Climate Vulnerability and Conflict: A Conversation With John Podesta and David Miliband

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Senior Advisor to the President for International Climate Policy, The White House


President and Chief Executive Officer, International Rescue Committee

In a conversation with David Miliband, Senior Advisor to the President for International Climate Policy John Podesta discusses the relationship between climate vulnerability and conflict zones. In the lead-up to COP29, he shares how the United States is boosting climate resiliency and adaptation to support communities around the globe affected by both climate and conflict.

FROMAN: Well, good afternoon, everybody. My name is Mike Froman. Welcome to the Council. It’s great to see so many people here in person.  

We’re delighted to be able to welcome John Podesta, senior advisor to the president for clean energy innovation and implementation and special presidential envoy for climate; and David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and, of course, former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the United Kingdom.  

John—you have the full bios, I won’t go through them all—John, as you know, has been involved in climate for—really for decades, when he was chief of staff under President Clinton during the Kyoto negotiations, as he founded the Center for American Progress and did significant work there on it, and then as counselor to President Obama for climate change and energy policy. And was very much central to the negotiation of the Paris agreement. I first worked, I guess, closely with John during the Obama transition period. John ran the transition. I was working for him. And it’s through John that I learned that all your emails could be released on WikiLeaks. (Laughter.) And so delighted to have learned that from John. (Laughter.) 

And David, we’re delighted to have. He’s an old friend of the Council. He’s been involved in a lot of our work looking at refugees and migration. He’s been at the International Rescue Committee now for over ten years, and has really taken a storied institution to new heights. So I view him as my role model, I guess, in that regard. And a sign of the Council’s ecumenical nature. Not only is David not a member of the Council but he’s ineligible to be a member of the Council, not being an American citizen. (Laughter.) But we’re delighted to have him here as a—as a presider over this event.  

This event—about really the nexus of climate migration, fragile states, conflict—is a very critical issue. And it’s critical. It’s a central part of what we’re hoping to do with the Council with our cross-cutting climate initiative, looking at the nexus of climate and conflict, migration, global health, food security, trade, and finance. So stay tuned for more on that. And with that, let me turn it over to David and John. 

MILIBAND: Thank you very much, Mike. It’s great to be here. You’ve stolen all the lines that I was told by the Council on Foreign Relations I had to say except for one, which is that this is on the record. And, secondly, Mike kindly explained when we went into the green room, that we are all the subject of an experiment. What happens if you don’t livestream an event? Do people come? And you have provided a very telling answer. This will be put onto the Council on Foreign Relations website in a couple of hours.  

I think it’s a treat for all of us to get a chance to have a discussion with John. John and I are going to speak for about thirty minutes together, and then we’re going to open it up for this audience to engage. Our focus is going to be the conflict climate nexus. And we will get to that. But I think it’s important that we start with the bigger picture rather than leaping straight to questions of adaptation to climate change. We’re going to start with where are we in the overall battle over all of our futures.  

We’re twenty—nearly—we’re over twenty-five years since Kyoto. We’re fifteen years since Copenhagen. We’re nine years since Paris, the Paris conference. And despite the regress and progress that those various international summits have represented, the level of greenhouse gas emissions continues to rise and temperatures continue to rise, most recently breaching, I think this—we’re expected this year to breach the 1.5. So, John, start with where would you say we are in the battle against catastrophic climate change? 

PODESTA: Well, that’s a good—that’s a good place to start, David. And when I agreed to do this panel, I thought I was going to be asking him questions, since he’s such an expert on the topic. But I’m always happy to sit next to my friend, David Miliband, who’s been such a fantastic leader both in the U.K. and now with the Committee. So thanks for being willing to sit here and discuss this really critical topic.  

Where are we? Look, I think we’ve made progress, but we have a long, long, long way to go. Clearly not enough progress to do what the science is telling us. And just to kind of go back a little bit to 2018, and you reference the 1.5 degrees-C benchmark. I think at Paris there was an attempt to keep temperatures under—to well under two degrees and try to use best efforts to get as close to 1.5 as possible. But an additional report was ordered up by the IPCC, the world’s leading climate scientists—world’s leading scientists, really, for that matter, that was that was done in 2018 which really described the delta between what a 1.5 degree world would look like, what the destruction of the natural world would be like, what the upheaval in social systems, in food systems, in water systems could be accurately predicted to feel like, you know, twenty or thirty years hence.  

And it reoriented, I think, the policy conversation from a world where the world’s leading economies were trying to hit that two degrees C mark—and just to give you a sort of sense of what the difference of that is, during the Obama administration we were aiming at two degrees C. We thought that meant you had to reduce global—we have to reduce U.S. emissions by 80 percent by 2050, based on a 2005 base. Eighty percent. After 2018, we had to go to net zero. We have to be—we had to take as much carbon out of the atmosphere as we were putting into it. And that was a much taller order, because that last 20 percent is—this isn’t a like a straight-line curve. That last twenty percent is perhaps the hardest twenty percent to get.  

But that was what was needed. That was what the science was telling us. That was what I think got the full commitment of President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the administration. As you know, the previous administration pulled the U.S. out of Paris. We immediately rejoined Paris. The president set forth an ambitious agenda, including the passage of the largest investment in clean energy to attack the problem of climate change, which became the Inflation Reduction Act, which I came back to the White House to implement. Now I’ve got these international duties as well. And he set a target for the United States, which was, in the parlance of the negotiations, 1.5 aligned. 

That is, we needed to get our emissions cut in half based on that 2005 benchmark by 2030. And I think the combination of the Inflation Reduction Act, the other actions we’re taking to regulate the power sector, to reduce emissions from the transportation sector, reduce emissions from oil and gas methane leakage—taken together—the procurement efforts of the federal government, the work with state and local authorities—taken together, we could hit that 50 percent mark. So that’s the United States.  

I think if you look across the rest of the globe, and you note—you noted this, last July was the hottest month on record. Fourth of July, our nation’s birthday, was the hottest day on record ever recorded by humans. August was the hottest August. Every month since then has been the hottest on record. 2023 was the hottest on record. We’ll probably pass that in 2024. You said we’re going to breach 1.5. You know, there’s a debate about that because the way the world community looks at that, I think, is we can go over and come back down. Indeed, that may potentially be in the offing under the current modeling. But needless to say, we’re right on the precipice of dramatic action.  

We see it every day, all around us. And, you know, just in the last a couple of weeks hundreds of people drowning in southern Brazil, hundreds more in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sixty-six thousand deaths in 2022 during the heatwave in the—in the EU, which is the fastest warming continent. We had thirty-one straight days above 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Phoenix. Six hundred people died there. You know, this is happening all over, every day, every week, every weekend. The dramatic effects of extreme weather are rattling the system, causing huge damage. And so it concentrates the mind that we really have to not only meet that 2030 goal, but we have to just accelerate the pace and scale of decarbonization.  

MILIBAND: So that’s a brilliant overview. Let me pick up on the last thing you said. The extremity of heat, or of flooding, is not evenly distributed across the global population. Someone said to me yesterday that the rich world, the richest parts of the world, are living in the future in the way they’re engaging with AI, and the poorest parts of the world are engaging with the future in the way they’re engaging with the climate crisis. And we’ve done a study at the International Rescue Committee showing that there are sixteen countries where there is both climate vulnerability and conflict. And those sixteen countries account for 79 percent of the 330 million people in humanitarian need around the world. So you can see that this climate and conflict overlap is very, very profound. We’re talking about places like the DRC, like Cameroon, like Afghanistan, like Nigeria, like Somalia. I suppose the place to start is, what is the U.S. position about global responsibility towards those kind of fragile and conflict states? 

PODESTA: Well, let me step back and say there’s a reason for those—there’s an under—you know, this isn’t coincidental, right? The vector of climate change on security is a vector of human security. It puts—and it’s most profoundly felt in weak states and where there’s literally no kind of—there’s no safety net underneath people. They begin to move. That creates conflict. They spill over borders. They are internally displaced, et cetera. So that—I think that vicious cycle of effects of extreme weather on vulnerable populations in vulnerable places, it will only accelerate. And those numbers will, indeed, grow.  

I think from the United States perspective, you know, the first-order priority is to provide resources to build resilience, and particularly to be able to adapt to a—to a changing environment in the way those systems need regirding, shoring, et cetera. And I think one of the places that the president put—has put his mark is through an initiative called PREPARE, which is to try to help a half a billion people adapt to a changing climate, and to provide early warning resources which can reduce the net effect of loss by as much as 10X. For a dollar you invest in in adaptation, you get ten times the returns in the ability to reduce the impacts and effects. And that’s true in the least developing economies and it’s true in the United States. You know, there have been studies done here that investments in resilience and adaptation in the built sector in the United States have ten to one returns. And that’s true also in fragile states.  

But I think that the most important thing that needs to happen right now, and the secretary-general’s put his finger on that, which is to have early warning for all—from extreme weather, including the slow build extreme weather like drought—so that you know what’s coming. You can build more resilience into the systems that are responding to the human pressure, whether that’s in the health system. You know, Philippines closed its schools because of extreme heat for more than a week just three weeks ago. So, you know, all of that, if you—if you know it’s coming, you can better prepare for it, you can reduce the losses. And I know that’s some of the work that you’re doing, is to try to both create shock absorbers in the system and to give people some warning about what might come. That’s both in terms of extreme events, like, you know, hurricanes and cyclones, but it’s also true of these, you know, longer duration events as well. 

MILIBAND: So I think there are two really important things that you said. One of which I just want to put a pin in and we’ll maybe come back to it later. The impact of the climate—of climate change, the climate crisis, on resource stress, and the driver of resource stress towards conflict, is something that no one’s got a good answer to at the moment. You didn’t say that, but I’m saying that. That we’ve got this driver of conflict that seems to be built into the first part of the story that you told, which is the relative failure of mitigation efforts.  

Now, the second part of what you said—and I think the significance of the president’s PREPARE initiative, is that we do know that anticipatory action is so much more powerful than reactive action. We also know that the president’s insight and commitment has not been put into any kind of global system that has real power and integrity. And so the need for quite fast work to take that insight and put it into the global system is very profound.  

At the last U.N. Conference of the Parties, finally it looks like the $100 billion a year commitment to climate finance was met. And a new commitment was created to a new collective quantified goal that is to be negotiated at the next Conference of the Parties in this November/December. Can you give us any sense of where that—whether that process has got momentum, has it got legs, and energy? Or is it always is it really an uphill battle? 

PODESTA: Well, it is—it is the center of the discussion right now, leading up to COP-29 in Baku. Something happened after UAE COP, COP-28, that hadn’t happened before. Which is that the UAE, Azerbaijan, and Brazil have created a troika so that they’re thinking about the momentum that’s coming out of what was viewed as a, I think, above expectation result at COP-28, to try to build momentum into COP-29, and then into COP-30, which will be in Brazil. And I think there are a variety of elements to that, including taking that Dubai consensus on what needs to happen in terms of tripling renewables, doubling efficiency, et cetera—take those elements and keep forward momentum, make sure that the world’s staying on track for that. 

Creating momentum as a result of the stock take that took place at COP-28 to build ambitious 1.5, all greenhouse gas NDCs. And that’s particularly true for the G-20. You asked me and I sort of stopped with the U.S., but, you know, I think the U.S., other jurisdictions, including the U.K., the EU, are serious about trying to keep their commitment to the NDCs they’ve made, and to and to come forward with keeping 1.5-aligned goals front and center. Those are due in February, but the push into the Baku COP is focused on generating momentum around increasing ambition to keep that 1.5 target plausible, and on our way to net zero world economy by midcentury, and then tackling this problem of finance.  

So for—you know, particularly for the least developed economies, the need for finance remains great. Let me give you one example. Last year was a record for solar deployment. We now have more solar generation deployment in the world than any other single source. That was true in the United States as well, for the first time. New generation was more solar. The plans on the board for this year, look to be even better than that, partly because of new—at least one new—very big nuclear power station they came online in the U.S. But more than 90 percent of new generation the U.S. will be zero carbon this year. So there’s momentum there.  

But that—you know, that needs to keep going. But if you look at that at a global level, 80 percent of those solar deployments were in the U.S., the EU, and China, with China being the lion’s share—230 gigawatts of solar. Now, they’re still building a lot of coal. I just—we can talk about this—but I just met with my Chinese new counterpart, Liu Zhenmin, two weeks ago in Washington—or ten days ago in Washington. Maybe it was even last week. I can’t even remember. No, it was two weeks ago. (Laughs.) And, you know, so 80 percent is in those three jurisdictions.  

In contrast, a total of three gigawatts was deployed in the continent of Africa. So if you go back to your figures and look at those fragile states and where they are, they’re getting virtually no investment, no opportunity, no chance to build sustainable societies, no chance to build sustainable economies. And that is really the challenge in this finance world. So I think that if you look back at the $100 billion mark, that was a commitment by a set of economies to provide the enabling of unlocking more capital from the international financial institutions, from the private sector, et cetera.  

As you noted, we finally hit the $100 billion mark, which was first tabled in Copenhagen then agreed to in Paris. The next version of this, I think, has to contemplate—and there are examples of where this has happened—a larger number that needs to be deployed. And I think the question then becomes, who is contributing to that enabling pot? And how big should it be? So that’s what that discussion is about. 

MILIBAND: But we also know, to your point, it’s not just that 80 percent of solar went into the richest parts of the world. When you look at adaptation spend, it goes from the highest adaptation spend in the richest countries to the absolute pittance being spent on the most climate vulnerable countries. Which have, let’s not forget, contributed least to the crisis in the first place, because they haven’t been—they haven’t really been emitters. So there’s a big justice issue there. I think that there’s also a point we were talking about yesterday in the office, that we need to find a way for these fragile communities not just to think about how can we keep the climate crisis at bay, we have to adapt—help them adapt the climate crisis in a way that supports their development, because it’s a triangle here that needs to be joined. 

PODESTA: Right. You know, 2015 was noted, I think, as a moment of global solidarity because the Paris agreement came together. It was also the moment that the world came together and adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, with a global goal of ending extreme poverty across the world. And the roadmap for that, and the development needs and development financing needs for that, were laid out at that period of time where the world felt like it was more coming together. Now, we’re in—you know, we have greater divisions, more conflict. But we got to get back to the idea that—particularly with these great global challenges—that there’s a development pathway that’s going to be able to provide decent livelihoods for people across an extreme range of— 

MILIBAND: The last U.S. national intelligence estimate, or national intelligence review, picked out these two global trends. On the one hand, the rise of global risks, on the other hand, the fragmentation of global political power. And they exacerbate each other. And the climate crisis is a very—is a classic example of that. 

PODESTA: Well, it was it—it was—you know, to think about that, I think, if you—if we were having this conversation in 2015, you would think that because of the pressures of climate the centripetal force of trying to find common solutions. We were also dealing with Ebola. We were dealing with pandemic disease, et cetera. The ability to bring people together to try to solve these global challenges was a—was at, you know, maybe its highest watermark. We’ve got to get—on these global challenges, we’ve got to find a way to at least communicate, if not collaborate. 

MILIBAND: Well, let’s pick that there are two aspects of global geopolitics that I think we should just touch on, and then we’ll come to questions from the audience. One is about the U.S. and China, which you mentioned. And the second is about cooperation, global cooperation, in the interests of these fragile and conflict states that are affected in the way that we’ve described. Let’s just start with U.S.-China, which you mentioned. Your meeting has been seen as important in almost cauterizing an aspect of cooperation from the wider tension in Sino-U.S. relations. And it will be very good to hear your take on how cooperation on climate sits with the need, as expressed by the U.S. government, for competition, for confrontation on certain red lines. And how does cooperation sit within that? 

PODESTA: Well, you know, I think we’re in a—we’re in a different period of time. We’re in—we have to recognize we’re in a tense period of competition. The United States I think has, rightfully, felt like it is—has an economic security challenge in the fact that it’s overly dependent on a single source of supply for critical minerals, for clean technologies, for batteries, for upstream solar technologies, et cetera. One of the things that was one of the guiding principles in the Inflation Reduction Act, in the investment-led, private sector-led, government-enabled strategy the president’s embarked upon, is trying to ensure that we have reliable sources and sourcing for the transition that the United States has undertaken to cut its own emissions.  

And that we mean to invest heavily in creating those industries. We hope that our, you know, friends and partners will come along with that strategy. We’re not trying to unfairly monopolize that market. We’re just trying to do our part to try to create that virtuous cycle of innovation, drive costs down. That’s a—that has a global effect and is a global public good. BCG estimated that what we’re doing here will drive the cost of these clean technologies, particularly the advanced clean technologies, down by as much as 25 percent. That’s a good thing. It means more global deployment as well.  

But in doing that, we’re up against a non-market economy that’s used that advantage to invest heavily in those technologies. So that’s a—that’s a place of—somewhat a place of friction and tension. We just announced new 301 tariffs that go into effect on a range of issues, including electric vehicles, batteries, you know, and other technologies. And as we’re trying to stand that up, we need to protect that investment. That is U.S. taxpayer-led, if you will. But in the meantime, we also have to understand where each side is going.  

They pressure us, we pressure them, we found places to at least have good dialogue and try to move each other to greater both understanding and ambition. And I think I just have to call out Secretary Kerry, who was—you know, I think one of the things that President Biden—one of his best decisions was in the very earliest days not just rejoining Paris, but convincing Secretary Kerry to come back into service and lead our global efforts on diplomacy. He was a hugely important factor in the success that we have had at the international level. And one of his commitments was to keep that conversation going with the Chinese.  

At Sunnylands last year we agreed to a number of verticals of conversation. And we’re keeping those up. We came out of the meetings we had here with an agreement that we would cohost again at COP-29 a global convening on non-CO2 gases—methane, hydrofluorocarbons, N2O, other greenhouse gases that have profound effect but are mostly shorter lived in the atmosphere, to try to see if we can kind of align there. We’ve exchanged technical information on the best ways to reduce methane from oil and gas and coal production. We’re trying to learn from each other in the effort to move forward large scale carbon capture and sequestration projects. We’re doing some here. They’re doing some there. We’re in dialogue and conversation about that. 

MILIBAND: That’s very—that’s very helpful. Let me just ask one more question, and then we’ll come to the audience. When we first met in the ’90s, in the context of Kyoto and international agreement, the theory of the case was the international agreement would drive national efforts. The story that you’ve told, the president’s achievement with his Inflation Reduction Act, speaks to a different model. It’s almost like an industrial competition leapfrog model in the battle to mitigate climate change. But for the countries that we’re interested in, the countries that are fragile and conflict states, they need the global cooperation because adaptation competition is not going to drive them forward, mitigation competition is not going to drive them forward.  

And in this new world of—where the geopolitics is different from the old politics, and where a significant number of middle-income countries—Kenya is here this week for a state visit, Barbados has been leading on loss and damage—they’ve got their own interests. What I don’t see at the moment is where the constituency is for the, in our case, sixteen, then up to thirty, you could say forty fragile and conflict states that constitute this, at the moment, 330 million people in humanitarian need. But it’s gone up from 80 million five years ago. So there’s an exponential rise in humanitarian need. How should we think about the service of their interests? 

PODESTA: Well, look, the United States is the largest humanitarian supplier of aid in the world. And I think over the long run stability is better than chasing the problem. (Laughs.) So how one builds a(n) understanding of that, an argument for that, the political constituency at home to kind of resource that to basically do what PREPARE is trying to do, to reorient the whole of government in support of trying to create a strategy that’s really built around national security, is one that I think the United States is more engaged with.  

I tell the story, David, of our friend, Gayle Smith, who ran USAID. And when she was the senior director for Africa at the end of the Clinton administration, and we waltzed her into the briefing room one day. And she said these transnational challenges, particularly infectious disease and climate change, were national security challenges that needed to be taken into account. And the White House press corps almost laughed her out of the briefing room, literally. I mean, it was the most one of the more hostile encounters that had occurred.  

Fast forward to the Obama administration and Quadrennial Defense Review for the first time, in 2014, described climate change as a threat multiplier, right? We’re also going through the period of trying to deal with the panic over Ebola and trying to contain Ebola. Go forward now to where we are ten years hence, and we’ve, you know, experienced COVID-19 and the effects of a global pandemic, that was fortunately contained in Ebola into in 2014. And now we’re seeing the real effects of climate change.  

I say that climate change is no longer a threat multiplier. It is the threat. (Laughs.) And we better take account of that from a security perspective and resource it accordingly, because if we don’t do that then you’re just—you know, you’re chasing the disasters. And that is a broken system, and one that I think will exhaust the ability of the global political system to deal with. 

MILIBAND: Well, let’s see where the questions go to. I just want to say, one of the things that we perceive, from the humanitarian side, is that the humanitarian movement and the climate movement, have not done a good job at thinking about financing together. It’s very siloed and very separate. I don’t know how you want to do this. We can take three questions at a time and then try and get as much dialogue is possible. There’s a gentleman here with the purple tie, the lady in the middle, and the gentleman in the back. 

Q: Thank you very much for a very illuminating discussion and a great start towards addressing some of these important issues. My name is Todd Eisenstadt. I’m a professor at American University.  

I’d like to push a little further on, I think, some of David’s questions. But I’d like to ask both of you, with regard to adaptation specifically it seems to me that we may need a different order of magnitude of efforts to get public attention on this and to garner political will. I’m a social scientist. The social scientists would argue, I think, that—they would argue two things. One of—two reasons why the incentives are not set up in the international system to have a proper assistance for adaptation.  

One is that, you know, politicians and diplomats are being asked to make resource allocations for projects which will bear fruit after their careers are over. I mean, essentially, right? That’s one. The second I think is that, especially in adaptation, it’s not really a public good. In mitigation, it’s a public good. You reduce emissions somewhere, you’re helping people everywhere. Adaptation, you build an embankment somewhere, and that only helps the local beneficiaries. Most adaptation projects are like that. So I wonder if we need to try and change the structure of how we provide incentives for the system to address these.  

And very specifically and quickly, one of the ways to do it might be through having a budget requirement of countries. I mean, the Kyoto Accord specified emissions budgets. It had a range of failings. Not everyone complied. People weren’t members. But it was an important way to think about the problem. Might that not be a possibility? 

MILIBAND: Thank you, Professor. Great. And the lady in the middle. And then the gentleman at the back. There’s a gentleman the back after the lady, yeah. 

Q: Thank you very much. My name is Diep Nguyen-van Houtte. I’m a senior manager of the climate business department at the International Finance Corporation, which is a private sector lending arm of the World Bank Group.  

And, David Miliband, I just wanted to say that I’m actually one of the people that the International Rescue Committee sponsored, or should I say rescued, in 1982 from a refugee camp in Hong Kong. So very nice to be here.  

I wanted to—I want to push further on the discussion that you just had here about U.S. industrial policy and China, and the current policies in place, and whether that really is consistent with us prioritizing climate, and how that juxtaposes with the humanitarian crisis. A lot of which is contributed by climate change. So let me take two sectors. The first is electric vehicles. China now accounts for about 58 percent of all the EVs produced in the world. And within China, about 45 to 50 percent of the vehicles on the road in China are electric vehicles.  

They’re far ahead. They produce quality vehicles at a pretty good price. We’ve been—you know, we, the consumers of the world, have been very keen to buy cheap Chinese goods, that are not EVs. And now with cheap, quality EVs available, why tax them? Why not let them provide electric vehicles to the rest of the world, but also to American consumers, right? And that actually—that would priority—that allows the transition to happen faster in the U.S. That’s one.  

And the second is— 

MILIBAND: I think your question will be more powerful left at one question. (Laughter.) I know you were resettled by the IOC, so I’m biased towards you, but it’s a very specific question. Do you mind if we leave that one as a very focused question?  

Just for the gentleman at the back, thank you. 

Q: Yes. Thank you very much. Whitney Schneidman. I’m a former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Continue to work in Africa.  

And I just want to ask about that $100 billion. Now that we’ve reached that mark, what’s the disbursement process look like? And specifically, the sixteen countries David referred to, are they sort of at the front of the list to have resources invested in them? 

MILIBAND: I promise I didn’t plant that question. Thank you very much for that.  

John, you don’t—you can pick the ones you want to answer. (Laughter.) 

PODESTA: Well, you’re going to answer some of these too. 

MILIBAND: Yes, I’m going to—I’ll answer as well. So I’ll pick up whatever you don’t. 

PODESTA: Well, let me—let me say a word about adaptation. I think you made some very—the professor made some very good points. But I also think that—I used to have this fight years ago with my good friend Al Gore about whether the focus on adaptation takes your eye off the ball on mitigation, and at the end of the day you got to go—I think, in the end of the day I think everybody agrees you got to do both. And you got to do them simultaneously. And you got to accelerate both sides of it.  

But I think the way people experience climate change is in their own backyards. The people in Phoenix feel that heat and that stress. The people in Newark know that if you plant trees, you’re going to lower the—in the urban core—you’re going to lower the temperature and make their lives more livable. And I think that same thing is true really across the globe. The question is, can you find some solidarity to create the mechanisms for doing that? President Banga both increased the amount of World Bank resources commitment to climate after he took over, from 25 to 45 percent, but also set a goal of 50 percent of that going to adaptation.  

So I think the one thing that people—the one way that people think about this often is that mitigation can be resolved if we use public dollars to create the mechanism to let private investment flow. Because most of the mitigation will come through deployment of systems and technology that can produce their own revenue. So if you’re building wind, or solar, or geothermal, or electric vehicles, or whatever, that those can be managed by the private sector as long as there’s financing that can flow there. Adaptation is always looked to for public sector dollars, which is a separate—which is a separate challenge.  

But I think, you know, we’re in the U.S.—under both the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act—we’re deploying about $50 billion in places like the Colorado River to reduce the effects of a 1,200-year drought. The tree planning that I talked about that reduces heat load, particularly on distressed communities. We deployed a significant amount of money to do that. Coastal resilience. We’re trying to, you know, restore healthy runs of salmon in the Pacific Northwest. There’s a lot of different inputs that are utilizing public sector dollars.  

But they can often build—and I think we’ve learned that in the wake of things like Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina—they can be built in a way that creates more livable places and creates and generates stronger economies, in the local economy. And I think we have to take those lessons that’s happened other places and apply them there.  

On the China shock— 

MILIBAND: Yeah, can you address the China question? The EV question? 

PODESTA: Yeah. You know, look, I think we had a China shock. We deindustrialized a significant portion of the of the country. As Secretary Yellen said, we’re not going to do that again. We’re making a significant investment. It’s important that we do that, both for—to meet our commitments to reduce our own emissions, and to have a sustainable pathway to ensure that those investments are being done efficiently, and not undercut by non-market conditions. And that’s our beef with the Chinese, that they are—I mean, we have other beefs. (Laughs.) They have overcapacity and they—particularly coming out of the COVID crisis, given what’s happened in the real estate investments in China—have overinvested in manufacturing and exporting technologies, undercut fair pricing in the market, and created an overdependence on a single source of supply.  

The Europeans thought twice about that after Russia invaded Ukraine, and their dependence on Russian fossils to fuel their economy at relatively cheap prices. That didn’t seem like such a good strategy after they invaded Ukraine. (Laughs.) And we’re not going to put ourselves in the same position. We’re going to have stable, secure supplies. And there’s room for both. I mean, they’re doing fine. And they’ll make a lot of cars. And they’ll sell them both internally and, you know. But we’re determined to create an investment structure where people can thrive building clean technologies in the U.S. and deploy them in the U.S. That’s working. We’ve had $400 billion of announced investments and everything from—in the solar supply chain, particularly in the EV and battery supply chain.  

MILIBAND: Let me just say something about your question. I think the key is that there needs to be a jobs dividend from adaptation, not just from mitigation. We’ve got to link adaptation to development. I think that’s possible.  

Just on your question, sir, ambassador at the back—or deputy secretary at the back. The 100 billion (dollars) is not going to the fragile and conflict states. And it’s not going there, firstly, because there’s a lot of work to be done in middle-income states. Secondly and more importantly, the distribution model for this international finance is through governments. And the governments are often in conflict with their own people or with rebel groups in these fragile and conflict states. And it’s very hard to spend through government systems.  

We’re doing a lot of work with the new leadership in the World Bank and the African Development Bank about how they can work—I don’t want to say with nonstate actors—but with civil society actors, because all of our experience is that you can reach parts of fragile and conflict states that are not being reached for very fundamental development and climate adaptation goals, if you’re willing to work through civil society. Ironically, this is seen as higher risk. But actually, if you factor in the risk of not spending the money, it’s actually far more sensible to work through civil society.  

So let’s take three more questions, because you don’t—you don’t want to hear more from me. This lady at the front in the white jacket. 

Q: Hi. Thank you. I’m Jennifer Hillman from Georgetown Law School.  

So for the past three years I’ve taught a really interesting class that is encouraging my students, that are really bright and creative, to write papers on how do you use trade tools to fight climate change. And they’ve come up with a lot of really good ideas. I’m very curious— 

PODESTA: Send them to me. (Laughter.) 

Q: I brought a book in even here on this very topic. (Laughter.) You just announced your new White House task force that is going to try to look at this issue of the linkage between trade and climate. And I would certainly support the notion that if we’re going to get to speed and scale at the pace that we need to do so, we have to use the trading system. I wondered if you could just describe a little bit more about how you see that link between trade and climate, and how this taskforce intends to move forward. 

MILIBAND: Do you want to just pass to the lady in the blue next to you. 

PODESTA: This is the Georgetown Law School trio here. (Laughter.) 

Q: Yeah. Edith Brown Weiss, Georgetown Law. 

I want to turn you actually to the question of the conflicts and to Africa, where I gather in the next few decades the population—there’s going to be a huge growth in the Global South and in Africa. And I would be interested in your thoughts about the potential conflicts for there, what you see as the role of the United States, but in other ways, much more broadly, how we might manage conflicts that you want to identify there. And thanks, John, for all the good work you’re doing. 

MILIBAND: Thank you. Are you from Georgetown Law School as well? 

Q: Absolutely not. 

MILIBAND: OK, good. (Laughter.) 


MILIBAND: Are you? 


Q: Michael Werz at the Munich Security Conference. 

A question for John. You have laid out how threat scenarios are affecting all of our lives. Is there a conversation that you’re pushing forward within the U.S. government as to when we start committing dollars to these threats the way we commit dollars to military deterrence? Or if not, are there plans and space to do so? 

PODESTA: Say it again, Michael? 

Q: So are you trying to move forward a conversation to commit dollars to the threats that you’ve outlined—climate, migration, food, fragility—the way we commit dollars to military deterrence? And if you haven’t done so, is there a plan and is there space within the U.S. government to finally have that conversation?  

MILIBAND: I’m just the presider. You’re the—you’re answering the tough questions. 

PODESTA: Well, I’ll answer—I’ll answer the last one first. Kate Guy’s here from the Special Envoys Office at the State Department, who’s leading our work on climate security. And I think we’re both trying to move forward the security policy documents that have become central to, you know, I mentioned the 2014 QDR, but now they’re part of the National Security Strategy. If they’re part of the Strategy, then they need to be resourced accordingly.  

And we’re—both in terms of the way we’re trying to deploy the resources which we have for development assistance and other international commitments. A lot of that gets earmarked by the Congress, as you well know, Michael. And they took a haircut in this—the FY ’24 budget. But we’re trying to work to make sure that we prioritize those investments that are going to have those triple wins of, you know, supporting good development pathways, promoting human security, and dealing with these national security, and particularly the issues around movement of human populations. So, the short answer, I think, is yes. 

I think, in terms of growth and population growth, et cetera. that comes—takes me back to the conversations we’ve been talking a little bit about, the SDGs, and their emphasis on gender equity, and the right to reproductive rights and health, which I think are really essential features of the way countries need to build stable and sustainable societies. So I think in countries that have adopted a model that respects and lifts up gender equity, you see population growth in a context that’s powering wise and smart development of their economies. That means putting girls in school. It means access to reproductive health. And I think that’s a—that’s not a problem that I—that keeps me awake at night, because I think there’s an answer to that set of issues.  

And in terms of the trade question, and the task force which—I gave a speech at Columbia that you probably at least saw reference to, about the question of—and I actually talked to the director-general of the WTO at the start of my day this morning about this topic. We have—we have a system that, from my perspective, does not value, or permits at least—and I think the DG recognizes this—it permits the advantage of using high carbon methods of production of tradable goods where the embedded carbon in those goods is not accounted for. The EU has an answer to that with the CBAM that they’re trying to put in place. The U.K. is considering something similar, as is Canada.  

We’re engaged now in an exercise of doing a stronger development of the data that’s necessary to coordinate policy across an international trading scheme to really understand what—and have stronger metrics for what constitutes the profile of embedded carbon. And these are, right now the discussion is mostly around, as you could imagine, the steel, aluminum, glass, cement, you know, other issues that take a high amount of energy in order to produce. And the profile of that energy that goes into the production, the system for going into that production, needs to be accounted for if we’re going to have a race to the top to decarbonize the industrial sector.  

And I think we’re in consultation or discussion with our friends on Capitol Hill. There’s actually some bipartisan interest in this. One of the few things there is. And we—I think, we want to get the analytic work done before we propose a definitive policy fix in this regard. But we’re working through the next several months to try to move all that along. 

MILIBAND: John, we’ve got three or four minutes to go. And I just want to pick up an aspect of the second question, which is about how the U.S., how Western countries, are seen and engage with a large number of countries in Africa that are trying to find their way to sustainable development path. I was told this morning—I don’t know if it’s true—I was told this morning that the visit by the Kenyan president is the first state visit by an African head of state since 2008. There are still ambassadorial appointments blocked. There is enormous competition for USAID dollars. Although you’re a very large humanitarian aid provider, it’s spoken for by a lot of politics.  

The geopolitics of this are that China, which you’ve mentioned, is a—is ever present in sustained, systematic diplomatic and economic engagement. And in a smaller group of African countries, Russia with the Wagner Group, sometimes in parallel sometimes with directly, is significantly present. And I’m not asking you a U.S. political question. I’m asking a broader question about how in a world, where there the West was united over Ukraine but was seen to be further away from meeting global aspirations, how that gap is overcome in systems where there’s loads of politics, there’s loads of short-termism?  

We know that story. Because over the next ten, twenty, thirty years, there’s demography in Africa—within the African continent, there’s migration within the African continent, there’s development within the African continent. All of that is layered with tremendous opportunity. But there’s also—there’s threat there, as well as opportunity. And I wonder how you think we should be thinking about that in a more systematic rather than tactical way? 

PODESTA: Well, look, you know, I think this is an important visit. President Ruto has become a leader—a leading climate voice in Africa. They hosted the first Africa climate summit in Kenya last year. He’s put forward at the COP an Africa green industrial initiative. The United States will—I don’t want to get ahead of the president—but, you know, we’re going to be—have a number of ways in which we’re going to support that vision, both with direct resources from our federal agencies and through partnership between the U.S. government and the Kenyan government. So that’s the main topic—a major topic of conversation, along with security dimensions, that the two presidents will be able to discuss tomorrow.  

And President Ruto is giving a speech at SAIC tomorrow afternoon on his vision around this green industrialization process. And we’ll be there with a number of agency heads to discuss along with him. So I think that’s—and that’s a kind of a regional approach, I think, not just a Kenya-specific approach, to try to create supply chains, value chains, domestic production, particularly in e-mobility space, in the two vehicle, three vehicle space in Africa. Those are important opportunities for economic growth.  

But one thing I meant to say earlier, and I think I have thirty seconds to say it, one of the other issues—and you noted China’s presence in Africa. One of the other issues is the debt overhang really particularly coming out of, you know, this post-COVID period. And a number of the countries that you are referencing actually have net capital outflows. Not only are they not getting financing to invest in their countries, they’re managing their debt obligations—a number of those actually to Chinese-owned banks—are actually creating a separate problem that is a liquidity problem for those countries. Our undersecretary of treasury— 

MILIBAND: Cuts in their education and health budgets to pay for the debt payments. 

PODESTA: To pay for their debt obligations. So, you know, we are trying to think through creative ways to deal with that, some debt-for-nature work that the DFC has done, other mechanisms to try to stretch out and deal with this liquidity—some of the liquidity issues, working with the international financial architecture as well as our bilateral assistance. But that is a huge problem. And I recommend to people who haven’t read it our Undersecretary of Treasury Jay Shambaugh gave an important speech about a month ago on this topic, really analyzing what the data looks like right now. 

MILIBAND: Let’s make them debt-for-nature and -people swaps.  

PODESTA: Yeah. OK.  

MILIBAND: There’s never been a debt for humanitarian swap. But there have been a number of debt-for-nature or debt-for-environment swaps. 

PODESTA: Well, I think you put your finger on it too. These natural solutions have to be people centered. 


PODESTA: And I think the one good thing about that arc and that—from Dubai to Belem, Brazil, is the Brazilians will put that front and center. 

MILIBAND: Yes. You started, John, by saying very nice things about me. So I’m going to end this by saying very nice things about you. You are an absolute inspiration as a public servant—utterly committed throughout your career to real, sincere public service, both through your work in successive administrations but also your work in civil society through the Center for American Progress. Your commitment to ideas is absolutely profound. Your openness and engagement is an absolute model for anyone who wants to think about their political life and the commitment to public service. And the fact that you were willing to just come and spend an hour with us is—truly means a lot. I’m immensely grateful to you. I feel a great sense of pride to be your friend. But on this occasion, I am your presider. (Laughs.) And I have the great honor of asking everyone to give a big round of applause to thank you for your work. (Applause.) 



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