US Secretary of State John Kerry gestures upon his arrival at Le Bourget airport in the outskirts of Paris, Monday, Dec. 7, 2015.

Image: Mandel Ngan/Associated Press

PARIS — The United States is in favor of incorporating an ambitious 1.5-degree Celsius warming limit into the climate agreement at the ongoing U.N. Climate Summit in Paris, also known as COP21, provided that the aspirational language wouldn't replace the previously agreed-upon 2-degree target, Secretary of State John Kerry told Mashable on Monday.


Speaking in a Facebook Live interview, Kerry said he is sympathetic to the the position of small island states, as well as other nations that are more vulnerable to climate impacts. Those countries are seeking the more ambitious climate target, instead of the already agreed-upon target of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels through 2100.

“I think we should embrace it as a legitimate aspiration," Kerry said of the more ambitious goal. But though the U.S. would favor including wording that supports a 1.5-degree limit, it wants to keep the official target at 2 degrees to ensure broader support for the climate deal.

"I mean anything we can do to go below 2 [degrees] is to the benefit, so we shouldn’t say, 'No, don’t even think about it,'" Kerry said. "But I don’t think we can make it the embraced targetable goal because we lose people when we head that way, and we want to keep this moving in the right direction.”

Secretary of State John Kerry joins #EarthToParis.

Posted by Mashable on Monday, December 7, 2015

Other countries at the Paris talks, namely Saudi Arabia, have sought to keep references to 1.5 degrees Celsius out of the agreement. In fact, Saudi Arabia has fought any inclusion of conclusions from a U.N. panel that examined a 1.5-degree target and found it to be less risky than if the climate were to warm by a global average of 2 degrees Celsius. That report was requested at a previous round of climate negotiations.

Representatives of the small island countries and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, some members of which believe that their very survival is on the line in a Paris agreement, have adopted the slogan "1.5 to stay alive" and made sure it has permeated the climate talks both inside the halls of the negotiating site in Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris, as well as around the world.

Kerry, who was speaking just two hours after arriving in Paris from the U.S., said a Paris agreement could stimulate a massive shift in the private sector, away from fossil fuel investment and into clean energy research, development and deployment. He said if the world follows through on provisions in a potential agreement, it's still possible to hold global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius in the long run.

Marshall Islands

This Nov. 8, 2015 aerial photo shows a small section of the atoll that has slipped beneath the water line only showing a small pile of rocks at low tide on Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Image: Rob Griffith/Associated Press

However, many scientific studies show this would require a herculean effort involving negative carbon emissions sometime between 2050 and the year 2100.

“I believe we get to ... 2 degrees or less, and that is sufficient to being able to protect the island nations and other low-lying nations from the worst effects,” Kerry said.

“We’re already stuck, unfortunately, because of the delays that have taken place with some level of [climate adaptation], and so I’m very sympathetic with every one of those countries" that are seeking 1.5 degrees as the climate target, Kerry said.

He said the more ambitious target would break the consensus that is emerging around an agreement:

"I think we also have to think about how do we build the consensus that gets everyone on board with an agreement, and for some countries that might wind up being a bridge too far but we should embrace it as a legitimate goal, as an aspiration, without tying us to something that is unachievable at this point.”

Later, during a Q&A with Mashable at the Earth to Paris event held at Le Petit Palais, in conjunction with the U.N. Foundation and other organizations, Kerry described the 1.5-degree target as something to be taken note of in the agreement, rather than the agreement's central goal.

"It needs to be an adjunct to the notion that the formal goal of the agreement is 2 degrees, but yes, we all need to take note that it would be better if we can move in the direction of some further reduction," Kerry said. "And I think that would be a way of trying to get the best of both worlds, because we still have to get consensus from a lot of countries for whom the whole picture is going to be very important."

Kerry has long been a fixture at climate summits, dating back to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 that led to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Now, 21 climate summits later (hence the numeral in "COP21"), he says this time is different, with far greater likelihood of succeeding.

“Now is the time, this is the moment,” he said.

One feature of this climate summit that was absent all the ones that have come before it is that there is a large, diverse and global activist movement pushing leaders to act, and businesses from Google to Amazon working to reduce their emissions. These ingredients should help COP21 succeed, Kerry said.

"I’ve been at this a long time, I was in Kyoto when we did the mandatory reductions, and countries were too distrusting of each other to be able to do it that way. Now the science has grown, people are much more persuaded," he said.

Kerry speaks out on climate finance, legal status of agreement

In addition to the temperature target, other sticking points in the climate talks that still need to be resolved include the agreement's legal nature as well as its financial aid provisions. Kerry addressed both issues on Monday.

Kerry said the U.S. is pushing for language that provides for all countries to contribute to financial aid for countries affected by climate impacts.

"... It is time to get rid of this rigid differentiation between developed and developing [countries] in a way that has – that prevents us from maximizing our progress forward," he said.

"The world has changed and Paris needs to reflect that change," he said, noting that at the time of previous climate talks South Korea had been receiving aid from the U.S., but it now provides aid to other countries as it has grown economically. "It is an absolute fact that the developing countries are the majority of emissions," he said.

Kerry said the U.S. and other developed countries need to live up to the previous agreement struck in Copenhagen in 2009 to provide at least $100 billion in climate finance a year by 2020. "We have our obligation and we need to live up to it," he said.

"Going beyond that, I believe we need to find a way to continue that kind of contribution because there are countries out there that don't have the money" to fund programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to global warming impacts.

He said a critical component of a COP21 agreement, however, will be to allow for commercial partnerships and other financial deals between nations of all sizes that help to address climate change.

Kerry's comments come as ministers on hand for the final phase of the climate talks begin to grapple with climate finance, which is an issue that is likely to go down to the wire at these talks. Developing countries are skeptical about the U.S. stance on this issue, as well as that of other industrialized countries, because only about $64 billion of the $100 billion called for in 2009 has so far been committed.

He also provided insight into why U.S. negotiators have been particularly sensitive about inserting language into the proposed agreement that would require the U.S. to take particular actions. The word "shall" has come under particular scrutiny, for example.

"Well, the frank and simple answer is that certain legal – certain terms have legal impact and certain legal impacts have political impact, and certain political impact can kill the agreement," Kerry said.

The Obama administration is aiming to avoid the need to submit a Paris deal to the Senate for ratification, since the Republican-controlled chamber would almost certainly vote it down.
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