John Kerry's Question--Past, Present, and Future

by Michael C. Dorf

Before John Kerry was climate czar, before he was the Secretary of State who brought the US to the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate agreement, before he was the Democratic Presidential candidate who was unfairly attacked by the fatuously named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and even before he was a US Senator from Massachusetts, Kerry was a multiply decorated young naval officer serving in Vietnam. He came to national prominence nearly fifty years ago when he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry famously asked, "how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

The question was urgent then. A variation of it is urgent now--both in the ongoing battle against COVID-19 and for the at-least-equally-urgent-and-ultimately-even-higher-stakes battle with climate change that Kerry will now spearhead for the US.

When the young John Kerry posed his question, he was objecting to the Nixon administration's policy of continuing to fight the Vietnam War simply to save face, even as no achievable strategic objectives were in sight. Kerry's question highlighted a grim fact about all wars, one made famous as well by the closing passage of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (spoiler alert). With what was then known as the Great War drawing to a close, Paul, hitherto the first-person narrator, is killed. Every death in war is tragic, of course, but the last deaths fought for a lost cause after it is apparent the cause is lost are particularly poignant, because they seem especially pointless.

As in war, so in peace. Like many others, for close to a year now, I have followed the daily COVID-19 death toll and infection rate. I attend to the absolute numbers but also the trends. Thus, I have been somewhat encouraged in the last week or so to see that the worst wave thus far appears to have crested in the US, with new infections and deaths both trending downwards. That trend could reverse if one of the more contagious strains takes hold, if vaccination efforts continue to be hampered by poor planning, inadequate funding, and lack of coordination, and/or if people prematurely relax their masking, social distancing, and other hygienic protocols.

Yet even if everything goes well, even if everything goes better than expected, tens of thousands more people will die and equal or larger numbers will face sustained health challenges due to "long COVID." Those deaths and illnesses will have something of the poignancy of the avoidable deaths that young Lieutenant Kerry warned about. Indeed, some of them will be the result of mistakes: here a healthy twenty-one-year-old bored of life at home who goes to a bar, becomes infected, and unwittingly transmits the virus to the grandmother who lives in his household; there a school board that prematurely resumes full-contact sports without implementing rigorous testing, tracing, and quarantining, and before all the coaches, referees, and adults who live with the student-athletes have been vaccinated.

Public health experts have been warning for months that vaccination, while extremely useful, is not a silver bullet. It's certainly not a speeding bullet. If widespread vaccination is the best tool we have to work our way out of our current condition, it is equally true that we need our other tools as well.

The converse may also be true and applicable to other contexts--especially the prospect of environmental catastrophe that Kerry, now an elder statesman, confronts in his new role. Just as it is a mistake to give up prematurely on prosaic approaches to a problem in the hope that a dramatic advance will render them unnecessary, so it is a mistake to refuse to search for a game-changer merely because it seems unlikely.

Perhaps that's too oblique. Let me explain with a story. By the late 1980s, a consensus had already emerged that human activity was causing global warming and that without dramatic changes, the results would be catastrophic. I remember a conversation I had with a friend in which I expressed concern that the forecasts looked dire. My friend--who was a libertarian--scoffed. He didn't doubt the science, he said, but he assumed that the same human ingenuity that had led to the problem would be turned to solving it. Someone somewhere would invent a machine that would prevent global warming.

My friend was not stupid, but his viewpoint was quite obviously shortsighted. The fact that science has solved some problems in the past is no guarantee it will solve all future problems. And some of the problems science solved--like how to live in very cold or very hot climates, how to traverse long distances quickly, etc.--were themselves the sources of the very problem at issue.

In the thirty-plus years since my libertarian friend placed his faith in science, conventional wisdom has generally gone in the opposite direction: there will be no silver bullet, no single technology that reverses climate change by suctioning excess carbon from the atmosphere and returns the Earth to pre-industrial temperatures; instead, we must dramatically reduce our carbon emissions by adopting a variety of cleaner technologies, traveling less, changing our diet, etc. I certainly endorse all of those and other measures that can be taken at an individual level and encouraged through government actions such as regulations, carbon taxes, and other means.

Unfortunately, all of that may not be enough. It may already be too late for reductions in new carbon emissions to lead to the stabilization of Earth's temperature at a livable point due to feedback mechanisms that might have passed the point of no return--such as the melting of permafrost that releases methane that warms the atmosphere that in turn melts more permafrost.

If it is too late for even dramatic reductions in carbon emissions to reverse global warming, that is not a reason to abandon such efforts that aim at such reductions. On the contrary, reductions can mitigate the damage and slow the pace of warming in order to buy time for research that aims to find a magic bullet. Is there one? Could we develop technologies that pull carbon out of the air quickly enough?

"Technologies" as used in that last sentence is a misnomer as applied to some of the more prosaic approaches--like planting more trees. But if that is not enough, we may need more sophisticated mechanisms. Researchers are currently working on potentially promising ideas, some of which could even prove lucrative. That said, the extremely high stakes--essentially the continuation of complex animal life on Earth without a several-million-year interruption--justify more aggressive and coordinated action.

The good news coming out of the pandemic is that we have learned that properly incentivized private actors (Pfizer, Moderna, etc.) acting under the supervision of a government willing to spend freely can accomplish things previously thought unachievable. The push for a COVID-19 vaccine will take its place in history alongside the Manhattan Project as leading examples of what government can do to promote technological breakthroughs. That lesson can and should be applied to global warming.

Exactly how to do so is not entirely clear. One can give out relatively small awards to decentralized actors working on a wide variety of projects. That's how Prince William's Earthshot Prize is structured. But while that's a great idea, it's relatively small potatoes, on a scale with the sort of thing one would expect from private philanthropists. Even the most well-heeled philanthropists recognize that only governments have sufficient resources to tackle the problem at scale.

To this point, most climate activists have looked away from technological efforts to scrub carbon from the atmosphere for fear that unwarranted faith in such technologies would lead to complacency with respect to conservation. They were not wrong to worry, but just as it should be possible to continue to wear our masks while waiting for herd immunity, so it should be possible to bike or take the bus to work rather than drive while waiting for some brilliant engineer to invent a solar-powered machine that sucks carbon out of the atmosphere and turns it into diamonds.