John KerryThe issue of climate change arose during Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of State yesterday and the senator provided several thoughtful comments. Senator John Barrasso initiated the discussion when he expressed concern that action on climate change “could do significant harm to the U.S. economy.” Senator Kerry replied thusly:

The solution to climate change is energy policy. And the opportunities of energy policy so vastly outweigh the downsides that you’re expressing concern about. I will spend a lot of time trying to persuade you and other colleagues of this. You want to do business and do well in America? We’ve got to get into the energy race. Other countries are in it… This is a place for us to recognize what other countries are doing and what our states that are growing are doing, which is there’s an extraordinary amount of opportunity in modernizing America’s energy grid.

First, Senator Kerry is absolutely right that the solution to climate change is energy policy. As Matthew Stepp and Jesse Jenkins detail in their Future of Global Climate Policy series, “To rapidly decarbonize the economy requires greatly accelerating the replacement of fossil fuels with low or zero-carbon clean energy substitutes.” Period.

Second, as the senator alludes, aggressively developing new clean energy technologies is not just about mitigating climate change – there are multiple long-term economic benefits. In fact, a clean energy race is ongoing and global competitors like China, Germany, and South Korea have invested billions in recent years in winning that race. Unfortunately, there are serious warning signs that America is losing.

To be sure, successfully fostering energy innovation will primarily involve domestic policy initiatives, such as institutional reform at the Energy Department, which will be out of the purview of the nation’s likely next chief diplomat. Nevertheless, Secretary of State Kerry can strike a blow for energy innovation by pressuring nations in general – and China in particular – to curtail their green mercantilist policies. As ITIF has consistently documented, China has wreaked havoc on the global clean energy market – and arguably acted against its own long-term interest – by employing a host of unfair trade practices to artificially boost its energy industry. Convincing the Chinese government to roll back mercantilist policies would help level the global playing field and thus boost efforts to innovate clean energy technologies that are both cost and performance competitive with conventional alternatives. Recognizing that energy policy is the solution to climate change, as Senator Kerry has done, is a step in the right direction. Recognizing that energy policy is the solution to climate change, as Senator Kerry has done, is a step in the right direction. The next step is designing and employing the right kinds of energy policy, both here in the United States and around the world.