The Secretary of State is the frontal lobe of US foreign policy—managing the country’s diplomatic nervous system and its relationships with every other nation in the world. The vast majority of that work is slow and subtle: chipping away at a humanitarian crisis here, greasing the wheels of progress there. Occasionally a big one comes along, something that deals with the whole world, forcing the whole diplomatic brain to work to produce a universal agreement.
The Paris Climate Agreement was perhaps the biggest of all biggies. The UN treaty, drafted last December and set to go into full force this November, seeks to limit the most devastating effects of global warming through a combination of drastic emissions cuts and socio-structural adaptations. This Earth Day, John Kerry signed the treaty, the first time in history the US has officially begun thinking, and therefore acting, in concert with the rest of the world on climate change. In the video above, he discusses the implications with WIRED’s deputy editor Adam Rogers.
Here’s what the US is in for: cutting between 26 and 28 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions (based on 2005 emissions levels) by 2025. This is going to require a massive restructuring of the country’s energy infrastructure. Nobody is quite sure exactly how it will look, but in broad strokes coal, oil, and natural gas have got to go. Meeting the Paris goals is also going to require industry-wide changes in agriculture, automotive, commercial air travel, marine shipping, construction, manufacturing, and pretty much every other way people make a living in this country.
President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is the keystone to these goals, as it effectively forces the energy sector to transition from coal to cleaner fuel sources. That plan, however, is currently in legal limbo. And even if it wins the challenges that have been brought forth by numerous Republican-led states and business groups, it (along with a suite of lesser regulations) probably still falls short of meeting the US’s 2025 emissions reduction goal. And that doesn’t even begin to address what might happen if Donald Trump—who believes climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese—wins the November presidential election.
Which is why diplomacy is so important. With the Paris Agreement in effect, the US is obligated to uphold its end of the bargain. Climate change is now a front-line global issue, affecting everything from trade to geopolitics. If the US reneges now, it loses the world’s trust—and possibly the world’s business. That should be enough to make any future president stop and think.