Jody Freeman, the Archibald Cox professor of law and director of the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard University, leads the conversation on global climate policy.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to today’s session of the Winter/Spring 2022 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
Today’s discussion is on the record, and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Jody Freeman with us to talk about global climate policy. Professor Freeman is the Archibald Cox professor of law, founding director of the Environmental and Energy Law Program, and a leading scholar of administrative and environmental law at Harvard University. From 2009 to 2010, Professor Freeman served as counselor for energy and climate change in the Obama administration. She is a fellow of the American College of Environmental Lawyers, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a member of CFR. She also serves as an independent director on the board of ConocoPhillips, which is an oil and gas producer. Professor Freeman has been recognized as the second most-cited scholar in public law in the nation and has written extensively on climate change, environmental regulation, and executive power.
So, Professor Freeman, thanks very much for being with us today. We just saw the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, Sixth Assessment Report, that was quite pessimistic about the outlook on the future. Can you talk a little bit about that report and connect it to what we are going to see the effects on climate policy and what we need to be doing to really remediate what’s happening in the world?
FREEMAN: Well, thank you very much for having me. It couldn’t be a more important or interesting moment to be having this conversation, and mostly I look forward to you, students, posing some questions and us having some back and forth.
So, Irina, I will be as brief as I can in trying to really encapsulate what’s going on now to set the stage for the discussion that I hope we will have.
First, as you noted, the IPCC, which of course is the UN-established organization that since 1988 has put out periodic assessments of the science of climate change and their consensus-based assessments written by about six—about two hundred scientists from about sixty countries, so to give you a sense of the authority of the documents they’ve put out. This assessment was quite bleak, and really—I can read a couple of the top line conclusions to you, but the essential message is that climate change is accelerating. It has already been wreaking havoc and doing significant damage to human health, environment, and ecosystems.
It is already causing and will cause increasingly devastating wildfires, historic droughts, landslides, floods, and more intense hurricanes. The long list of things that you all are witnessing around the world—think of the Australian fires, the California fires, the historic flooding we’ve seen here in the United States. The report basically says this will get worse if we continue without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions soon, beginning immediately, and cutting them quite drastically.
There are many conclusions here about the need to accelerate the pace of our efforts, the need for the governments of the world to do more than they have pledged to do under the Paris Agreement, which we can talk about, which is the international climate agreement that the overwhelming majority of the world’s countries have pledged, have made commitments to. And the U.S. has renewed its commitment to the Paris Agreement under the Biden administration saying that it will achieve 50 to 52 percent of emissions reductions here in the United States below 2005-levels by 2030.
So a very significant upping of the U.S. commitment recently at the Conference of the Parties last year in Glasgow, Scotland. That agreement is the prevailing international agreement, but this report says it’s not enough. Even if the countries of the world were to meet their pledges—and that’s an open question—what the report essentially says is we need to do more, and so there’s a consensus on the science. I don’t think there can be reasonable disagreement about the science of climate change at this point. There is significant evidence that it is already happening, already changing the world’s—the patterns that we have seen in, again, weather patterns, storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, and it is already threatening communities.
The question now is, how do we close this gap between what the report—what the IPCC report is telling us is happening, the risks that the report is warning us about—how do we close the gap between that and what the governments of the world have agreed to do under the Paris Agreement?
And I want to note just two other contextual developments here that make this problem even more challenging. One is what I think you’re all very conscious of now, as we all think about daily, the war in Ukraine, and the fact that that is scrambling in the geopolitics of energy. Russia, as one of the world’s top three suppliers of oil and gas, produces about 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas, and now there are sanctions that the U.S. has imposed, and that other countries have announced they will gradually phase in, against Russian oil and gas supplies.
The price of gas, as you may all have noticed the United States, is sky high. That’s not just because of the war in Ukraine, but it hasn’t helped. And attention has moved to what this war means not just for the devastating human consequences, but also what is it doing to the—how to encapsulate this—to the power relationships among the world’s nations that are anchored in oil and gas, and how is it shifting the relative power of the oil-producing countries vis-à-vis each other. That conversation about how we’re going to produce enough oil and gas to meet Europe’s needs in the absence of or in the presence of sanctions against Russia, where are we going to get the extra supply from?
In some sense, that conversation about the short-term need for what is admittedly fossil energy has edged out, has moved out of the main frame of the climate policy discussion temporarily. And the concern among communities, institutions, organizations, people who care deeply about climate change at the moment is, that edging to the side of the climate discussion is the wrong direction to go, is an unhelpful event. And especially in the United States where we now are looking at the dynamics in Congress to see if major climate investments will be part of a legislative package that the Biden administration has been advancing— the Build Back Better package—as the discussion is focused on Ukraine, the short-term need for oil and gas, who will produce and meet the extra demand, that conversation, the worry is it’s not helping climate policy move forward in the United States. And as you all know, the Build Back Better bill has essentially been shelved, and there are ongoing discussions about which pieces of it might move forward.
As time passes and we get to the United States’ midterm elections, which are upon us very soon in the fall, the question is, will anything significant in terms of additional climate investments and climate policy come from the United States Congress? Or are they essentially done with the pieces they put into the big infrastructure bill that, as you know, was passed this past fall? The bipartisan infrastructure bill contained significant investments in things like electric vehicle infrastructure, grid investments, and other things that are beneficial for our climate policy.
But as you all know, this is not nearly enough, and nothing regulatory went into the Infrastructure Act, and just to be clear about that, there was nothing in the bill that passed Congress in November that operated—that went through a process called budget reconciliation. This really was passed as a budgeting mechanism. Nothing in there regulates industry greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s because regulation can’t go in a budget bill.
And what this means is, in the United States we are challenged now to put in place the policies necessary for us to meet our commitment to Paris, and the main vehicle left right now, if Congress remains fairly inactive, is using existing law like the Clean Air Act by which the Obama—listen to me, the Obama administration. I’m remembering my time in the Obama—the Biden administration can use existing law to regulate sector by sector by sector the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the power sector, that come from the transportation sector, that come from the oil and gas sector. That’s what the Biden administration is right now doing. They’re issuing regulations through agencies like the EPA to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the economy on a sectoral and piecemeal basis.
And what this all means is that a war is raging in the Ukraine that is refocusing attention on the need for short-term fossil fuels, while a longer-term discussion is happening about how to wean the world off fossil energy, and this dynamic is a very challenging, complicated dynamic in which to have both of those conversations simultaneously.
The only thing I’d mention, before now turning to your questions, in addition, is that there is no small irony in the fact that this report that Irina cited, the new installment of the IPCC scientific assessment was issued essentially the day before the Supreme Court of the United States heard argument in a really important climate case in which what’s at stake is the EPA—the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to set far-reaching standards to reduce our emissions from the power sector.
And by all indications, the Supreme Court is poised to restrict the EPA’s ability to set standards that would really force quite forward-leaning change, quite aggressive, ambitious change—speedier, deeper reductions from the electric power sector. It looks like the Court may well constrain the agency, and I can talk more about that for those who are legal eagles and want to know more. But the fact that that argument was heard the day after this report as sort of the juxtaposition of those two things was quite striking.
So let me leave it there with these sort of broad observations about what’s happening and turn to you all and see if we can dive deeper into some of these dynamics.
FASKIANOS: Thanks a lot for that overview.
You can all either raise your hand to ask your question, or you can write it in the Q&A box.
So I'm going to first go to Babak Salimitari.
Q: I had a question regarding the Paris climate accord. This is a non-binding agreement in which it seems like the United States is the only country going above and beyond to limit emissions and pollution and whatnot, but we’re also the ones suffering the most. You have, like Germany building coal plants. China and India are extremely dirty, filthy countries, to put it bluntly. They admit they destroy environmental places, not just in their own country, but all over the world. But we’re the one paying six bucks for gas. Oil is like a hundred dollars a barrel.
Q: Things are getting very expensive and very annoying. So what’s the point of this agreement if we’re not reaping any benefits from it?
FREEMAN: Yeah, I hear the question and—but let me add some perspective here.
First of all, the ones suffering the most, it’s not us. There are really serious consequences from warming temperatures for countries around the world that are already being inundated because their low-lying coastal populations are at risk. And they’re much more vulnerable because we can afford adaptation measures, we can afford to respond to disasters, and we can afford to invest in resilience or adaptation, whereas many parts of the developing world cannot. They will be swamped. There will be massive migrations. There will be flooding, heat wave and tremendous suffering, and there already are some of these effects around the world.
So I just add that perspective because I’m not sure it’s quite right that we’re the only ones or the ones who are suffering the most currently or that we will be in the future. We’re actually, in the United States, fairly well-positioned, even if some of the worst risks we anticipate befall us. We’re just a rich country compared to the rest of the world.
I also would just comment that prices for gasoline are sky high here, and I understand that this is, as you say, annoying and quite difficult for folks who, you know, must purchase gas to get to work or must purchase gas in order to move around, they don’t have an option. But I will say that in many parts of the world gas prices are much higher, and they’re much higher in places like Europe and Canada and elsewhere because the governments have chosen to reflect in the price of gasoline more of the harms caused by burning fuel. In other words, they’re internalizing the cost that otherwise people have to bear in terms of health consequences from burning gas, climate consequences, et cetera.
So this is all me just saying gas may seem really high and I understand it, but actually many countries choose to impose high gas prices really as a signal to populations about the cost of being dependent on these fuels.
But the point of your question, I think, is what’s the value of the Paris Agreement? It’s not binding, and why are we bothering to commit to do so much? And I will say we’re not the only country to make a significant commitment. The EU countries have made significant commitments, even China. To put it in perspective, China’s commitment to level off emissions by a deadline is important. There are very significant pledges that have gone toward this agreement, and the fact that they’re nonbinding, I just want to shed a little light on that.
You can say, well, it doesn’t matter because nobody can force these countries to deliver on their pledges, and there is some truth to that. There’s no grand international body presiding over this that comes knocking on the door of the world governments to say, you know, you said you’d pledge to reduce your emissions by X and you’re not even close, so we’re going to penalize you. There’s no such international enforcement system.
But it turns out that the format of the Paris Agreement—which is to make a pledge and then to periodically every five years have to do what’s called a “stock take,” where the world countries come together and take stock of where they are in the progress—there are mechanisms to hold each other to account, that’s the theory of the agreement; and that there are regular meetings of the parties called Conferences of the Parties that are meant to be the vehicle for forcing a kind of truing-up and disclosure of how far countries have come. Now that’s an imperfect system, I will concede to you, but it is a big improvement over prior international climate regimes, which purported to be binding.
But, for example, the Kyoto Protocol, the prior agreement to the Paris Agreement, only bound the world’s developed nations, meaning the rich countries of the world, and the developing world, which was fast overtaking the developed world in the amount of emissions being produced—so think of China, think of India, Brazil, et cetera—they weren’t part of the agreement. They had no obligation. So, while Kyoto was binding, it was binding on not the entire world, and it’s not the even—who were soon to be the largest emitters, including China.
So Paris is an inclusive agreement. China’s in it. India’s in it. Brazil’s in it. Every country that’s a significant share of the world’s emissions is committed, so the inclusiveness of it is thought to be an important advance.
Your question is still important. The proof is in the pudding. Are these countries going to come anywhere close to delivering on their pledges?
But I guess what I would suggest is, we need an international vehicle in order to continue to press forward. And if the U.S. is in a leadership position in that international agreement, that’s better for our chances than if the U.S. is not. The strongest position to be in is the U.S. and China together. When the Paris Agreement was signed, Obama and Xi combined forces and both supported it. China has now backed off. President Xi did not show up in Glasgow for the meeting personally, whereas the Biden—President Biden did. So now we’re seeing a bit of a different approach.
It’s a very long answer, but that’s because how these agreements work—their value, why they’re an improvement or not over the prior—is actually quite complicated.
FASKIANOS: Now the war in Ukraine and how China’s going to align with Putin.
FREEMAN: Yeah, I mean, this is really interesting—and I don’t know if any of the students have a question about that—but everything is speculative right now. For example—I mean, in terms of how this will come out for China and China’s relationship with the other powers of the world. China’s in a very delicate position, and it may turn out that its alliance with Russia, depending on how that plays out, will leave it in a position of trying to look for opportunities build back relationships with the rest of the world, and it might turn out that climate policy is an opportunity to re-establish itself. And so we can’t see how this will evolve, but a situation that looks at the moment like China’s aligned with the bad actor—Russia in this case—may actually open up opportunities in the future for it to readjust its behavior, and climate may be one of those opportunities.
Historically, the United States and China, even when tense relationships existed over trade policy and other things, cooperated on climate. It became an opportunity, especially in the Obama years when I was in the White House. We had a lot of good agreements with China around climate policy, both bilaterally and multilaterally. It was sort of an area—it was a bright spot of relations. That may turn back around and come back following this conflict.
FASKIANOS: A written question from, let’s see, Jackie Vazquez, who’s in undergraduate school at Lewis University in Illinois, asking: Is there any possibility for all countries to come together to make a global movement to combat climate change? Would that even make a difference?
FREEMAN: I think that the Paris Agreement is meant to be at least an instrument of a global movement to address climate change. But I think if you’re talking about a political movement, that is people, not negotiators, representing governments, but populations and communities—I think we’re seeing some of that. I mean, I think this generation, your generation, has really given voice to a real need for climate action faster.
And I give a lot of credit to young people. I say this—it makes me feel 150 years old when I say this—but I think this generation, at least in the United States, it’s taken the form of something called the Sunrise Movement and other youth movements. Of course, Greta Thunberg is the most famous young person putting a face on climate change, insisting that the older generations have let you all down, and I think there’s something to that. I can understand your frustration, and I would feel the same way if I were younger that the people with the power have not taken the steps necessary when they should have taken the steps to mitigate a global problem.
And I think that we’re seeing movements all around the world; youth action all around the world. The problem comes in translating that political enthusiasm and political energy into policy, into laws and rules and requirements and incentives and subsidies and investments and inducements to change the trajectory to require over time—and quicker than—than many in industry want—require reductions faster, to translate it into investments from the private sector, because we need trillions of dollars of investments in low carbon technologies, in innovation. Translating that energy into real political action is the challenge.
And I guess the one thing I’d say to you all is you have to vote. You have to put into power the people who support these policies, and you know, the youth vote is tremendously and increasingly important. So, in addition to activism, which is—which is critical, you want to vote in state, local, national elections at every opportunity.
FASKIANOS: Earlier on, you talked about how the Supreme Court case is going to restrict the EPA trying to regulate. So there’s a question from Nathaniel Lowell, who’s at Skidmore College: Could you talk a little bit more about that Supreme Court decision, what that means for the Biden administration efforts to push forward within an act of Congress? You know, and what can be done? Because that’s pretty significant, and certainly just putting in executive orders, the next administration could just roll back on those—roll those executive orders back.
FREEMAN: Yeah. So here’s what I’d say. First of all, I’m speculating a bit when I say the Court seems poised to restrict EPA’s authority. I think most observers think that’s what we got from oral argument. You know, we watched the oral argument, which is when the counsel for both sides—in this case, it was the government represented by the Solicitor General of the United States—that’s how the government is represented in the Supreme Court—and the challengers from the state of West Virginia and about seventeen other states, Republican-led states, along with the coal and mining industry on the other side, arguing this case to the justices.
And you know, you can listen to these arguments, by the way. You can go to SupremeCourt.gov and click on the audio portion of these oral arguments. It’s fascinating. So I highly recommend and you can read the transcripts.
And what we heard from the argument were the questions of the justices, the back and forth as the advocates were stating their positions, and basically, the petitioners in this case—that is, the mining industry, coal industry and the Republican-led states, including West Virginia—are basically saying the Environmental Protection Agency is overreaching. It’s stretching its authority under the Clean Air Act too far, and the courts should read the language of the Clean Air Act narrowly and limit what they can do. And the government, the Biden administration, and the power sector petitioners—sorry, the power sector respondents—these are legal terms of art, but this describes who’s on what side in the case—the power sector itself, this is the industry being regulated by these standards; this is the coal and natural gas plants across the country.
The owners of the utilities that own these plants, they’re the ones who are going to be regulated and required to cut their carbon pollution, and yet they are on the side of the Biden administration because they want to preserve EPA’s power to set standards. They don’t want this to be a free for all in which they get sued in a bunch of different lawsuits. They want a coherent, consistent, implementable, realistic, cost-effective set of standards, and they’re prepared to make reductions.
They want this done in an orderly fashion, and they don’t want the Supreme Court making a mess of things by, for example, restricting the EPA so much that the agency won’t take into account the reality of the power sector and how it works and allow them to average emissions—cut average emissions across their fleets; trade where it makes economic sense to trade emissions allowances. The industry wants all these flexibilities, and they’re worried that the Court will be on too much of a mission to cut the agency’s power, which will make the rules less economically sensible for the industry.
So I hope that was an understandable explanation of what’s at stake and how unusual it is that the industry being regulated is on the side of the government in this case, supporting the idea that the EPA has the authority to do this, and the consequences of the case here are quite significant. Because if the Court limits EPA, the bottom line is the standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal and natural gas plants won’t be as stringent as they could have been. They won’t move as quickly as they could have moved, and the cuts won’t be as deep as they could have been. And that’s a loss—that’s a loss of a tool we would have in our toolbox to cut emissions from the sector in our economy that is the second largest sector in terms of its emissions.
So we want a robust program to control those, and Congress didn’t pass one. And Congress doesn’t look like it’s passing one, so this is our second-best strategy. And if the Court crimps EPA so much that it limits the stringency, it’s like losing some ability that you thought you had to constrain your domestic emissions, which means it’s harder to fulfill our Paris pledge. That’s the bottom line.
The last thing I’ll say—again, kind of a nerdy point, but for those of you who think about law and are interested in law—the Court should never have taken this case. You know, when—when people are unhappy with the decision in a lower court they can appeal to the Supreme Court. They ask the Court to grant review. Our Constitution requires that the Court only take cases where there is demonstrable harm or injury. You can’t go to the Supreme Court and say, you know, I’m not injured, but I really care about this, can you—can you help me out? You have to be injured.
In this case there is, actually, currently no rule regulating anybody in the power sector, no federal rule, because the prior administration’s rule way back in the Obama days never went into effect. It was caught in litigation, and it was challenged in court. It never went into effect. And the Trump administration came in and repealed that and put out its own rule, which was a very minimal rule that did almost nothing to reduce emissions, and that got challenged and struck down by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
So, as a result, the bottom line people, there is no current federal rule regulating the power sector. Why would the Supreme Court take a case from West Virginia and other states and the coal industry complaining about something when nobody is being asked to do anything? There’s no harm.
So it’s very unusual that the Court granted review in a case like that, and that is why many of us think they’re eager to do something that will constrain the EPA’s authority.
I hope that made sense to folks.
FASKIANOS: That was really helpful to clarify and give context to what’s going on.
Thank you for that.
So Terron Adlam has written a question, but also has a hand up. So just ask it yourself and give us your university.
FREEMAN: You know, I see my former chancellor, Chancellor Carnesale from UCLA where I started my career. I'm just thrilled to see his name there. That’s great.
Q: Hi there.
Q: Hi. So my question is, do you see any possibility of change of behavior of humans, especially during the global warfare/pandemic? I mean, ice caps are melting. Greenhouse gases are rising so much that—can we go past the differences, you think?
FREEMAN: Yeah, I mean it’s very interesting you say that Terron. I do think we talk an awful lot about how we need to require industry to do things and that’s, of course, terribly important—you know, the auto makers and the oil and gas companies and the power plants and steel companies and how we do agriculture around the world. But in the end, there’s demand for energy and we are the demand.
I’m sitting here on Zoom consuming a bunch of electricity. I got professional lights that you can’t see that are consuming a bunch of electricity. My phone is charging next to me consuming a bunch of electricity. And you know, I'm probably going to—well, I drive a Tesla—I’m lucky enough to have a Tesla, so I won’t be consuming gas later.
But my point is just we all pull on energy, and you know, no one of us can transform the situation. We can’t accomplish the energy transition all by ourselves. But we can start thinking about the decisions we make, and we can start thinking about those implications and consequences. Your generation—I mean, I have a niece and nephew in their twenties, and I hear a lot about how nobody really wants a car anymore, apparently.
I’m shocked at this, but there are generational shifts in how people think about consumption. Do you need your own vehicle or can you do ridesharing? Are we going to see ourselves in a world in the next fifteen, twenty years with autonomous vehicles that are electric vehicles, that we essentially share, at least in concentrated urban settings? These kinds of transformations, I think, are in part being driven by the demand from your generation.
Likewise, I think as you build wealth—you guys will build wealth over time, right? You’re getting an education, right, and that education is directly connected to your earning power. You will build wealth over time as a result of becoming educated, and when you build wealth, you’ll have a decision about where to invest that wealth.
And we see increasingly, social action investors, social commitments being made through people’s investment decisions, and they say we want to put our wealth into these kinds of stocks, these kinds of companies, these kinds of enterprises and not over here in these other ones. And I think that is another kind of behavior—where you put your capital is going to be another kind of decision that can help spark change.
So, from the lowest level, most local decision about what you consume and how you consume it to bigger decisions later in life about where you put your money, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for you to make really consequential decisions. But I’m not somebody who believes that all of this will be fine if people just stop consuming energy because we all depend on energy, and we can’t stop consuming energy. For some of us, we can make decisions about where we want to get it from. Some of us live in jurisdictions where we can choose, quote/unquote, “to pay a little more” to be assured of getting more renewable energy as the provider. Not all of us can do that, and so, really, you need your governments to act.
This is the kind of problem at the kind of scale where all of our individual activity can’t possibly be enough. I would say we have to do all of it.
FASKIANOS: Well, I am going to go to Al Carnesale, your—
FASKIANOS: —your former chancellor.
FREEMAN: My former chancellor!
FASKIANOS: Your former chancellor and a CFR member. So, Al, over to you.
Q: So we—since we traded places, I left Harvard to come to UCLA, you left UCLA to come to Harvard.
So here’s my question is about nuclear power. For a number of years environmental groups have been opposed to nuclear power largely because of the waste problem. And then they—in light of climate change, they sort of changed their view and became reluctant supporters. And then came Fukushima and they again opposed nuclear power.
Now, as we look ahead with the additional problems you’ve been talking about that may stymie some of our plans to deal with climate change, where do you think we might be headed on the nuclear problem?
FREEMAN: You know, it’s interesting—well thank you and it’s just delightful to hear from you and see your—see you again.
Here’s what I’d say. There’s a domestic conversation about nuclear and there’s a global conversation about nuclear. And of course, as you know, many countries in the world have made a big bet on nuclear. France has always been dependent on nuclear power, for example. China is investing heavily in nuclear power along with every other kind of energy because of their tremendous need as the population grows, and as they, you know, grow into the middle class. So there’s a lot of opportunity for nuclear to be built, especially updated sort of smaller more modular reactors, the next generation of reactors all around the world, and I think we’re going to see a lot of nuclear deployment.
I don’t expect to see it in the United States, and the reason I don’t think we’re going to see it is the legacy you’ve cited, which is this historical discomfort with nuclear, and the ambivalence that is felt in this country about nuclear and the sort of unwillingness to tolerate the risks that are perceived from nuclear. We haven’t solved our long range—our long-term radioactive waste problem. You know, we never decided on Yucca Mountain or anywhere else to put the radioactive waste, so it’s being stored on site for—in large measure. And I think there’s still kind of a very local NIMBYism, a bad reaction to the idea of nuclear power.
The challenge for us in the U.S. is right now nuclear provides about 20 percent of our electricity, and as these facilities are retired, where are we going to get that share of our electricity from? Will it be more renewable energy supported by natural gas for baseload? These are the questions if we lose even this relatively small share of nuclear that we have.
The only other comment I’d make—and you may well know far more about this than me—but from my understanding of the cost comparison now, nuclear power, at least in the United States, is just far too expensive to build and not cost-competitive with the alternatives. Natural gas has been cheap because of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. There’s sort of abundant natural gas reserves released from shale. It outcompetes coal, and renewables have dropped so much in cost that they are extremely cost-competitive, so I don’t think nuclear competes in the American market, at least, this is what the experts have said to me.
FASKIANOS: Al, given your expertise in this field, do you want to add anything?
Q: It’s not to add anything, it’s to agree, largely. I think the catch is, how caught up are you in climate change?
Because natural gas may be better than coal, but it’s not better than nuclear. But it would have to be government-subsidized, which basically in France it’s a national security consideration. So it would have to be subsidized as we subsidize many other things.
Q: But I don’t see it happening. I think—I was actually on the President’s blue-ribbon commission, who tried to come up with a strategy for what to do about the waste.
Q: And the strategy said it had to go someplace where the people agreed to take it.
Q: And that’s not—that’s not happening.
So I think your conclusion is right, but it is a tension for those of us who are concerned about climate change.
FREEMAN: Yeah, it is a tension. And I think you rightly point out the evolution in thinking in the environmental community about this that initially opposed then, sort of, wait a minute, this is a zero-carbon source of energy and we should be for it.
And you know, I—this is—for the students, you know, I always say to my students you can’t be against everything. You have to be for something. You can’t say, well, fossil energy, a disaster; nuclear energy, we’re not interested in that, that’s too risky et cetera, and all we want is wind and sun, when, at least currently without storage capacity, wind and sun alone without some support—this is in the electricity sector—wind and sun alone without some baseload support to regularly supply the energy when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, you need something else. And that’s what Chancellor Carnesale and I are talking about.
What is that baseload? Is it going to be natural gas? Is going to be nuclear, et cetera? So you have to be for something, people, is the upshot of this exchange.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
So I’m going to go next—there are two written questions from Kai Corpuz and Natalie Simonian, and they’re both undergrads at Lewis University. I think they must either—must be focused at Lewis University or both taking the same course.
Really talking about wealthy nations helping developing countries. Developing countries are not equipped with the funds to push for a green future. How are they supposed to participate in this? And you know, what is—what are the wealthy nations’ obligation to help assist developing economies in dealing with climate change?
FREEMAN: Yes, I mean it’s a really good question. And of course, the developed world has an obligation to assist the developing world through technology transfer, with financial support. If the developed world wants other countries that have not had a chance to get as far in developing their economies yet, if they want their cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they’re going to have to make a contribution to support these countries in all these ways—financing, tech transfer, help with adaptation and resilience.
And that commitment is part of the Paris Agreement, but it is true that the pledges that governments have made so far to produce annually billions of dollars for the developing world have not materialized to the level that was promised. So we are behind on that, and this is a significant problem. There is a very legitimate equity claim being made here, which is that the developed world has enjoyed economic growth. GDP has risen. We’ve all achieved a level of wealth and middle class. I mean, I’m talking on average for the developed world, obviously not everyone.
We have tremendous income inequality in this country and around the world, but relatively speaking, our societies have evolved and become richer because of industrialization. We’ve already produced all our greenhouse gas emissions to achieve this level of prosperity, and the notion that now countries that haven’t gotten there yet should just reduce their emissions to their own economic disbenefit, I think everyone agrees that is not a legitimate position to take without offering assistance and support.
So I think the leading countries of the world understand this and agree to this. The question is, how do you operationalize this? How do you best support and help the developing world? Where are the investments best made? How do we make sure the governments of the world are held to their commitments and produce the money they promised to produce? And that is an integral part of the Paris Agreement process.
So, you know, I don’t want to suggest this is an easy problem, but I do agree the question is absolutely the correct way to think about this, which is we do have to help the countries of the world if we expect for us to achieve our climate mitigation and adaptation goals.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, I’m going to go next to a raised hand from Sally Eun Ji Son, I believe at Columbia.
Q: Oh, yeah. Hello. My name is Sally. I’m currently at Stanford engineering and an incoming PhD student at Columbia in the Political Science Department.
And sort of relevant—related to, like, how different countries are in different stages, what I’ve noticed, as someone between Gen Z and Millennial—what I’ve noticed is that I, as an individual, like to take environmentally-conscious decisions. Yet, there’s some—there’s sort of this, like—a debate going on, like your action will not do anything to the Earth, your action will not do anything to climate change. And when I sort of encounter those debates, how should I navigate myself? Like, should I say it’s maybe not a direct environmental effect, but it could be a symbolic effect, political effect? Sort of, like, how do I navigate that individuals could also have power or, like, have a stance or position in shaping climate policy around the world?
FREEMAN: Well, first of all, I applaud you for engaging in those debates, and you know, sometimes when we come up against viewpoints that we don’t agree with, we run away because we’re not interested in engaging. And I would just encourage you all to engage, and I mean in the most respectful way.
I’ll get to the heart of your question, but it just gives me this opportunity to make this one pitch to you. So allow me—indulge me in making this one pitch to you about engaging in the way you’re suggesting.
You know, my law students what I ask them to do is in the classroom if they hear something they disagree with, sometimes very strongly, I ask them to put it at its highest—in other words, make it the best version of that argument before you criticize it. So, if somebody didn’t make the best version of their argument and it’s easy to take them down, actually elevate it and say, I think—I think what you’re saying is this, and then what I’m hearing is this and give it the best, most legitimate form you can, and then engage with it on the merits, not them as a person. You don’t attack them as a person, but say here’s where I think differently. Here’s my perspective on these issues.
So just the idea that you’re prepared to go back and forth on this, I think, is very laudable, and I encourage you to do it in that very respectful way. And you may not convince people of your point of view, but you may give them something to think about.
And so what I’d say is—a little bit following on my earlier comment—that individual action can be impactful cumulatively, of course it can. If an entire community makes a decision to compete in their consumption of energy—you know there are these competitions among neighborhoods to be more energy-efficient. You know, you get this little notice in the mail that says your home is good compared to your neighbors, and your home is—in some communities this works. It actually promotes competition. In other communities it annoys them. It really depends on the politics of the community.
But the point of this is just to say, communities are just—it’s just a cumulative set of individual actions, right? So I do think there’s something to changing individual behavior, and if lots of people do that, that makes a difference. So I don’t accept the idea that nothing you do matters, so don’t do anything. I mean, that argument is a recipe for never doing anything about anything. That is a large problem—because your share is necessarily small, so why should you change, and that, to me, is an excuse for inaction and apathy so that can’t be the right argument.
But you can accept that individuals alone, even aggregated behavior alone, can’t change the world’s energy systems, that the scope and scale of that challenge—that’s a hundred-year challenge that requires the governments of the world to lead.
So you can talk about the individual difference you can make, but that’s not enough, right? And all of these things have to be done at the same time, and they fit together. You know, local, national—state level, national, global, this all must be done at the same time. That’s the scope and scale of this problem. It’s a really—climate is a really hard problem because the world’s energy system is important for everything from our economic prosperity to our national security, and you can’t transform the world’s energy system overnight without affecting—first of all, you can’t transform it overnight no matter what you do.
But even as we transition, we have to think about national security implications, which is what the Ukraine war makes us do. There are geopolitical implications to how energy moves around the world, and who has energy power around the world. And as we shift to a different energy profile, those the power dynamics will shift, and we need to think about that.
You know, we need to make sure that the United States has an energy policy that is strategically in our interest, and you can’t think about climate without thinking about that. Likewise, you can’t think about climate change without thinking about economic development and—and the flourishing—the ability of societies to flourish. So—and you can’t think about it without thinking about equality and equity and justice.
So it’s a really hard problem, but that’s why it’s so fascinating to learn about.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, the next question is from Chaney Howard, who is a senior honors international business major at Howard University.
Going back to the war on Ukraine, how do you feel the argument for infrastructure development can be introduced into this conversation as new strategies and allegiance pledges are emerging?
FREEMAN: I’m not sure I fully understand that. Can we have a little bit of clarification?
FASIKANOS: All right, Chaney, are you able to unmute yourself to clarify, because I can’t divine from the written question.
Q: Can you hear me now?
FREEMAN: Yes, excellent.
Q: OK, perfect.
So my question is really surrounding ways that the conversation can be a little bit more direct. So you mentioned how there needs to be a development of infrastructure for overall environmental, like, sustainability, and you were talking about electric cars—
Q: —and just kind of having that conversation with global powers.
And so I’m curious how you think—now that we’re in this transitional period and some of the nations that are supporting Ukraine are working to develop new strategies and new partnerships, what are ways that we can encourage the government and then the global commerce centers to kind of establish those new strategies for environmental sustainability?
FREEMAN: So I’m not a 100 percent sure how Ukraine fits there.
But let me talk more generally about this idea of infrastructure and investment because I think what the IPCC report that we were talking about that’s projecting climate-related risks and saying what’s necessary to do in order to avoid them and what the Paris Agreement represents and what I think the current conversation around what’s necessary tells us—the strong message from all of these vehicles and processes and meetings, the strong message is we need massive investment from the private sector and government combined in partnership into what the new energy system of the globe has to look like.
Meaning, you have to build the power plants of the future. You have to support commercial-scale renewable power. You have to build the charging infrastructure to electrify the transportation fleet to the extent possible. You have to build a modern grid, not just in this country but all around the world, that is capable of supporting the level of electrification that we need.
Because to move sectors like transportation off oil and gas, you’re going to need—off oil, rather—transportation is mostly dependent on oil—you’re going to need to power them differently, and right now we’re thinking of mostly powering cars and many trucks from electricity, which means fortifying the nation’s and the globe’s grids.
All of that is infrastructure. All of that requires investment. And there are massive R&D investments, you can imagine, necessary in the low carbon technology of the future. Hydrogen—eventually producing green hydrogen as a fuel source. There are techniques for removing carbon from—direct air capture. Carbon from the atmosphere, things like direct air capture. Or, you know, other carbon removal technologies, they’re controversial but they may be necessary.
Carbon capture and sequestration, putting it underground, carbon dioxide underground—again, controversial. But if any of these future low-carbon technologies or remediation techniques are going to succeed, they will require trillions of dollars of investments.
So, the kind of level of investment that people are talking about—I’ll just give you an example. At the latest COP meeting, the Conference of the Parties, meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, which is—these meetings are part of the international process of updating and checking in on the Paris Agreement.
The world’s biggest companies and financial institutions came together, and 5,200 businesses pledged to meet net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and 450 banks, insurers and investors representing $130 trillion in assets. Those are the assets they invest, which is 40 percent of the world’s private capital. And I’m giving you all these numbers because I want to impress you with the scale of the commitments you’re seeing from the private sector, from banks and lenders, investors and businesses. They committed to making their portfolios climate neutral by 2050.
My point is there is a lot of activity in the private sector, both committing to net-zero goals themselves and also committing to investing capital, big money, trillions of dollars—up to $9 trillion annually is what is projected to be needed, that’s $105 trillion over thirty years. That’s how much money we need to put into the infrastructure you’re talking about, the new—next generation energy infrastructure.
All of the things I’ve discussed—the future of power plants, the future of transportation, new breakthrough technologies, new remediation techniques, new resilience—all of this requires massive investment. And the governments of the world and the private sector are nowhere near what they need to do combined to pull off what amounts to a moon-shot kind of level of investment.
So this is a long answer, but it’s a way of saying the infrastructure we’re talking about in a really concrete way is the energy system of the future, and it’s going to require a massive level of investment.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. We’re going to go next to William Naeger, who is a law student at Washburn University.
Q: Hi. Yeah, like she said, I’m at Washburn Law School.
I’m wondering if your impression is that these kinds of issues will continue to mainly be governed internationally by COP or the Paris Agreement? Or, if over time, as it becomes more and more extreme, whether it will just become one factor in, like, national security and trade agreements and migration issues and kind of just run through everything else that we do already?
FREEMAN: Well, I think this is very astute of you, because, in fact, I think climate change as a global challenge has actually come into the mainstream of all of these other fields. I do think that it is part of the discussion around national security. I do think that climate is part of the discussion around trade and that it will become more embedded and more central to these other domains over time.
And I think that—people talk a lot about how we could pair climate commitments of countries with trade measures that countries— the trade relationships that countries have with each other. And people talk, for example, about eventually having countries pledge to reduce their emissions, and if they don’t reduce them, they may suffer a border tariff on goods that are produced in countries that don’t have climate policies, that impose costs for greenhouse gas emissions.
So they’ll have to—there’ll be a tariff or a border tax on goods that are basically being produced and sold cheaper because they’re not subject to carbon constraints. That’s a merging of climate and trade policy that we may well see over time. Likewise, I think we’re learning to talk. We’re not there yet entirely, but we’re learning to talk about national security and climate together. Climate is really a national security issue.
And you saw the Department of Defense and its reports and testimony to Congress from members of the military who are frequently called on to testify about the impact of climate change on the—they will acknowledge that climate change is a threat multiplier for the military and it’s a national security issue.
Likewise, when we talk about the Ukraine conflict, the war, and we talk about the need to supply the world with oil and gas in times like this when one of the largest suppliers is engaged in very bad action and being sanctioned for it, how do we meet those short-term energy needs but stay on path with our climate goals? That’s a very hard thing to do. You have to be able to talk about the short-term, the medium-term, the long-term all at the same time.
So I think your question is very smart in the sense that you understand that climate has to become embedded in all of these other fields and conversations, and I think that’s already happening. The Biden administration, I think, to its credit has announced what it calls a whole of government approach to climate, and I think it’s trying to do basically what you’re talking about, which is say the entire federal government that the Biden administration runs, right, say to all the agencies across federal government—from financial regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission, which makes sure that markets are open and transparent and investors have the right information—even the financial regulators are saying, listen, companies, if you want to trade on this exchange, you better disclose your climate-related risks so investors can make decisions that are appropriate.
That’s bringing climate into financial regulation. And so the Biden administration has basically said this issue should appear and be relevant to all the things we do. And so I think we’re seeing what you’re talking about happening to a greater extent, more and more.
FASKIANOS: So, Jody, we’re at the end of our time. There are a lot of questions that we could not get to, and I apologize for that.
Just to sum up, what do you think we all should be doing at the individual level to do our part to affect change and to help with the climate change crisis?
FREEMAN: Well, like anybody who’s had media training I’m going to not answer your question and say what I want to say anyway, which is—
FASKIANOS: Perfect. (Laughs.)
FREEMAN: —yeah—because I actually think I’ve talked a little bit about what we can all do and why it makes sense to take individual action.
But what I think I would say, rather, is just I know that there is a lot of reason for pessimism, and I really understand it. And I certainly sometimes feel it myself. I mean, you know, you guys have been through a very, very tough time—a global pandemic, which has been just an awful experience, scary, and disorienting. And you’re doing it while you’re trying to go to school and live young lives, and that’s been hugely disruptive.
You now see this war in Ukraine, which is deeply, deeply upsetting, a horrific assault on the Ukrainian population, and you’re living at a time when you think climate change is a major challenge that, perhaps, the governments of the world aren’t up to. And you see a divided country and, in fact, divisions all around the world and threats to democracy, and restrictions on voting rights.
I see what you see, and I can see why you would be upset and worried. But I also want to suggest to you that things are also changing, and there are lots of opportunities for good things to happen. And there’s a tremendous amount of innovation and creativity on all kinds of low carbon technologies. There are innovations all the time that open up possibilities. Just look at what’s happened with solar power and wind power, renewable power over time. The costs have dropped. The potential for wind and solar has increased exponentially. That’s a very hopeful thing. So technology change is very promising.
There’s a possibility to affect politics in a positive direction. I encourage you to affect politics—this sort of answers your question, Irina. So affect politics in a positive direction, be active, be engaged, because you can effect change by—through activism and through voting. And I also encourage you to pursue professions where you can make a mark. I mean, you can make a difference by engaging with these issues from whatever professional occupation you choose. You can engage with one or another aspect of these challenges of climate, energy, national security.
So I have reason for optimism. I think, as frustrating as it is to say, well, the Paris Agreement isn’t enough, there’s another way to look at it, which is there is an international agreement on climate change. It does have a level of ambition that is an initial step and can be built upon, if we can keep the structure together, if the U.S. continues to lead and look for partners in leading along with the EU. Maybe China will come back to the fold eventually.
In other words, things change. Stay tuned, be engaged, and stay optimistic because I, frankly, think there is tremendous opportunity for your generation to engage with these issues in a really constructive and transformative way. And that is where I would leave it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you so much, and I’m glad you left it there.
It was a perfect way to end this webinar, and thanks to everybody for joining. You should follow Jody Freeman on Twitter at @JodyFreemanHLS, so go there to see what she continues to say.
Our next Academic Webinar will be on Wednesday, April 6, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll focus on China, India, and the narratives of great powers.
And in the meantime, I encourage you to follow us at @CFR_academic and, of course, go to CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues.
So thank you again, and thank you, Professor Freeman.
with Jody Freeman
March 23, 2022
Academic and Higher Education Webinars