‘Stop being stupid’: John Kerry encourages productive protest and criticizes fossil fuel subsidies

Speaking in front of the Doerr School of Sustainability’s flag, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry advocated for “inclusive” protests on college campuses and called for tax incentives for clean energy technology on Wednesday night.

The event, which was moderated by venture capitalist and School namesake John Doerr, drew over 250 Stanford community members, faculty and students as part of the Doerr School’s Big Ideas in Sustainability series. The event “had an extensive waitlist” according to organizers. 

While the topic of the discussion was climate, the initial conversation turned immediately to the ongoing Israel-Gaza war and related tensions on college campuses. Kerry, a veteran of the Vietnam War, praised the student activism.

“I believe in protests. I believe it’s a cherished right here in our country — our country is a protest. We’re an experiment based on a protest, everything we stood for is a protest,” Kerry said.

Still, Kerry clarified that peaceful protest and education are crucial to a movement’s success. 

“It’s totally appropriate to be furious,” Kerry said. “But you have to translate that into something that brings people to the table and doesn’t push them away.”

Doerr said he believed that recent protests have “been well-handled here at Stanford.” Stanford has begun referring students involved with the recently-established encampment to its internal Office of Community Standards (OCS), which could result in suspension or the withholding of diplomas. 

Kerry said that when he protested the Vietnam War in front of the U.S. Capitol along with other veterans, they “knew that if [they] got arrested, no violence.” 

“Protest is supposed to be inclusive initiation, not exclusive rejection,” Kerry said.

Kerry has long supported a two-state solution in Gaza. He said that it was crucial to support a “global” solution including Palestinians in the discussion. 

“People on the Right refuse to call what’s happening in the West Bank an occupation,” Kerry said. “It is an occupation, there’s no other word to call it, that’s what it is. And they run everything. Palestinians don’t have the right to make a decision.”

Kerry urged students to vote and to organize, steps he said helped lead his contributions to the development of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

There is a critical difference between “robber baron capitalism” and “enlightened capitalism,” according to Kerry, which could change the trajectory toward sustainability, if certain groups are willing to “give up current power or profit.” 

“I’m afraid to say, the simple reality is that we have a choice. The problem is human created — we are the problem,” Kerry said. “Either capture all the emissions that are out there, or don’t make them.”

Calling on the end to trillions of dollars in oil and gas investments, Kerry said, “Stop being so stupid as to subsidize the problem.” 

In order to accelerate the clean energy transition and achieve net-zero emissions targets by 2050 set by international organizations like COP28, Kerry urged mobilization of the private sector through financial incentives and derisking deals.

“The IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] will be great,” Kerry said, praising Biden’s landmark climate law passed in 2023, which promotes investment in clean energy technology. Kerry further called the IRA the “gold standard” for future climate policy.

Kerry raised concern about misinformation as a significant challenge to climate action. “No, wind turbines do not give you cancer,” he half-joked.

The speech was introduced by a video from the former U.S. Secretary of State and Director of the Hoover Institution Condoleezza Rice, who expressed her gratitude for “John and John” — two people she described as using their “power for good.”