Secretary of State John Kerry, the man ostensibly charged with yaying or naying the Keystone XL pipeline permit, gave his first major speech in his new position this morning at the University of Virginia. I say “ostensibly” because any final decision on Keystone will come from the president, of course. And if you didn’t know the speech was coming from John Kerry, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was coming from the president, too.

The sign language interpreter offers her critique of Kerry's speech
The sign language interpreter offers her critique of Kerry’s speech.
State Dept

As indicated in his prepared remarks [PDF], Kerry articulated what he sees as America’s core diplomatic values: security and stability, human rights, health and nutrition, gender equality, education. He then noted the biggest challenge facing the world at large:

We as a nation must have the foresight and courage to make the investments necessary to safeguard the most sacred trust we keep for our children and grandchildren: an environment not ravaged by rising seas, deadly superstorms, devastating droughts, and the other hallmarks of a dramatically changing climate.

And let’s face it — we are all in this one together. No nation can stand alone. We share nothing so completely as our planet.

When we work with others — large and small — to develop and deploy the clean technologies that will power a new world, we’re also helping create new markets and new opportunities for America’s second-to-none innovators and entrepreneurs to succeed in the next great revolution.

So let’s commit ourselves to doing the smart thing and the right thing and truly commit to tackling this challenge.

Because if we don’t rise to meet it, rising temperatures and rising sea levels will surely lead to rising costs down the road. If we waste this opportunity, it may be the only thing our generations are remembered for. We need to find the courage to leave a far different legacy.

This is a slightly different spin on climate and energy than what Kerry said during his confirmation hearing, when he forcefully argued that America was being left behind in the expanding renewable and clean energy marketplace. Here, Kerry seems to call not just for investing in business ventures but in infrastructure upgrades that would help us function in a warmer world.

Kerry is certainly aware that people like myself will be sifting his words for evidence of how “he” might decide on the pipeline. Which is a futile exercise — even if he’d dropped an unintentional clue, the State Department and White House would swiftly deny giving any such suggestion.

What we learn from Kerry’s words then isn’t much. He remains committed to climate change; he values public investment to ameliorate its effects. Kerry’s first speech in many ways follows naturally from one of former Secretary Clinton’s last. Her determination that the U.S. recognize the role of energy in international diplomacy syncs nicely with Kerry’s call that we advocate for clean solutions.

The Hill suggested that Kerry “came out swinging on climate change.” Not really. It would have been impossible for him not to broach the subject given his boss’s recent advocacy. So he noted its significance, without suggesting much about how it might be addressed. Those looking for him to check that box will be pleased. Those looking for signs of independent boldness will not.