Right now on Capitol Hill, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is being grilled by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as it considers his nomination to be secretary of state. Well, not grilled exactly. Smiled at, mostly. So far, the most contentious issue has been the 9/11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, in part because the Republican members who failed to unsettle Hillary Clinton on the topic yesterday are trying to save face.

kerry hearing
Kerry appears before the Senate committee.

The next secretary of state — who will 100 percent certainly be Kerry unless he suddenly moves to Canada or is photographed giving nuclear waste to terrorists and even then the odds only drop to 80 percent — will be responsible for signing off on the permit that will allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The topic has come up during today’s confirmation hearing. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) raised it, as did Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.). Each time, Kerry punted, suggesting that he needed to study the issue more. This is probably the most we’re going to hear on the issue during this hearing.

But Kerry went long on climate change and clean energy in response to another question from Barrasso. Here’s the exchange:

Barrasso: Climate change has been a big issue that you’ve been considered about, focused on. It seems over the next 25 years the global energy needs are going to increase about 50 percent, that emissions are going to go up significantly primarily because of China and India, and we could do significant harm to the U.S. economy by putting additional rules and regulations with very little impact on the global climate.

So in this tight budget environment with so many competing American priorities I would ask you to give considerable thought into limiting significantly resources that would not help us as an economy, not help us as a country, and not help us globally in perhaps the efforts you might be pursuing. I don’t know if you have specific thoughts.

Kerry: I do. I have a lot of specific thoughts on it, Senator. …

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? You’ve got to get into the energy race.

Other countries are in it. I could tell you that Massachusetts, the fastest growing sector of our economy is clean energy and energy efficiency companies. They’re growing faster than any other sector. The same is true in California. This is a job creator. I can’t emphasize that strongly enough. …

The market that made [America] richer in the 1990s was the technology market. It was a $1 trillion market with one billion users. We created greater wealth in America than has been created in the raging time of no income tax and the Pierponts, Morgans, Carnegies, and Rockefellers. Every single quintile of American workers went up! Everyone!

So we can do this recognizing that the energy market is a $6 trillion market, compared to one, with four billion, five billion users today going up to nine billion over the course of the next 20 to 30 years. This is a place for us to recognize what other countries are doing and what our states that are growing are doing.

There’s an extraordinary amount of opportunity in modernizing America’s energy grid. We don’t even have a grid in America! We have a great, big, open gap in the middle of America. … We can’t sell energy from Minnesota to Arizona or from Arizona to Massachusetts or to the cold states, and so forth. It doesn’t make sense. We can’t be a modern country if we don’t fix that infrastructure.

So I would respectfully say to you that climate change is not something to be feared in response to — but it’s to be feared if we don’t. 3,500 communities in our nation last year broke records for heat. We had a rail that because of the heat bent, and we had a derailment as a result of it. We had record fires. We had record levels of damage from Sandy, $70 billion.

If we can’t see the downside of spending that money and risking lives — for all the changes that are taking place; agriculture, our communities, the ocean — then we’re just ignoring what science is telling us. I will be a passionate advocate on this, but not based on ideology. Based on facts. Based on science. And I hope to with all of you and convince you that this $6 trillion market is worth millions of American jobs and we better go after it.

This is a critical, underplayed argument. America is a capitalist nation. We consistently argue that competition is the key to success, that it provides economic growth. Yet fossil fuel interests and their allies insist that we abandon the race for clean energy, that we not compete there. Kerry’s point is that there’s a huge market we give up on if we don’t argue for clean energy. That alone is a reason to engage strongly with clean energy, even — if I may put words in his mouth — ensuring the government invest in clean energy systems to allow America to dominate the sector.

It’s not a carbon tax, but it’s important. And it’s almost impossible to argue with. Barrasso didn’t.