WASHINGTON – Secretary of State John Kerry, who has attempted to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and tried to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine, on Monday also announced a major conference aimed at improving the health of the world’s oceans.
The conference, which will be held June 16-17 at the State Department, will include foreign ministers from around the world to discuss pollution, fishing policies, and the impact that climate change is having on the oceans.
It marks yet another major topic that Kerry is adding to his portfolio, this one a subject that has long been a personal passion but also the source of political frustration. Kerry in recent months has taken an increasingly urgent and at times combative tone while discussing climate change.
Kerry announced the conference in an online video, citing the powerful connection he formed with the ocean while growing up in Massachusetts.
“The ocean fuels our trade, it provides much of the food we eat, the air we breathe . . . but today, this incredible resource is threatened,” said Kerry, whose ancestors were sea merchants and whose father was a recreational fisherman and sailor who several times sailed across the Atlantic. “It’s threatened by unsustainable fishing, by pollution, by climate change. Indeed, how we respond to these challenges is literally going to help determine the future of our planet.”
The conference will include 400 senior policy makers, researchers, and scientists from about 90 countries, according to the State Department. Senior department officials said this will be the first time a secretary of state has hosted an oceans conference of this magnitude.
The theme of the conference is “Our Ocean,” and the goal is to create not just a discussion but to encourage individuals and governments to take more action. Individuals, for example, will be asked to sign pledges to know where the fish they eat came from, while governments may join together to create marine protected areas.
Kerry had discussed with his staff hosting a similar conference while he was chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. After taking over as secretary of state, he raised the issue again.
Initially he wanted to have the conference last June, but his staff told him that was too soon after he began his new duties in early 2013. A second target date of October was canceled when the federal government shut down due to a congressional budget impasse.
Aides say Kerry himself has been involved in putting together the agenda, asking key specialists to attend and pushing his staff to nail down dates.
Kerry has long prided himself on environmental activism, but much of his first year as secretary of state was dominated by conflict in the Middle East. He was at the center of how to respond to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. He also tried to engineer talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, an effort that has come close to collapsing in recent weeks.
On the environmental front, Kerry’s legacy as secretary of state may be more strongly shaped by his role in recommending whether the Obama administration should approve the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would transport tar sands oil from Canada to Gulf of Mexico refineries.
Environmentalists oppose the project. The State Department last week indefinitely delayed its review of the project while the Nebraska Supreme Court decides a case that could affect its path. The delay could mean Kerry won’t make a recommendation until after the 2014 congressional elections.
Kerry was a member of a US delegation at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the first major meeting on international climate change, and he has been to most global conferences on the topic since. He met his future wife, Teresa, at an Earth Day rally. In 2007, Kerry and his wife wrote a book together called “This Moment on Earth: Today’s New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future.”
In 2009, he crafted the Senate’s most ambitious response to threats of climate change, legislation that would have established a cap-and-trade system on US emissions of greenhouse gases. The legislation failed, which Kerry told the Globe last year was one of the biggest regrets of his Senate career.
“Probably the finest piece of legislation I did didn’t get enacted into law yet,” Kerry said just before he became secretary of state.
In that role, Kerry has emphasized climate change and has often spoken about its impacts. His language in recent months has become more pointed. During a speech in Indonesia in February, he said those who question climate change are “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”
“We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and science and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific facts,” Kerry said. “Nor should we allow any room for those who think that the costs associated with doing the right thing outweigh the benefits.”
Kerry has also spoken about oceans being degraded by pollution, overfishing, and greenhouse gas emissions.
“The good news is we know exactly what is threatening our oceans, and we have a very good understanding of what we need to do in order to deal with these threats,” he told participants in a climate conference in February. But, he added, “We don’t yet have the political consensus or the urgency translated into political action.”