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John Kerry: Capitalism, not government, is likely to lead shift to green economy

In March, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry participated in the Doha Forum in Qatar.KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

If the world wants to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the most disastrous effects of the climate crisis, its success will likely hinge — at least in part — on “good old capitalism,” former secretary of state John Kerry said Thursday.

Some governments, including here in Massachusetts, continue to eye a suite of options to accelerate deployment of green technologies and shift away from the carbon production that fuels a warming atmosphere. And while Kerry said he sees elected officials playing an important role, he emphasized that the private sector can have a “far more powerful” impact.


“I believe no politician can turn the clock back on what is happening now. I think the marketplace has seized this,” Kerry said during a Massachusetts Institute of Technology event. “When you have a trillion dollars in venture capital moving toward battery storage or green hydrogen or electrolyzers or carbon capture or utilization of some kind, there is money to be made in that.”

The longtime US senator from Massachusetts, who today serves as the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, voiced a combination of concern and optimism about the global outlook during a livestreamed “fireside chat” with MIT President Rafael Reif.

“Climate change has been called a ‘super wicked’ problem. In Boston, that might sound like a local way of saying ‘really hard,’ but this phrase is actually a technical term,” Reif said. “It describes any enormously complex societal problem that has no single right answer and no clear finish line as well as multiple stakeholders with conflicting priorities and no central authority empowered to solve it.”

Leaders will need to simultaneously accelerate rollout of existing tools and speed up development of new options to cut back on carbon emissions in order to limit the planet’s rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius, Kerry said.


Kerry said he remains worried about the gap between current capacity and what the world will need in later years of its response, even if it achieves net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“We do have the technology we need now to do what we need to do between now and 2030, but we don’t have the technology we need to guarantee we can get to net-zero by 2050 and do what we have to do after that,” Kerry said. “Even if we get to net-zero by 2050, if you want an awesome problem, we have to take 1.9 trillion or so tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere and figure out what we’re going to do with it and where we’re going to put it.”

Massachusetts lawmakers enshrined a net-zero by 2050 target into statute last year, and debate continues on additional policy changes and spending options to force the large-scale shift away from sources of dirty emissions.

The Bay State is poised to be an epicenter of the burgeoning offshore wind industry, and Kerry said the prospect of rapid growth, new jobs, and profits will play an important role in achieving economywide shifts toward a green future.

“It is going to happen, in my judgment, and one of the reasons is good old capitalism,” Kerry said. “People are going to see that they can make money doing this and the marketplace is going to move.”

He called it “essential” for Congress to enact a climate bill this year, arguing that allocating roughly $500 billion for climate crisis response “would really be a shot in the arm.”


And while he stressed the importance of government leadership and incentives, Kerry said he believes the public sector does not have the financial muscle it would need to achieve success without buy-in from the private sector.

“What keeps exciting me and the reason I keep at it is: we can do this. We can win this battle, actually,” Kerry said. “But there has to be a massive change in behavior and a shift in the allocation of capital. I think the marketplace has a better chance of enticing that shift than does the government, absent perhaps one tool the government could put in place quickly. That would be the investment tax credits and the production tax credits.”

Pointing to projections from the International Energy Agency, Kerry said the pace of change so far has been far slower than needed on cutting coal power, expanding renewable energy and putting electric cars on the road.

“We have to mobilize as if we’re at war,” Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, said.

The biggest obstacles along the way, in Kerry’s mind, are familiar ones: politics and those who enjoy the status quo, factors that have left him “frustrated and exasperated.”

Without naming Republicans directly, the Massachusetts Democrat lamented the “very, very difficult situation in our country today where an entire party has decided the concept of climate response is toxic.”