Kerry: Americans don't need to have 'lower quality of life' to fight climate change

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Americans do not have to compromise on their quality of life in order to help prevent catastrophic climate change, special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry told Yahoo News.

When asked about the recent backlash regarding proposals to restrict the use of private jets or gas stoves, Kerry argued that no such changes are necessary in order to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“When you say ‘change your lifestyle,’ people feel, ‘Oh, you’re challenging me to have a lower quality of life,’” the former secretary of state and United States senator said in a Friday interview at Yahoo News’ New York City offices. “No, we don’t have to have a lower quality of life.”

John Kerry
Climate czar John Kerry. (Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: Ethan Hill for Yahoo News)

Even while addressing climate change, Kerry maintained, Americans will still be able to enjoy the comforts of modern life as long as they choose lower-emission alternatives as a part of their lifestyle.

“Do you have to change some of the choices you make in your life? Yeah, I have now a solar field outside the house that’s feeding the house,” Kerry said. “I drive an electric car now. I didn’t do that five years ago. And when I got in the electric car, I said, ‘Why did I wait so long?’ It’s a fabulous drive. So I think that, yes, we have to make different decisions, but they do not have to — and shouldn’t, absolutely shouldn’t — reduce the quality of life of our citizens.”

Although home solar panels and electric vehicles have long been unaffordable to many Americans, the Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Biden last year, includes subsidies for families making less than $150,000 to buy EVs, solar panels and other low-emissions technology.

But even with the passage of Biden’s new climate law, the U.S. is projected to fall short of the president’s pledge to cut emissions by 50% by 2030. Kerry acknowledged that current policies are insufficient to achieve that goal and said new initiatives are needed to speed up the switch to clean energy.

“Despite all the efforts, we’re not at the pace we need to be to meet the goals we’ve set,” Kerry conceded. “So we have to pick up the scale, pick up the efforts of transition.

“Frankly, nobody should fear this,” he added. “It’s not a challenge to our quality of life. There are great jobs in this transition. Last year, the year before, the fastest-growing job in America was wind turbine technician and the third-fastest-growing job was solar panel installer.”

Projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that over the coming decade, demand for workers in those fields will be among the fastest growing in the nation.

Kerry has been accused of hypocrisy by conservative media outlets such as Fox News for the fact that, until last summer, his wife’s family owned a plane through a charter-flight company. Studies have shown that private jets cause five to 14 times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per passenger than commercial flights. Kerry noted that he doesn’t use a private jet to travel the world meeting with other governments to work on climate change agreements.

“I didn’t fly private while I was in this job,” Kerry said. “I’ve had one, maybe two private flights, which were military flights in order to get to China during COVID, where we were forced into that, but I fly commercially.” (A spokesperson has previously stated that Kerry isn’t an owner of the company that had the airplane.)

Carbon offset programs have come under increasing scrutiny, however, with critics accusing them of overestimating their environmental benefits.

Kerry went on to say that the aviation sector will ultimately see its emissions reduced through the substitution of biofuels, which are made from feedstocks like corn and manure, for traditional jet fuel.

“We’re already moving on sustainable aviation fuel,” Kerry said. “Boeing and United and others have joined in a pledge. Now 5% of the fuel they’re going to use is going to be sustainable aviation fuel — even though it’s far more expensive than other fuel available. ... But we have to be thoughtful about [the fact that] we’re not going to suddenly wipe out every aircraft in the world and not fly.”

Similarly, Kerry suggested that gas stoves and home heating units won’t necessarily all have to be replaced with electric models, if their manufacturers can find a way of eliminating their emissions. “That’s the challenge for the industry, to capture their emissions,” the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee said.

Kerry, 79, is now a grandfather and has been in public service for the last four decades. Asked what the planet will look like when his young grandchildren are his age, he said the answer is up to the older generations.

“It depends entirely on the decisions their parents and grandparents make today,” he said. “We have it in our hands to guarantee them a healthy and strong future. We also — by virtue of indifference, arrogance, inattention — have it in our capacity also to really foul the planet beyond recognition.”

He also urged young people who will be most impacted by climate change to try to shape the future they will live in.

“Get involved,” Kerry said. “We need you desperately. Young people have, historically, in our country ... been the agents of change. ... It was kids in college who went down South and helped to break the back of Jim Crow.”

“I think that we need young people again to make sure they’re talking to their parents, their grandparents, and going out and acting on their beliefs,” he added.