REMARKS: Secretary of State John Kerry at the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council Reception (May 21)

Benjamin Franklin Room
Washington, D.C.

SECRETARY KERRY:  Thank you very much.  Well, Admiral Papp, thank you for a way over the top introduction, which I’ll take any day of the year.  (Laughter.)  We don’t get enough of those in public life.

I want you all to know I began sailing when I was about five years old, which was way before Jack Kennedy became President of the United States, so – (laughter) – it was no model there.  It was my dad, actually, who dragged me out and let sail, crossed the ocean several times, actually, as a sailor.

I knew somehow Admiral Papp was going to get some icebreakers into that introduction, too.  (Laughter.)  But we need him, and I’m honored that so many coasties are here.  Thank you all very much.  And Navy, if you’re in there, we appreciate it very, very – whoops.  What happened?  Well, it’s not a sign of the times, I want you to know.  (Laughter.)  It rolled way out there.  That’s all right.  Don’t worry about it.  Seriously, don’t worry about it.  I have the job without that, so – (laughter).

I am really thrilled to see so many of you here.  I mean that.  We did not know who would respond to this sort of call to gather only a short time after the passing of the gavel in Iqaluit, and we’re deeply grateful to our friends from Canada for their great stewardship and for helping our team so much – Admiral Papp and company – to be able to do that in a seamless way and with a great deal of cooperation with respect to the agenda ahead.  I know Lynne Yelich, minister at the House of Commons, is here tonight.  Lynne, I don’t know where you are.  Where’s your hand?  But you’re representing Chair Leona Aglukkaq, and we’re very grateful to you.  And thank you to Canada for all you did, and we appreciate your being here today.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

And I had a chance before we came out here to present a couple of certificates of appreciation to Susan Harper and to Vincent Rigby, who’s the chair of the Arctic officials, and we’re very grateful for their stewardship.  They were really the ones who worked so closely and helped to pass that baton, and I say thank you to them.

I also want to say I talked to Foreign Minister Lavrov earlier this morning.  We did talk a little about the Arctic.  And he couldn’t be here because Prime Minister Abadi is in Moscow, but he is 100 percent looking forward to working with us and committed – Moscow – you all saw that they indicated they’re going to sign the treaty.  And we are looking forward to that continued participation.

But I’ll tell you there is no greater test of the collegiality of this council – or, frankly, of a personal gesture of friendship and support for this effort – than the three foreign ministers who have traveled to be here all this distance, one of whom came all the way from Tel Aviv in Israel, where he was on a visit.  I’m talking about the distinguished foreign minister from Norway, Borge Brende.  Thank you so much for your being here and making that effort.  (Applause.)  The foreign minister of Iceland, Gunnar Sveinsson – they’re right here.  Thank you so much for being part – raise your hand so everybody can see you.  (Applause.)  There you are.  And my friend from Finland, who announced to me because of the change of government this will be his sort of last journey here for the moment as a foreign minister, but Erkki Tuomioja – where are you?  Erkki.  There he is.  Thank you very, very much.  (Applause.)  Thanks for being here.

And we’re privileged to have our ambassador from Canada who does such a great job here, Gary Doer.  Thank you, Gary, for being here.  And the American ambassador to Canada, Bruce Heyman – Bruce, thank you for being here very, very much.  Appreciate it.  (Applause.)

I want to begin by saying that I love a man who can’t say no to serving when he’s asked to.  And when I called him literally the night before he was about to retire, I didn’t know whether I was on a fool’s mission, in the sense that he already had his life planned out and he was locked in and clear where he was going to go.  But what a terrific phone call that turned out to be, and what a stroke for all of us that the admiral is prepared to continue almost doing what he was doing in many ways, only with a closer, more narrowed focus, but on a focus of passion and a focus of his own heart.  He is 100 percent into this, my friends.  And after years – you don’t become commandant of the Coast Guard without years of extraordinary service, and now he is putting in overtime, so to speak.  We’re deeply appreciative to Admiral Papp.  Thank you for being our special representative to the Arctic.  Appreciate it.  (Applause.)

And I want to join the admiral in welcoming all of you who are here – friends from the diplomatic community, the Executive Branch, Capitol Hill.  I want to introduce two senators.  The senator from Maine, Angus King, is here somewhere, over there.  (Applause.)  Angus, thank you for being here.  (Applause.)  And from Alaska, the senator from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, is here.  (Applause.)  And I am deeply appreciative to both of them.  They have started the Arctic caucus in the United States Senate.  They took the time to travel with me when we went to Iqaluit and took on the chairmanship.  It helped us – I think it helped them – to get a sense of the energy and enthusiasm that exists for this enterprise.  And we will need the United States Senate and the Congress, and we’re deeply appreciative for your leadership.

I also thank the folks from the private sector, from the scientific, from the academic worlds, worlds of academia who are here, especially those of you, literally, who have traveled thousands of miles to be with us this evening.  And we’re very grateful you could make it.

For those of you who haven’t been here before, this is sort of the great hall of our State Department, where we are privileged to entertain foreign dignitaries or have events like this.  The room was named for Benjamin Franklin, and you can see him up there on the wall above the fireplace.  He had something to say about just about everything except the Arctic.  (Laughter.)  But there is a connection.  And that is, during his storied career – and it was a remarkable career and he is really known as sort of the first diplomat, if you will, the founder of the diplomatic service – he crossed the Atlantic many times back when it was not an easy task, my friends.  And if you read the history of John Adams and his young son leaving Massachusetts to sail over to become ambassador, and literally escaping a British frigate and pumping down in the hold to keep the ship afloat because it sprung a leak, this was hairy business – these guys, the way they did this.

And he loved to fill up the hours at sea by conducting experiments with water temperature.  And he used the most sophisticated equipment of the era, which was a thermometer put in a bucket.  And he would lower the bucket into the waves, and with help from a Nantucket sea captain who happened to be his cousin – Franklin, actually, was raised partly by an aunt on Nantucket – he became the first person to publish, as a result of his findings, a chart of what he called “a river in the ocean,” which, of course, we know as the Gulf Stream.  So it’s a powerful current that affects all of our climate, including the conditions in the Arctic itself.  So without knowing it – he didn’t talk about it, but he did something about it.  (Laughter.)

And there is, of course, a second connection between Franklin and this reception.  And that is that he liked to have a really good time, folks.  (Laughter.)  And he didn’t spare the booze, and while he was in Paris he led a life that clearly meant that had he lived today and been nominated, he would never have been confirmed for office.  (Laughter.)  Anyway, it just goes to show how the times change.  (Laughter.)

So I’m not going to give a long speech.  I just want to say a few words about this wonderful opportunity to take over this chairmanship, which I totally respect, is a consensus-driven structure and will stay that way, obviously, and which is really a moment of stewardship.  It’s a shared responsibility.  It’s a rotating chair.  We get to be chair; we bring some ideas to the table, but none of them work if we don’t have the same collegiate spirit that brought these three great foreign ministers here to Washington tonight.  That’s the spirit with which we approach this.

And the council is a unique body.  It was established to find practical solutions to some very daunting and rapidly growing challenges, and the United States is really thrilled to take its turn in the chair with a goal of passing the baton on with all of us heading in the same direction and with a great sense of responsibility.

Our priorities include Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship.  It includes improved economic conditions for the living conditions of folks in the Arctic communities, and that is a critical concern – indigenous population and what development or changes in the environment might do to those folks.  They’re 4 million strong living there for centuries, and believe me, they are an essential part of everything that is critical to the region.

So I begin by being very clear that every nation that cares about the future of the Arctic has to be a leader in taking and urging others to move forward with bold initiatives and immediate, ambitious steps to curb the impact of greenhouse gases.

A few minutes ago we were talking in the back room with my fellow foreign ministers about the importance of our responsibility on climate change and the difficulty of getting people in public life to link in reality to the daunting impacts that the potential catastrophe that comes with that change could bring to people.  It’s hard to fathom and it’s hard to grab on, and for a lot of people it’s easier to shove it off and either pretend it’s not happening or let it – somebody else is going to take care of it.

It’s not going to work that way.  And if we don’t do this, the current trends of record temperatures – almost every year is a record set ahead of the last year, and that’s true for the last 10 or 11 years.  It’s not an anomaly.  And we also know that the thawing permafrost, which is releasing methane, which is 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide, has its own negative impacts, not to mention the impact on living conditions for the people who live there and rely on the frozen tundra and so forth.

Moreover, you have huge acidification that comes, and we’re seeing the increase of that acidification.  And scientists are telling us there’s an impact on krill, which is critical to whales and critical to ocean life.  And so the cycle itself can be broken here, once again, conceivably by the impact of human beings and the absence of wise stewardship and, in fact, sustainable development practices.

Extreme weather events, which we’re seeing more and more of – we spent about 110 billion or so last year in the United States of America for one year’s damages.  I mean, you think, if you start accruing that on an annualized basis, folks, the kind of input we’re talking about in order to put out technology that could reduce those impacts or limit them altogether is miniscule compared to those damages and to what will happen as property disappears, as insurance rates go up, as whole nations like islands in the Maldives or the Seychelles or other places, in fact, are threatened by sea level rise.  There’s no mystery to what any of this means.

And so we also see the loss of sea ice, meaning coastal disruptions and storm surges, and in lower latitudes the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which has real impact because it’s currently above water, on ground.  And as that water enters the ocean – or the whole ice sheet or parts of it might start to break off – you are going to see some serious impacts.  So nobody can afford to be passive on this issue, and that’s what brings us to the table in this effort for these two years.  The responsibility the Arctic Council has to the people who live in the region – as beautiful as it is, it is not just a picturesque landscape.  It’s a home.  It’s a lifestyle.  It has a history.  And those folks deserve as much respect for that as anybody else in any other habitat on the earth.

Over the next years, we’re going to focus on the well-being of the indigenous communities, and we’re going to take into account that the melting of the ice is now opening up the possibilities of a great deal more commercial traffic, a great deal more tourism – eco-tourism or otherwise – and a great deal more shipping, fishing, and commercial operations, particularly possibility of extraction of minerals from the ocean and the possibility of conflict as people engage in staking claims for that.  So there’s a lot at stake, which is why President Obama did undertake to articulate this in the context of the Coast Guard graduation yesterday.  So we have to implement the framework that we have developed to reduce emissions of black carbon and methane in the Arctic, and at the same time we have to foster economic development that will raise living standards and help make renewable energy sources the choice for everybody.

So everybody in this room is connected to the Arctic somehow.  That’s what brought you here today.  And I think there’s an extraordinary degree of unity of purpose in our beginnings here and in our being here.  We want a region where people can live with hope and optimism for the future, where strong measures are being taken to mitigate environmental harm, where natural resources are managed effectively and sustainably, and where the challenges of economic development and social cohesion are being addressed in a creative, sensitive, responsible way.  Above all, we want a region where every stakeholder has a voice and a role in making the idea of one Arctic a reality.  And I want to thank each of you for the contributions that you are making to this effort and that you will make over the course of these years.

It’s my pleasure now to introduce to you somebody who has probably gained the title as the guest who came the furthest even.  Forgive me.  It’s only the second visit that Byron Nicholai has made to the Lower 48, as it’s called, and it’s his first to the East Coast.  And the reason it’s his first is he only just turned 17 years old, folks.  (Laughter.)  Byron’s home is the village of Toksook Bay in Alaska, where he was a star basketball player.  He was the leader of the high school drum group.  And as we will soon see and hear, he also sings.  And when he posted a song on Facebook, his world suddenly got a lot bigger.  (Laughter.)  After graduation, Byron hopes to do more traveling to teach students about his culture and hopefully to inspire them to learn more about their ancestral traditions.  Tonight he is here to help us celebrate the next chapter in the work of the Arctic Council.  And unity is our watchword, so please put your hands together and welcome Byron.  (Applause.)

(Mr. Nicholai performs three songs.)

SECRETARY KERRY:  That was wonderful.  What a strong, resonant, extraordinary voice.  And most importantly, thank you for really not just giving a person and a face to the Arctic, but also a voice and especially a spirit.  And I think everybody here is deeply appreciative for you coming and singing.  Thank you so much.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Have a good time, everybody.

Oh, I’ve just been handed a note.  I wasn’t aware of this; I apologize.  But the Swedish Minister for Research and Higher Education Hellmark Knutsson is here.  Where is she?  There.  Thank you so much.  (Applause.)  Thank you very, very much.  Thank you.

Folks, now you get to the Ben Franklin part of the party.  Have fun.