals.

Boston will host the third annual U.S.-China Climate Summit this year. Kerry emphasized that local efforts, including those by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who was in the audience, will be essential for future progress.

While Kerry said The Paris Agreement, a deal to limit the rise in global temperature reached by 195 countries in 2015, will not be enough to stop climate change on its own, he called it a “clear signal” to the marketplace about the future of energy.

Kerry said that over the last decade, the global energy renewables market has expanded dramatically, and investments in renewable energy reached nearly $350 billion. He cited President Obama’s efforts and said Congress collaborated in an “unusual bipartisan fashion” on tax credits for renewable energy. In 2016, U.S. investment in renewable power generation totaled nearly $33 billion.

Kerry predicted job growth in the clean energy sector would be driven by global market demand, saying that the energy curve is “bending toward sustainability.”

“It’s not a question of whether we will transition to a new economy. We will,” Kerry said. The question is whether we can accelerate the transition, he said. “No nation will do well sitting on the sidelines choking on the fumes generated by obsolete technologies,” he said.

Kerry joins faculty for discussion on future of work
Kerry, who was a U.S. senator in Massachusetts for 28 years, was introduced by MIT Sloan Dean David Schmittlein and MIT Vice President of Research Maria Zuber. After the talk, Zuber led a roundtable discussion on “The Future of Work” with Kerry and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

Kerry-Blinken John Kerry and Antony Blinken discussed the intersection of foreign policy and innovation in The Future of Work roundtable following the address. Photo: State Department

MIT Sloan professor Tom Kochan, who attended the session, said he was heartened that the U.S. State Department sees both the issue of climate change and the future of work within its domain. Kochan said Kerry listened intently and asked questions of the panel of approximately 20 MIT faculty members, researchers, and industry experts.

Kochan said he believes there is a need for collaboration among business, educational, and policy leaders to tackle the challenges facing the workforce as the economy evolves. Although Kochan said it’s impossible to know what the change in administration will mean for the State Department, he said he has “enormous faith” that dialogue will continue with staff members in places such as the Department of Labor.

MIT researcher Andrew McAfee agreed that the “discussion will not vanish” in light of a new administration.

“One of the encouraging things is that the interest in the future of work is growing. We had a very productive discussion,” said McAfee, who led a brief talk on technological displacement and job creation. “I think it’s increasingly clear that we have this really interesting combination of tectonic forces shaping the economy … the nature of work is changing, and there are some real challenges. The biggest [challenge] for me is how are we going to keep the American dream alive and well in a broad time of change?”