Secretary of State John Kerry injected some stridency into the Obama administration's environmental advocacy on Sunday when he delivered a speech on the need for a coordinated, international response to climate change.
"The science is unequivocal. And those who refuse to believe it are simply burying their heads in the sand," he said in Jakarta, Indonesia. "Now, President Obama and I believe very deeply that we do not have time for a meeting anywhere of the Flat Earth Society."
The White House has been signalling a major push on climate change policy for months, but rarely have administration officials rejected denialism in such strongly worded terms. Nor have they discussed the potential effects of global warming with such specificity and urgency. Kerry, who described climate change as "the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction," dedicated much of his 45-minute speech to detailing the anticipated humanitarian and economic consequences.
"Scientists now predict that by the end of the century, the sea could rise by a full meter," Kerry said. "Now, I know that to some people a meter may not sound like a lot, but I’ll tell you this: it’s enough to put half of Jakarta underwater. Just one meter would displace hundreds of millions of people worldwide and threaten billions of dollars in economic activity. It would put countries into jeopardy. It would put countless – I mean, come to the local level – it would put countless homes and schools and parks, entire cities at risk."
Jamie Henn, a spokesperson for the environmental advocacy group 350.org, described Kerry's remarks as a "real sea change."
"The recent string of extreme weather events have shifted the political landscape on climate change," Henn told msnbc. "The climate crisis has gone from a problem for our children to a clear and present danger."
Members of the Senate have also taken note. Last week, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs gathered for a hearing on the national security implications of frequent extreme weather events. Committee chairman Thomas Carper described extreme weather events as the "new normal" thanks to man-made climate change in his open statement.
"Put simply, the increase in frequency and intensity of these extreme weather events are costing our country a lot—not just in lives impacted—but in economic costs, as well," the Delaware Democrat said.
But Washington has yet to formulate a policy response that matches Kerry's tone. While Kerry noted that the U.S. has tightened up fuel standards for trucks and instituted new regulations on coal power plants, Henn argued that the real test of the administration's commitment would be its ruling on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline extension. Kerry and President Obama are currently reviewing the controversial project, which environmental advocacy groups, such as 350.org, vociferously oppose.
"Now, we need to see action that meets the rhetoric," Henn said. "If climate change is a weapon of mass destruction, Keystone XL is a fuse. It's up to Secretary Kerry and the president to make sure we don't light it."