Policy Options for Addressing Climate Change

Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Parwiz Parwiz/Reuters
Christine Todd Whitman

President, The Whitman Strategy Group LLC; Former
Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency; Former Governor, State of New Jersey

Michael Levi

David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and
Director, Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Mitchell C. Hescox

President and Chief Executive Officer, Evangelical Environmental Network


President, Council on Foreign Relations

Policy and Morality: Options to Address Climate Change

Mitchell C. Hescox, president and chief executive officer of the Evangelical Environmental Network, Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at CFR, and Christine Todd Whitman, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), joined CFR President Richard N. Haass to discuss policy options for addressing climate change. The panel marked the second plenary session of CFR’s Ninth Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop. The panelists considered the topic in terms of the ongoing domestic and international political processes ahead of the UN climate negotiations taking place in Paris, France in early December 2015.

Reverend Hescox framed the issue of international climate change as a moral challenge, highlighting the universality of the effects of global warming and their prevalence across continents and borders. In his own view as an Evangelical Christian leader, Reverend Hescox stated that to address climate change is to be a disciple of Jesus and emphasized the responsibility of individuals to care for God’s creation and the poor. He urged political leaders and individual citizens to stop talking and start acting to ensure a sustainable future. Reverend Hescox is optimistic that a global clean energy future is on its way, but warned that it remains to be seen whether we will convert to efficient and renewable energy technologies in time to mitigate the most damaging consequences of global warming. In order to achieve greater efficiency in energy production and use, Reverend Hescox advocated political and financial support for research and development on innovative clean energy technologies.

Governor Whitman shared her experiences as a former administrator of the EPA and argued that the United States has a moral responsibility to do as much as it can to slow the process of global warming. While acknowledging the ongoing public debate on the relative importance of human activity and natural cycles in driving climate change she noted the role of popular figures, such as Pope Francis, in shifting the focus of the debate. (In the weeks following the event, Pope Francis issued the first-ever papal encyclical on the environment calling for concerted action to fight climate change and minimize its effects on the poor.) She also commented on the power of civil society to spark policy changes, citing as an example the foundation of the EPA during the Nixon administration when civic leaders and individual citizens mobilized around grievances over the state of the environment. Governor Whitman noted that though state and municipal leaders have done much to advance the implementation of local environmental policy, there is still a need for the federal government to take the lead in developing a “clean, green, reliable, and affordable” national energy policy.

Dr. Levi, an expert on energy policy and the environment, described the international policy environment leading up to the UN climate negotiations in Paris in December 2015, remarking that negotiators and observers were entering the talks with more reasonable expectations than in the past and an agenda better-tuned to what is politically feasible. Comparing Paris to  past UN climate summits, he noted that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol ultimately failed because it required few commitments from developing countries to reduce emissions and did not garner sufficient political support in the United States to be ratified. The 2009 Copenhagen session, the next major climate summit, set high expectations for a tough “top down” agreement that would place binding legal limits on emissions – expectations that turned out to be unreachable. Dr. Levi suggested that it is much more likely that an agreement will be reached at the Paris summit as a result of the bottom up framework that began emerging at and after Copenhagen. In advance of Paris, countries are expected to offer their own plans for reducing emissions and the in-person negotiations will focus on transparency and verification methods to ensure those plans are fulfilled.

Climate change is an all-inclusive global challenge, necessitating cooperation and understanding from the international to the grassroots levels within and among polities and societies. Far from sounding notes of despair, each of the panelists agreed that there was plenty of cause for hope with concerted action now.

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