CFR Fellows' Book Launch Series Guest Event: "The Fight for Climate After COVID-19"

Monday, September 13, 2021
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David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment, Council on Foreign Relations; @Alice_C_Hill


Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations; @JamesMLindsay

LINDSAY: Thank you much and good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Book Launch Event for The Fight for Climate Change After COVID-19 by Alice Hill. I’m Jim Lindsay, director of studies at the Council. It is my great pleasure and honor to be able to introduce Alice today.

She is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment here at the Council. Before joining the Council and the David Rockefeller Studies Program, Alice served as a special assistant to President Barack Obama and as senior director for resilience policy on the staff of the National Security Council. Before that, she served as senior counsel to the secretary of homeland security. Alice is a lawyer by training, and earlier in her career she served as a supervising judge on both the superior and municipal courts in Los Angeles. Since moving into the think tank world, Alice has been a prolific author. Last year she co-authored a book, Building a Resilient Tomorrow. But Alice is not one to rest on her laurels, so she’s back this year with a new book, The Fight for Climate Change After COVID-19, which is obviously the topic of our conversation today.

Now, with that introduction, I would like to welcome Alice to our virtual stage.

HILL: Thank you, Jim. I’m so glad to be able to join you today. This is exciting for me.

LINDSAY: As it should be, Alice. And, again, congrats on the publication of the book. I see that it is off to a great start. has it as the number one new release in several categories. So congratulations on that. But let’s sort of jump into the conversation. I guess what I want to begin with is that I we have seen an awful lot of extreme weather so far this year. We saw record-breaking cold in Texas, we have massive fires in California, very deep drought in the American Southwest, historic rainfall in Western Europe and the Northeast United States that produced major flooding. Now, on top of all of that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that July was the hottest month on the globe in recorded history. And, as you know, the United Nations just released a massive report that the U.N. secretary-general described as a code red for humanity.

So bad, in fact, are things, Alice?

HILL: Well, it’s bad. And it’s going to get worse. And that’s the very hard message to convey. Climate change has arrived with a vengeance this year. It used to be that scientists thought climate change was an issue for the distant future. But it has moved very firmly into the present. And it’s revealing that we are, as a nation, really across the globe, deeply unprepared for the types of extremes that are hitting us just now, much less those in the future.

LINDSAY: So, Alice, is there any doubt that human activity is responsible for climate change?

HILL: No. And let me be clear, there’s a difference in our polling here, but 99 percent of scientists agree that climate change is occurring, and it is primarily human caused. Our polling shows that most Americans aren’t so sure about this connection. It’s time to get over that hurdle. It is human caused and it is here. I was formerly a judge. In a court of law, there is no question under any standard of proof that climate change is here and humans are greatly responsible.

LINDSAY: Now, as you know, Alice, most of the work that is done in climate change focuses on mitigation. That’s the fancy term for stopping the production of carbon dioxide that’s released into the atmosphere, whether by driving automobiles that are powered by gasoline engines or using coal to create energy and the like. Your work, though, doesn’t focus on mitigation. It focuses on something different. It focuses on adaptation or resilience, that is adapting to the arrival of the changes produced by climate change. Why are you looking at adaptation rather than mitigation?

HILL: Personally, why I’m looking at adaptation is merely happenstance. I didn’t know much about climate change when I joined the Obama administration in 2009. But President Obama had issued an executive order requiring all agencies to engage in adaptation planning for the very first time ever. And in the way of storied bureaucracies, as I recall it I’m sitting around a conference table. We’re trying to figure out what to do with this executive order, the leadership of DHS. And somebody says: Oh, give it to her. She’s new. In those days, few really wanted to hang their careers on climate change, and certainly not on climate adaptation. So it fell to me. But it turned out to be a remarkable opportunity to understand what is ahead with climate change, and why we need to prepare now to have a much better future.

We know that for every dollar we spend today on reducing risk, we save about $6 in damages. So that started—that meeting started me on the journey of studying adaptation. And there are, of course, many reasons why we need to cut our emissions or the harmful pollution, so we don’t have to adapt as much. And that was very clear from the get-go as well.

LINDSAY: Now, you know, Alice, since you work in the area of adaptation, that most people who are climate change activists dislike talking about resilience or adaptation. They think it means conceding defeat at the outset and many of them argue that the changes we are going to witness are going to swamp the ability of wealthy nations to be able to adapt, let alone poorer countries. How do you respond to these arguments that we should be focusing all of our attention on mitigation, that is cutting the production of carbon dioxide, rather than on adaptation?

HILL: Well, unfortunately Mother Nature has given me a lot of evidence of why we need to be concerned. As you described, we’ve had just a series of events that have pummeled communities, surprising them in ways that the scientists would have said: No, we would know that rain would fall so hard in the Northeast that it would be like a rain bomb. We would also know that temperatures would exceed any higher historical levels and last for extended times. The scientists have told us all this.

What hasn’t happened is it hasn’t gotten translated into the policymaking world or just general understanding that these things are here and that because of the delay in the release of this pollution, it creates a blanket around the globe. And as the globe will begin—continue to heat up, but it’s slow. It’s like when you are snuggled under a bed and your mother put another extra layer of blanket on you and in the middle of the night you woke up hot. That’s what’s happening with this blanket of pollution.

So we find that those who started working on the problem of cutting emissions were a little slow to take up adaptation. But now you look out the window, we got to fix this and have really better systems in place to keep us all safe.

LINDSAY: Now, obviously, that’s a big task. And you write that we should prepare for concurrent, consecutive, and compounding disasters. What do you mean by that?

HILL: Well, it used to be we prepared for a hurricane, or we prepared for a fire. But now we have these events happening at once, in part because of climate change. Pandemic—the pandemic is a particularly stunning example of this. A friend of mine at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, told me: You know, we never anticipated, as emergency managers, that we would have to respond to fifty states and six territories at once for the pandemic.

And then you have hurricanes coming in. So your places that you would shelter people now can be sites to spread the disease. And then on top of that, after you have a drought, for example, you can have rain falling on that hardened earth and have mudslides, which we have seen when the iconic Highway 1 that unfurls along California, after a wildfire just slid into the ocean, parts of it. And we’ve seen the same thing on I-70. So these events work in tandem to create more risk. And we need to think that through, because it’s fairly unfamiliar to us to have this occur.


LINDSAY: Now, I’m glad you raised the issue of the pandemic, because it leads naturally into my next question. Looking at the title of your book, which is The Fight for Climate Change After COVID-19, I have to ask what is the connection between COVID-19, the pandemic, and climate change?

HILL: Well, the source of a pandemic could be from climate change. We know that. That’s number one. We know that human interaction with animals can lead to diseases jumping from animals to the human population and then spread. But really the connection I draw through the book is that we’ve all had now an experience with a catastrophic risk. We saw how it unfolded and how it upended our schools, our jobs, how we live, disrupted our supply chains, caused great danger to public health. Well, climate change does those things too. And it’s a catastrophic risk. It falls locally, but it still has devastating impacts. So how do we take the lessons from the pandemic and be better prepared for climate change?

LINDSAY: So what would those lessons be, Alice?

HILL: Well, we’ve talked about one of them, which is to prepare in advance and to make sure that we are thinking through what sometimes may be the unimaginable. And that means forcing our imaginations to work through now a pandemic would unfold. Conduct scenarios. We need to—and to look through how do communities work together to make sure that they are coordinated? We also need to follow the science. Both of these risks depend on scientific modeling to tell us how they could unfold. And we need to listen to that. And I think the most important lesson is that we need leadership.

And if I could just take a moment to give a really stark example in the pandemic on how leadership matters, and it’s the U.S. versus South Korea. South Korea has about fifty-one million people. The U.S. has over 330 million people. But the coronavirus was identified on the very—the arrival of it—on the very same day, in February 2020, in South Korea and the United States. At that time, President Trump essentially said something to the effect, oh, it’s no big deal. It’s one case. We’ve got it covered.

South Korea took a different approach. It mobilized like an army. It borrowed from Starbucks. It started having drive-through testing. It had tracing. Very aggressive measures put in place immediately. Fast forward. Well, and actually it arrived in January. By February, South Korea had more cases than any other cases but China. But fast forward to now, South Korea’s had about two thousand deaths and we’ve had over 648,000. So leadership matters. It matters how quickly we respond in the face of a threat.

LINDSAY: So, so far, Alice, we’ve talked about mitigation and adaptation in sort of an abstract way. I take your point about the importance of getting started, the importance of following the science, and the importance of leadership. But what does adaptation actually mean in practice? Are we talking about building more seawalls? Are we talking about moving people out of flood-prone areas, curtailing water use? What goes into resilience?

HILL: Adaptation is all of those things. And that’s one of the reasons why it gets so complex. I think it’s also one of the reasons why we’ve seen more people work on the cutting emissions problem, because if we think that’s hard wait till you get to figuring out all the solutions you need to adapt to these climate impacts. And we don’t have an easy way to measure whether we’re successful in adaptation, unlike mitigation where we can see how many tons of carbon we’ve removed or reduced from the atmosphere.

So adaptation means everything from choosing to protect a community or encouraging a community to move away. There are two areas that are particularly important to focus on at the earlier stages. The first is how and where we build. More Americans right now are moving into areas at risk of climate change than in other areas. We should think about that. Do we really want more people in the flood plain as we know that extreme rain will occur or sea level rise? Or do we want more people in these areas that are likely to burn? So we need to think deeply about what that looks like.

The other place we need to focus is infrastructure. Infrastructure, as the head of the Army Corps of Engineers confided to me, he says: It’s generally better if it lasts longer. And that’s, of course, true. The Romans have proven that. We have hundreds of bridges that were built during Roman times. But if we don’t account for the future risk from climate change as we build, infrastructure that could last fifty to 100 years, we’re going to see infrastructure collapse. And that’s what we’re seeing all over the place right now.

We saw it in New York with Ida. Even after Sandy, we hadn’t prepared that subway system. We hadn’t moved up the vents, as Taiwan has, put barriers around the entry, as Taiwan has. So, guess what? The water just formed a waterfall and flooded the stations, and really put people at great risk. So we need to step back and figure out: How do we do this better to protect this infrastructure that’s supposed to last a really long time, and is very expensive to build generally?

LINDSAY: Well, but on that point, Alice, who is the “we” you keep referring to? And I look at the United States, obviously, as a federal government, but it also has state governments and it a multiplicity of local governments, sometimes on the county level, sometimes on the city or town level, or even subsets of that. So which level of government is supposed to be involved in tackling this resilience or adaptation issue?

HILL: Short answer is, all. You know, we have some ninety thousand jurisdictions in the United States, ranging from school boards, to states, to the federal government—all of whom need to think about climate change. But it’s not just governments. It’s also the private sector, because these risks hit everyone. So when we talk about the whole of government, yes, we need a whole of government. But truthfully, with climate change, we need a whole of society approach that brings in the private sector, for example, that we hope will finance some of the things you mentioned—a seawall, or make sure that private insurance is available. We need the private sector looking at and studying its risk. And we need state, local, and tribal governments to make better choices of land use and building codes, as we’ve said, because that’s what they’re in charge of. That’s really not a federal government role.

Federal government role here is to provide the very best science, which we have great access to, great risk information so everybody can know what’s ahead for them, and then to help encourage better choices by all these decisionmakers so we have better outcomes. And to get that—to that grand plan, I believe we need to have a national adaptation plan that defines and helps shape the roles that each of us and each of these entities will play going forward in an iterative process.

LINDSAY: So what would that national adaptation plan be like? What level of detail would it give to a tribal leader or to a village selectman going forward, given the complexity and the great variation in sort of the steps individual entities would need to take?

HILL: A national adaptation plan, a well-crafted one, would provide a framework under which a tribal leader’s plans would nest. It would set the framework for how all of this would work, and then from the ground up you would have resilience plans from cities, from states, from the private sector building into those city and state plans, so that there would be an overall construct. But the plan on the national level would, at a minimum help prioritize our federal investments.

You know, Government Accountability Office, the watchdog for the government, has said that we’re basically sprinkling money across a lot of projects. Or, as another friend says, we’re just spreading a thin coat of peanut butter across all these things. And it’s not going to really keep us safe. So we need to figure out, how do we prioritize? And in prioritizing, that will send signals to state and local governments, the private sector, as to where we are going to make sure that we are building resilience in areas where maybe it doesn’t—isn’t cost effective for the federal government to be involved anymore.

LINDSAY: Well, given that we don’t have a national adaptation plan, and presumably one even if the planning process begins is still years away, what advice, Alice, do you have for towns and communities and the private sector for thinking through resilience, given how complex it is and given that the challenges facing a small town in New England are going to be different than the challenges facing a big city in America’s Southwest?

HILL: Basic advice would be to make sure that you don’t make any decisions, any investments that do not consider climate risk. Or, to put it more bluntly: Stop being stupid about your investments.

And what we see right now is that most investments don’t consider climate risk, and if they do consider climate risk any resilience measures get left on the cutting-room floor because they decide it’s too expensive to make sure that that thing is safe for greater heat extremes that we’ll have in a decade from now. And we need to make sure that we—I mean, the federal government should give these incentives, but local jurisdictions should be looking across their choices to say: Does it make sense to build a new road right here when we know that there’s sunny day flooding? And sunny day flooding is flooding that occurs—tidal flooding that occurs because there’s been sea level rise. Does it make sense to have new development pouring into an area where we know it will have standing water on a regular basis? It’s going to be soggy ground. Similarly for wildfires. That kind of systematic thinking is not occurring yet, and it needs to occur to make sure that we keep people safe and that we keep economies and local communities thriving in the face of worsening events.

LINDSAY: OK. Well, obviously one way the federal government can influence decisions about resilience and adaptation, Alice, is through infrastructure. You’ve already mentioned the importance of it, and the idea that the longer infrastructure lasts the better off you are. Obviously right here in Washington, D.C. there’s a lot of talk about Congress passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill. People are saying this is going to make a down payment on many of the things you’re worried about in terms of combatting climate change. Does the bill live up to its hype?

HILL: It’s a great start. It’s the biggest climate-focused legislation we’ve ever had. So of course, it will be meaningful to have close to $50 billion poured into resilience projects, for transportation, for the electric grid. Is it enough? No. We will in between now and 2060, across the board, we will see—across the world—we will see the housing space, or the floor space, of Japan double. That means that we are building at a very rapid rate. And that includes the United States. So we need to pour money into making sure that those choices about infrastructure, to support all that building, make sense and are resilient.

LINDSAY: Are there things that should be covered in the bill that aren’t, Alice?

HILL: Well, I always think that we can do more. I think that we can look at wildfire. We need to know more about how buildings operate under extremes. I’ll give you a dramatic example, a choice that we can make with building codes. Right now, our building codes—and building codes seems like such an esoteric topic. But it actually is the basis for a strong economy, because if your buildings don’t fail then you—once a disaster happens people can get back to work, get back—their homes are safe, and they can continue to go on with their lives. If the buildings fail, people are displaced, they’re homeless, and there’s an economic drain that happens immediately.

So right now our building codes focus on life safety. That means that you and I can get out of a building or be in a building and we’re not going to die because it gets hit. Really, we need to focus on the performance. And I’ll tell you, Japan has done this. So remember in 2011 we had the great—the Sendai earthquake that caused Fukushima and lots of bad things, and tsunami? A friend of mine lives in Sendai. And he shared with me that the night before that earthquake struck, he had a family reunion in a high-rise apartment, where he lives. So on a high floor. They all drank champagne in celebration, and they left those slender champagne flutes sitting on a counter. He left, his family went away, the earthquake hit. When he returned, he could go back to his building, live in his building, and the champagne flutes never broke. That’s the kind of thinking we need going forward. How do we make sure that a building is usable, livable, after the bad event?

LINDSAY: Now, you mentioned the impact that climate change can have on jobs, creating disasters, people who aren’t employed. But, as you know, one of the big arguments against doing anything about climate change is the argument it will hurt the economy. Why is that argument wrong, Alice?

HILL: Because it’s just not based on the true cost of climate change. You know, Swiss Re is one of the largest reinsurers in the world. And the reinsurers are the insurance companies that insure the State Farms, the primary insurers of the world. So they really have to look at risk for the long term, because their business model can’t succeed if they don’t understand risk. Swiss Re has predicted that if we don’t address climate change, world GDP will drop by 18 percent by 2050. That’s a significant drop. And why is that? Why are these—why are these statements that the economy can’t handle this, and then you have a Swiss Re analysis. Why is there such a differential?

Because the economic modeling, the modeling that we use to examine what the threats are simply cannot accommodate what happens with climate change. Let’s just take wildfire. So you have wildfire that—Paradise wildfire knocks out a community of twenty thousand. Housing’s flattened. All those people move to Chico, causes—a city of one hundred thousand, so their population increases by 20 percent. They see crowded schools, traffic, affordable housing goes down. Then we see that a mudslide occurs. And then because the scarred land and the water system goes down.

Then we see that the power system has to shut down because there’s a greater threat of wildfire. So we don’t have power in many of these areas. And then we see that the smoke not only negatively affects the health of those who are in the immediate vicinity—actually increasing the risk of their getting COVID or having a more severe case of COVID—and then we see that the smoke crosses the United States, causing respiratory problems for everyone. Our modeling just doesn’t pick up all those impacts. And that’s a small list. If you really sat down and wrote them all down, you’d see that climate change affects everything and can bring huge negative costs when the impacts hit.

LINDSAY: Let’s change the aperture. You’re talking about what’s going to happen or could be done in the United States. I was wondering if we could talk a bit about action on the international front. We obviously have in November the meeting of the Conference of Parties. I think it’s the 26th Conference of Parties to discuss climate change. And it’s going to happen in Glasgow. Are we going to see any real action here, Alice? Or are we going to see more of what we’ve seen in the past—earnest speeches, promises to do more, and then no real follow up?

HILL: Well, I know we’ll have speeches and promises to do more. I do hope that we will have follow up. You know, this COP got postponed because of the pandemic. There’s some talk it may get—the Conference of Parties—may get postponed again. But right now, we have a moment in time where the nations of the world need to act. The IPCC, as you’ve mentioned, the International Panel on Climate Change created by the U.N., 195 nations have joined, they issued this report really should cause many of us to have sleepless nights. It basically said that we need to cut our emissions drastically, cut that pollution now. The IAEA has said we need to—the International Agency of Energy Administration, I think—has said that we need to get off coal now.

All of these things are signaling that the moment in time is—happens to be right this second. And if we keep kicking this can down the road, we will have accumulated so much in the atmosphere. And then with that delayed effect, we have brought ourselves really a future of unmanageable climate impacts. So that’s why it’s so important that we use these speeches and these moments together to make sure that there’s real promises, with a transparent timeline as to when each country will achieve their reductions in pollution.

LINDSAY: To go back to the title of your book, which invokes COVID-19, is there anything from the COVID-19 experience, Alice, that makes you optimistic that countries can rise to meet the challenge they face? Because there’s certainly an awful lot of critics that argue that countries as a whole have not acted jointly in a coordinated fashion to be able to deal with the pandemic. Hence, there are very sort of pessimistic expectations about how the world will deal with climate change.

HILL: Well, there are a number of points where I think that we have seen that countries can move quickly. Vaccines is one. Operation Warp Speed, to have the vaccines be created so quickly. And that is the best method we have for containing the disease. That’s remarkable. The other remarkable thing is that we saw $17 trillion worth of money coalesced to help countries recover, and social nets were reinforced. There was more attention to make sure that the poor, the wage—low-wage earners could survive this event. That’s remarkable. We’ve been talking about several of those things for many, many years. Some countries have been toying with the idea, Canada. But all of a sudden it was much deeper into actually providing these social nets—network systems.

Now there are some disturbing things about that as well. Out of that $17 trillion, about four or five trillion (dollars) went to energy-related things. And of that, over three trillion (dollars) went to reinvestments in fossil fuels. So that was a missed opportunity. And as we go forward, we need to make sure that we put more into green energy and the kind of recovery that will keep us safe from the second catastrophic risk of climate change. And it is a risk, by the way, that doesn’t go away. It will just keep on occurring.

Well, at this moment I’d like to invite our members to join us in this conversation. Let me remind everybody that this conversation is on the record. And at this point I believe the operator is going to come in and tell us how you can ask a question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take our first question from Dee Smith.

Q: Thank you very much. Dee Smith, CEO of Strategic Insight Group and board chair of the Institute of—Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at University of Texas, Austin.

Thank you very much, Alice and Jim. This has been really a very informative session. And I look forward to reading the book. But I would like to drill down a little bit more on a couple of related factors. One is, is there anyone who’s—or, have you considered, Alice, or is there anyone who is looking at the ultimate economic cost of this? Because it seems to me that the cost is, you know, catastrophically high if we don’t do anything. But it’s also almost catastrophically high if we do things because the cost of losing, you know, the real estate of an entire city if it burns down, the cost of all of these not only mitigation but adaptation elements. It seems, to me, to astronomical in a way the world’s never faced. And what does that mean in terms of sort of the way economics works? It seems like it would lead to almost a different kind of economic regime. And then, related to that, has anyone been looking at the elements having to do with social stability and what this may mean for social stability on a national—local, national, and global level, as these things, you know, transpire and continue? I’ll stop there but thank you very much.

LINDSAY: How would you answer the question, Alice? Can we, in fact, afford to adapt? And can everybody afford to adapt, for that matter?

HILL: Well, we can’t afford not to. If we continue on our current path of rebuilding right where we were before in the same way we’re just going to have an economic downturn. And you can imagine the arrow will just keep going down because the bad impact will happen, and then we’ll try to get back to where we were, we won’t be able to, and then we’ll have another bad impact, and then that’s why I believe Swiss Re has given this dire prediction. And Swiss Re says: Climate change is the most significant economic threat to the globe—long-term economic threat.

And part of what we’re getting at is, what’s our time frame? Is it five years, which is a typical timeframe of the private sector? Then maybe it’s a little harder to weigh. But if you’re looking at twenty years from now, fifty, one hundred, it’s all very serious because we can’t stop some of these impacts from coming. So your point is well-taken. I think part of the problem is the economists initially when they were trying to model this would try to contain the factors that they considered. They didn’t have the commuting capability to take all this into account. So there was a false sense that this would be OK. And you can look at Professor Nordhaus’ work in Climate Casino. The way he controlled the factors, if we look in hindsight, we think, wow, probably didn’t capture all the risks that are involved with climate change.

And then, as to instability, absolutely. This is going to be a—destabilizing events in many countries. You can look at what happened in the pandemic. When you have countries that cannot respond well to their populations who are in need, back actors, terrorists, insurgents take advantage of this. So in Mexico, for example, El Chapo’s daughters, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, were passing out boxes to citizens, stamped with his image, that contained hand sanitizer and other things that were helpful during the pandemic. We saw Islamist extremists fighting soldiers in Chad.

We saw in Yemen them recruiting new young men—or, young men into their efforts, saying: It’s better to die as a martyr than in COVID. And the same thing happens when a flood decimates large parts of the country. It gives an opportunity for corrupt individuals to move in and mobilize the population by providing them supplies and showing that their government cannot perform for them. I do think there’s also deep risk for democracy if we cannot find ways to organize ourselves to have better responses going forward. So excellent point. It’s a very troubling aspect of climate change.

LINDSAY: Carrie, next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Neil Vora.

Q: Thank you so much. And congratulations on this book. And so my name’s Neil. I am a physician. I’m with Conservation International. Previously I spent nearly a decade with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And my question is about finding common solutions, because you mentioned before how climate change might be linked to the current pandemic. And we know that most new infectious disease arrive because of spillover. And it’s largely land use changes that create opportunity for people to interact with wildlife, particularly deforestation, that drive the emergence of new infectious diseases. And at the same time, 30 percent of the solutions towards climate change mitigation to prevent warming beyond one-and-a-half Celsius will come from nature-based solutions, such as addressing deforestation. Yet, such nature-based solutions only get less than 3 percent of climate finance.

And so my question is: Why or how do we get decision makers and people with the purse strings to pay more attention to deforestation? Just last week—or, the week before last, the Biden administration released a plan for, like, future approaches to a pandemic. And they don’t mention anything about how to jointly address climate change and the threat of future pandemics related to the threat of deforestation. The WHO is making the same mistake. G-20 is making the same mistake. So I’m curious to your thoughts on how do we find that intersectionality and common solutions which bring massive return on investment, yet are being ignored?

HILL: You raise a very good point. Natural-based—nature-based solutions have to be part of this. They actually marry the two areas of climate change. For example, building a mangrove—or, restoring a mangrove will serve as a great carbon sink but it also turns out it’s a buffer for storm surge. It stores ten times more carbon than most areas, but it also means that big wave of water doesn’t harm things. The problem is, I believe, we need climate literacy. One of the challenges is that many of our leaders in the private sector, in government, pretty much everywhere, have had no formal education in climate change. They’ve really had no opportunity to learn about the nuances and different solutions. They’re thrust into a position where they have to make decisions about climate change, and they may not have—be armed with the knowledge that would help improve their decision making.

There’s a stunning study coming out of NYU Stern about our boards, our corporate boards. Out of the Fortune 100 companies NYU Stern examined in 2019, or surveyed the resumes of all those board members, 1,188—yes, 1,188. And they determined that just five—not 5 percent, but just five—had any identifiable background in environmental or climate change issues. That means we have a big delta, in my opinion, on who’s making the decisions in understanding the economic risks, the choices that could be made to make sure that we’re safer and healthier. And we need to close that delta. And I suspect a similar delta exists across political leaders as well.

LINDSAY: So how would you close that delta, Alice?

HILL: Well, we need to make sure any organization takes risk management out of just middle management, for example, and moves it to the C-suite. That needs to be a place. We need to have board members who have the knowledge. We need to have those who are asked to make these decisions understand that if they’re building, for example, a power plant for their local university, which I have had this—seen this happen. Totally green power plant. But then a heat wave hits and they say, well, that only happens once a decade. That’s the engineers who designed this. They failed to account for the increased demand from extreme heat, and then they had to shut down the whole system.

We can’t afford to have those types of mistakes. So we need to make sure everyone’s educated across the board. And I think private sector could do that well. There are many consultancies who are ready to pay—do that—do that for them. And then similarly, in the federal government, we need to make sure that everyone’s educated. And then I would say that the universities here and the colleges need to step up. There was a 2016 study that showed that for a kid who wanted to graduate with a deep understanding of climate change, they would have to essentially go hunt it out because only 17 percent of students graduating from the top one hundred universities had a course in their core curriculum that talked about climate change. So we are graduating today many young people who don’t know much about climate change. And that means that we’re at risk of poor decisions.

LINDSAY: Carrie, next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Kilaparti Ramakrishna.

 Q: Alice, congratulations on this great book. And, Jim, both of you have covered the topics so thoroughly well that this is really quite amazing.

I just want to touch on one thing. Alice, you talked about governmental policies and the progress, or the lack thereof, with all of our various efforts. And you just answered a question about the nature-based solutions. There are some that believe that neither of them are going to get us to where we need to be—(inaudible)—world catastrophic impacts. And then they talk about carbon capture and sequestration, ocean fertilization, doing the solar radiation management. Do you believe that these geoengineering solutions is the only way to get us out of it? Are you hopeful that without that we can be where we need to be?

HILL: Well, I am hopeful that we can solve these problems without turning to geoengineering. And I believe that the costs to us are lower than the potential costs from geoengineering. You know, solar radiation you mentioned would mean planes taking off every day, around the clock, spewing sulfate particles to keep around the globe. If there’s an interruption in that, it could mean—could result in very rapid heating. The idea is that it would keep—contain the heating. That seems highly risky to me.

But your question raises the point that the likelihood of geoengineering increases as global efforts to cut carbon pollution and other atmospheric pollution lags. That means that a billionaire or a nation-state could be planning their own geoengineering efforts to protect their populations. Of course, the risk of that is there could be fallout for all nations if that thing goes awry. And then if it’s, for example, seeding clouds or other things, it could—or, changing the monsoon rainfall—it could have dire consequences for adjoining communities. So this is something that is unregulated right now among nations, but it will become increasingly attractive, that’s what wargames have showed us, over time if countries don’t come to grips with this problem of—the global problem of the accumulation of emissions.

LINDSAY: Alice, on this point, I think we should note that there are some low-tech solutions on this front, such as reforestation. Because trees are a great way of pulling carbon dioxide out of the air. But, you know, when we think about technology—and there’s been a lot of talk about carbon sequestration. And I just read that Iceland is about to open up the world’s first plant to do so. Are you optimistic about what carbon sequestration can do? I mean, there’s been a lot of talk about it for a couple of decades. Do you think this is a technology that shows real promise in terms of being economically feasible and also scalable?

HILL: I think the jury’s out. And of course, you see the progressives saying it’s pie in the sky, that we shouldn’t even be relying on it. And one of the concerns I do have is just, are there other impacts? How does this address ocean acidification and other things that are occurring as a result of climate change? One thing that urgently needs to be addressed is how do we come to agreements on what we use or what we’re pursing in these areas so that we avoid harmful fallout for others. And I met a doctor who—a physicist who’s working on this. She’s trying to put little silica seeds all over areas in the Arctic to slow the melting of land ice in hopes that she can buy enough time that we’ll come to solution—greater solutions on climate change.

But she can’t find any international fora to be able to check out whether this is a good idea, bad idea, or what parameters she should put around it. And I think that’s urgent at this point. And we should be working on what is permissible in testing. And carbon capture and storage, the jury’s out. We’re going to have to see if it’s cost effective. Certainly, it has struggled to date to achieve that on the scale that’s necessary to keep—to achieve the goals, even they’ve set for themselves.

LINDSAY: You mentioned ocean acidification. Can I just get a brief explanation from you as to what that is?

HILL: Sure. What we’re seeing is with climate change and the pollution that the oceans are—the acidity of the oceans is increasing. And that affects, for example, shellfish. Their shells weaken in the face of that. It makes an ocean that’s less hospitable to a lot of marine life. And that is of great concern. Another thing is just the heating up of the oceans. We’re seeing fisheries on the move. (Laughs.) Fish are rapidly seeking colder waters. And that means that tropical nations who are highly dependent on fishing may one day wake up and there are no fish left. What does that mean for those people there? Where are they going to go? How are they going to make a living? And what does it mean for the fish who move to new areas, and there are no agreements about overfishing, and they get overfished as soon as they land in the new areas? Lots of room for multilateral work here to make sure that we are protecting the assets that we do have, to keep them safe from exploitation during the changing—times of changing climate.

LINDSAY: Carrie, next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Alex Wallace. Alex, you may go ahead.

We’ll move on and take our next question from Robert Keohane.

Q: Thank you very much, Alice. Robert Keohane, Princeton University emeritus.

I want to ask you about the politics of the issue. Conservatives have resisted climate mitigation because they fear more government regulation. And adaptation involves even more regulation. It involves regulation of people’s ability to use their private property for their own purposes. And we know that Americans—many Americans, and not just conservatives, are very resistant to this. The NIMBYs, if you will. So how are we going to have a political strategy which makes the national adaptation plan politically feasible?

HILL: Well, I think we’ll find that we’re going to have an iterative process. I can tell you that we see—we are an outlier now in the United States, without having an adaptation plan. Many countries have embarked on this process already. In fact, in the Paris agreement it for the first time codified the importance of adaptation and said that countries should engage in national adaptation planning as appropriate. We see an example in the Netherlands, where they have one of the most sophisticated adaptation plans that includes bottom up. And you find, if the—if people, stakeholders that are affected, are brought into the plan, they can agree to some of these hard choices you’ve alluded to.

We have a great example of that right here in very red Louisiana. Louisiana has poured money in—from the Gulf oil spill—into figuring out its master plan for how it will deal with climate change. And that master plan actually talks about what is rapidly becoming a dirty word, or dirty words, managed retreat. It talks about what areas it might have to abandon in the face of rising seas. But that plan is the result of thousands of conversations helping affected parties understand what’s at stake, what are the options, and what choices could they have, and have a better future. So it will take a huge amount of work. You’re absolutely right. But a bottom-up approach that’s structured with an overall framework set by the national government has proven to work very well. The Dutch actually have moved people out of areas intentionally to allow those areas to flood in the future, to save more lives than just the lives in that floodplain.

LINDSAY: But, Alice, do we have the time on our side to undertake what sounds like a very time-consuming process, to go through a bottom-up conversation? I mean, my sense of the events of this year is that things are not only getting worse, they’re getting worse faster than we anticipated and the scientists warned us.

HILL: Dwight Eisenhower once said that plans are useless. So you’re suggesting we don’t have time to have a good plan. But planning is essential. And that concept applies here. Just starting on the effort to plan will, in Eisenhower’s words, steep the decision makers in the problem. And we don’t have that yet. So if we start a planning process will it be perfect? No. Will we end up going all the directions identified through that plan? No. But certainly at the end of the day and during the process, we will have a far better educated set of individuals who can help outcomes.

And I’ll just give you an example of this, because I did the first DHS adaptation plan. When we first met as a group, we pulled from Coast Guard, FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management—the immigration forces. That’s all of DHS. And the arms were crossed. People were like, why is she making me do this? Why are we even embarking on this? Climate’s something for the future and it’s not even happening. By the end of that, virtually everyone had bought into the plan.

And the Coast Guard came to me and privately said: You know, at first we didn’t really think this was a problem. But then we remembered when we had to respond to Haiti and it took our entire fleet. And it was an earthquake, but similar events to a catastrophic risk. And that meant that we weren’t as ready in other places. And now we see in the Arctic we’re being called to do more and more missions, and we’re just not ready. So they appreciated just the opportunity to learn what’s ahead to improve their own decision making in their own agency. And I think that would happen with a national plan as well.

LINDSAY: But you’re telling the story of how the United States, a very wealthy country, well-developed politically, is struggling with this issue. But it’s a global issue. It’s not only going to just affect Americans. It is going to affect people around the world. And many countries, perhaps most countries, don’t have the institutional strength and don’t have the wealth to be able to adapt in the way you’re talking. How do you think about that part of the problem? How do we think about resilience for poor countries, or for poor communities?

HILL: Well, richer countries will need to step up. And you just identified one of the key hurdles that will face the nations when they come together at COP-26. Developing nations feel that the developed world is responsible for this problem, primarily. They don’t have a lot of power and they haven’t emitted a lot of carbon pollution. But they don’t have the infrastructure that a wealthy country has. They don’t have the kind of levee system that we have in the Gulf states. They don’t have the kind of emergency management systems that we have throughout the United States. So they feel these impacts very hard, and their populations are usually thrown further into poverty once they’re struck. You know, in Barbados after one hurricane they saw a 260 percent drop in their GDP.

So we need to make sure that we’re figuring out how we’re going to help finance the adaptation. And we already made a promise of 100 billion (dollars) every year starting in 2020. The developed nations have failed in honoring that promise so far. And we also need to examine the debt loads that these developing nations are carrying. For a project that lasts more than two years, some of these impoverished nations have to pay interest rates of 18 percent. So when you’re hearing calls from the pope and others for a debt jubilee, a historic concept where you simply forgive debt in the face of a catastrophic event so that the community can get back on its feet and start over.

IMF is trying to address this, but it is a big problem if we leave much of the world indebted, too poor to make good choices and, by the way, as they power up, if we don’t help them they’re going to power up with fossil fuels. So it’s a great effort needed on behalf of everyone, but it’s in our self-interest. If those regimes collapse, migration will be even—increase even more going forward. And many of those will want to come to the United States. So we’ll have even greater pressures than we do now to control and monitor and be successful with our migration policies.

LINDSAY: Well, just on that score, I mean, I’ve seen some scenarios that suggest that certain parts of the planet may become uninhabitable for certain parts of the year, given climate change. Or farming is going to be ruined because of rising seawaters, so low-lying places—unless they rely on rice farming, think Vietnam—that agriculture will become impossible. So how do we think about that aspect of the problem we face, potentially migrations that we haven’t seen in human history?

HILL: Migration will be one of the most immediate challenges. It already is. We’re seeing that at the southern border with the Central Americans. You had the two back-to-back hurricanes, droughts, coffee rust that spread, and storms. All sorts of climate-influenced events have propelled what one author called survival migrants to seek a better life elsewhere. We don’t have solutions. Countries came together several years ago to come to a voluntary agreement, but basically we have not been able to amend our refugee laws to encompass survival migrants versus traditional refugees who are fleeing terrorism, for example, or terror, or criminal conduct.

So that will be a huge challenge. Now, we have seen, after World War II, very creative effort by a polar explorer. Fridtjof Nansen created a passport for stateless people after World War II, when we actually lost states in the redrawing of boundaries. And some people had no place to go. So we issued hundreds of thousands of these passports that allowed, for example, Vladimir Nabokov, Igor Stravinsky, Anna Povlova, all of those people to find work in other locations and rebuild their lives. We’re going to have to think big here because shutting down borders won’t necessarily keep any of us safe if the pressures grow too great.

LINDSAY: Well, as this point, we’re approaching the end of our hour, so I want to bring our conversation to a close. I want to thank everyone who joined us on today’s discussion. But mostly I want to thank Alice for, A, writing a terrific book and for all the work she has done to educate and inform people about climate change and the steps that are going to be required of us to be able to adapt and respond to it. And let me in closing note that a copy of today’s video—or, a video of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. Alice, thank you. To everybody who joined us, have a great rest of your day.

HILL: Thank you.


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