John Kerry, climate hawk and potential future secretary of state. (Photo by Shutterstock.)

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who could become the next secretary of state if President Obama wins reelection, sees climate change as a serious threat to national security: It’s “as dangerous as” the possibility of a nuclear Iran or the situation in Syria, he said on the Senate floor in August.

And in his speech at the Democratic convention this month, Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “an exceptional country does care about the rise of the oceans and the future of the planet” — rebutting Mitt Romney’s snide comment about climate change.

Still, though Kerry is the Senate’s strongest advocate for climate action, he’s realistic about the fact that America is still reliant on fossil fuels.

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We spoke to Kerry about Obama’s all-of-the-above energy strategy, prospects for national and international climate progress, and Romney’s record on clean energy in Massachusetts.

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Q. The climate issue is barely registering in this election. Why has this issue fallen off the Democratic agenda?

A. For several reasons. No. 1, because huge amounts of money were spent to purposely discredit the facts. Some of the coal industry, some of your old power-plant owners, put money into branding cap-and-trade as cap-and-tax. The British university emails were exploited by the opponents very effectively, and a kind of pejorative set in about climate science as a result. I think the climate issue lost 20 or 30 points of support in the public arena.

So once the House of Representatives passed cap-and-trade, this onslaught of negative activity took place which had an impact. The people who claimed it was a hoax, nothing more than a liberal conspiracy to have a government takeover, spent a lot of money scaring our colleagues. And that’s what happened, they scared them. They created a certain credibility [problem] that was never answered. There was no counter.

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Q. To enviros, Obama’s all-of-the-above energy strategy seems like a cop-out. Should the party be moving more aggressively away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy?

A. You have to be all of the above. Look, I’m the most ardent advocate up here for doing something about climate change, but you’re nevertheless gonna have to use fossil fuels. The question is, can you use them in clean and manageable ways? The answer is, Yes, you can, if you make the right sort of requirements.

Q. But we’re not just talking about using fossil fuels as a bridge to clean energy — the Obama administration is aggressively expanding fossil-fuel development in the U.S.  Rep. Ed Markey [D-Mass.] called it Obama’s “drill, baby, drill.”

A. If you’re going to use X amount of fuel and you’re using it in a clean way, it’s better to have it produced from the United States than to be dependent on other countries. So, do you want to expand it overall? No. Overall you want to find alternatives in renewables and other things. But you have to do what you have to do to meet our energy demand. You have to have scrubbers, you have to have standards, you have to take old power plants out of service and put in new power plants with higher standards. There are ways to do fossil fuels responsibly. And if we don’t do that, it’s gonna be catastrophic.

Q. What realistically can be accomplished on climate change during the first two years of a second Obama term?

A. I don’t know yet. We have to wait and see what the makeup of the Congress is, what happens to the Senate, how many members lose their seats in the House, how close is it. We have to see if Obama will get some kind of mandate out of this. All of those things will tell, and all of those imponderables are up for grabs.

Q. Only one third of Americans think climate is an important foreign-policy priority, according to a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. How can we help Americans recognize the national-security imperative of climate change?

A. You have to connect the dots — show people the ways in which climate is going to have an impact on various parts of the world. You show people what’s happening in the Sahel region of Africa, what’s happening in the Sudan, where people are fighting over wells and dying. You show people what’s happened to Pakistan and the Indus River. And what’s happening in the United States — the folks down in New Orleans understand it.

Military officials are the best people to do so because they have a validation outside of politics. That’s one of the things that the American Security Project has been focused on—gathering the voices of a lot of former generals and admirals who have been very articulate and outspoken in defining climate as a national-security issue.

Q. The U.N. treaty process hasn’t been effective on climate change, quite obviously. What could and should the international community be doing to press forward on climate action?

A. It’s going to take political leadership, global leadership, and statesmanship. They have to find a way to get the Chinese to come to the table with leadership. I mean, United States and China represent more almost 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

In a sense, we have to go back to where we were. I mean, we really have to revisit what happened in Rio [in 1992], and in Kyoto, but come up with a different mechanism that hopefully can be more politically acceptable in various countries. It may not be a cap-and-trade system, but we have to go back to an emissions target that makes sense. And technologies will have to be made available to less-developed countries so they can grow without a huge carbon footprint.

Q. As governor of your state, Massachusetts, Mitt Romney made progress on clean energy and climate change. Can you share any insights about his former life as an advocate of global-warming solutions?

A. Barely perceptible. He went along because the legislature pushed it. He never led on it. We had environmental activists in the state, we had a Democratic legislature, and they led the fight, but he’s never been an advocate. I’ve never heard his voice on it.

Q. So his flip-flop on this issue–

A. He’s flip-flopped on everything. No one really knows what he really believes.