At COP 26: Council on Foreign Relations Addresses Governance Challenges of Domestic & Global Climate Action


With COP 26 underway, all eyes are on Glasgow to see how world leaders might update the 2015 Paris Climate agreement and undertake ambitious efforts to limit global warming and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Leading up to this summit, the Council on Foreign Relationships brought together three experts on climate: Stanford’s Arun Majumdar (pictured), CFR’s Alice C. Hill, and University of Miami’s Katharine Mach for a discussion on current and projected impacts of climate change, options for reducing emissions, and policies for community adaptation. VX News share this excerpt of the panel moderated by CFR President and veteran diplomat Richard Haass, elaborating on the governance challenges of domestic and global climate policy, the importance of green infrastructure investment and adaptation planning, and economic opportunities presented by a global transition to clean energy. Access to the full webinar can be found here.

Richard Haass: People often say they would like to do something about climate but are worried about the economic costs. To what extent is that a useful framing, or is that actually a truly flawed framing? Should they be understood more as potentially complimentary?

Arun Majumdar: With most of the greenhouse gases that are being emitted, a large chunk of it comes from our energy system. Energy is like the bedrock of our economy. If you turn off the lights, if the power goes away, or if oil stops flowing, we are in trouble. Trying to reduce carbon emissions is connected to our energy system and thereby connected to our economy. What we're realizing is that the 20th century paradigm of developing our economy based on energy use, which is largely fossil energy use, leads to climate change. What we're finding out is that the 20th century paradigm is unsustainable from a climate point of view.

We have a shift, and in that shift one could view it as a challenge, or one could view it as an opportunity. What the Biden administration is trying to do is to connect the dots between economic development, infrastructure development of transmission lines, CO2 pipelines, etc. as an economic development opportunity. Frankly, for many in the developing world, there is an opportunity to leapfrog into new technologies and create the energy infrastructure to bring people out of poverty and improve the quality of life. It has to be viewed as an opportunity, because if you don't, then of course if you're stuck in the 20th century paradigm, and there will be job losses and things like that.

Richard Haass: The Paris agreement and the UN Framework Convention process is not an international agreement, from the top down where world governments are instructed what they need to do. Rather, this is a process from the bottom up, where governments make commitments about their own trajectory when it comes to emissions over the future. If you add all the pledges up, assuming that all the pledges are met, does this trajectory get us where we want to get?

Alice C. Hill: The pledges and promises that nations have brought forward so far just don't add up. They won't keep us safe. In fact, based on the pledges that were submitted in July of this year, emissions would increase by 16 percent, which just means more heating, so we need greater ambition.

I think the expectation is that ambition should come from the developed world, because since we started the Industrial Revolution, we have been throwing up huge amounts of greenhouse gases. In fact, the United States is historically the largest emitter. So, at the Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, you'll hear from developing nations that really haven't had a chance to develop on the path that we did. These nations are going to say they need developed nations who are at fault for this to pay more money to help them have clean energy. Also, they will say they are being really hit badly by these impacts: sea level rise, bigger storms, and heat, and will need help to adapt and a lot of money. In my opinion, this will be a highly contentious issue at the negotiations.

Richard Haass: To what extent is progress on climate change more likely to come from technology than diplomacy?

Arun Majumdar: There are two kinds issues for technology. One is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We're seeing over the last decade or so, the cost of solar and wind has come down to the point that it is now one of the cheapest ways to produce electricity at scale, worldwide. You've also seen the tectonic shifts in the auto industry with battery costs coming down, and in the next couple of years, electric vehicles will become cheaper, without subsidies, compared to gasoline-based automobiles.

If we think that we can address climate change with just solar, wind, and batteries, we are grossly mistaken. We are still 80 percent based on fossil fuels, we need technologies for capturing the carbon dioxide from the sources on power plants etc. In burning fossil fuel, you get carbon dioxide and water which normally just goes out in the atmosphere. We have to separate out the CO2 from a mixture of gases, which requires some energy to do that, take the CO2 and sequester it. In this transition process from a fossil-based economy to a clean economy, we are still going to be dealing with fossil energy for some time. Being able to capture that carbon dioxide is very important.

We are talking about pledges, and it's very important to be able to measure and validate those to make sure that China, the United States, Europe, and others are meeting those pledges. I wrote an op-ed with NASA on the satellite system to measure CO2 in the United States. We have two satellites that only measure 1 percent of the Earth's surface. We need a global partnership in creating a constellation of satellites to be able to measure the CO2, methane emissions, and nitrous oxide emissions.

Richard Haass: You have before Congress one piece of pending legislation on what you might call traditional infrastructure and another piece of legislation which has a much larger potential price tag for human or social infrastructure, let's focus on the former. To what extent is climate shaping the content of the $1.5 trillion bill? If it's passed or not passed, how significant is that how much of a dent might that make in the problem?

Katharine Mach: Infrastructure is central to our emissions of heat trapping gases, transforming our energy system, our buildings, and our transport absolutely. We're also in a place where our infrastructure across the nation is in disrepair and now we're seeing climate change, adding on top of that, whether it's roadways that are flooding at high tide, rotors that are buckling under unprecedented heat, or in the American West, we're needing to bring down our energy supply systems to avoid starting fires. All of these types of challenges are fundamental, and I think we see a profound opportunity emerging right now to make a meaningful step forward to addressing these challenges.

What is quite interesting in terms of federal action on climate change right now is a recognition that who has benefited from our historic investments in infrastructure has had a lot to do with power and influence in society. For example in South Florida where I live now, we are figuring out how we keep everyone safe under intensifying flooding and heat. This is a massive question of infrastructure, and it's a massive question of figuring out how we can adapt and adjust continuing through time.

Richard Haass: How much of this is the $1.5 trillion bill will make a difference on climate change if it is passed?

Alice C. Hill: I think it will make a significant difference. Of course it depends on how the money is spent, and it requires that it be spent on projects that will actually be resilient. A report just came out from First Street Foundation, which has spent a lot of time looking at the flood risk in the United States, and it identified that 25 percent of our infrastructure is already going to flooded within the next several decades. Similarly, earlier this week Climate Central released visualizations of how much infrastructure in iconic places will be underwater as a result of climate change. We have tons of existing infrastructure that is highly vulnerable and will have to be retrofitted.

For any new infrastructure, we need to ask the basic question of is this bridge is supposed to last 50 years or 100 years? If it lasts longer, will it be up to the kind of damage that these worsening events bring with more heat? That's the critical point of any spending going forward. Do we spend that money wisely to build resilience? That’ll be the key to making sure that that money means what it's intended to do.

Richard Haass: Is there a gap between the administration's rhetoric and the administration's actual policy when it comes to making meaningful changes on climate change?

Arun Majumdar: George Shultz wrote the book A Hinge of History. What he wrote was about coming out of World War II. Out of that came amazing innovation in international governance with the World Bank and WHO and many others. I think we are in a hinge of history right now. Do we have the adequate governance institutions to deal with climate change? I don't think we do.

It is incumbent upon the United States to take some leadership and provide that governance on the international side. I think we are in for some trouble and following up on what Alice said, we have to look at infrastructure that’s not just for today, but anticipating the infrastructure that is resilient to climate change.

One of the projects I’m involved in at Stanford is to figure out not only the threat of climate, but also the vulnerability of communities. What are the risks for a community combined with a threat of climate? We don't know that yet, and I hope we go in that direction and policies are created. The two bills you're talking about are just the start. It is the biggest threat to the global economy; we have to do more than this.

Katharine Mach: I would go back to a word that Arun used at the start, and that's opportunity. When we think about how much ambition we can muster right now, we should be thinking about young kids and recognize that renewables are viable now. This is a major economic opportunity, and we need to have our best policy wonks and lawyers unleashing the potential of technologies that already exist and businesses that are growing. We absolutely know how to do it. It's a matter of political will and cooperation. There's a huge reason for optimism. I work on a university campus and there's nothing that warms my heart more to see young kids getting really noisy about the importance of taking this seriously now.

Richard Haass: In West Virginia, a major coal producer, climate change policy is seen as an essential threat to many West Virginians. How would you convince voters in West Virginia that climate change mitigation policies are an economic opportunity?

Arun Majumdar: This is a this is a fundamental issue with many not just in West Virginia, but many other places where it’s coal country. The reality is that coal is not surviving, not because of climate policies, but because of economic issues. It's much cheaper to produce electricity from natural gas than from coal. It's like many other moments in history; things are shifting, and it's important for the local people to understand how this is shifting, why it is not viable, and then work with the people. We want to leave behind coal, but we don't want to leave people behind. I was part of the Biden transition team and we worked very closely with the labor unions. They're saying we will retrain on other things, but you have to create the environment for jobs to be created. This is where the infrastructure comes in. If you have the environment for new jobs and new employment to be created, and work with the local communities and the labor unions, then you can turn this population to move this new direction. That's the kind of thing that we ought to do.

Richard Haass: How do we ensure that adaptation for the current and shorter-term impacts of climate change is prioritized alongside prevention of future and long-term impacts?

Alice C. Hill: One way to help us prioritize is to create a national adaptation plan. That plan would allow us to measure our progress as well as prioritize. For example, should we invest in beach renourishment, or do we build a seawall or do we help these communities relocate altogether. Without a national adaptation plan, it's very difficult to do that. What instead we do now is wait for the bad thing to happen and then pour massive amounts of money into those communities. We don't ensure that every dollar that's spent should be spent resilient and that's ultimately what a national adaptation plan will help us with. Until we start focusing on all of these decisions and making sure that they consider the future risks, we are on a course of just repeating history. We need to engage deeply in planning and that will help us prioritize our investments.

Katharine Mach: When it comes to preparing for the impacts that are already occurring, the key starting point is that it is more cost effective to be proactive as compared to just waiting for billion dollar disaster after a billion dollar disaster to occur. Whether it's heat or fire or floods, there are many things we know how to do. The real challenge now is making sure that when it's household preparedness or early warning systems or elevation or improved drainage, we're making sure that it's good for the long haul and not just the climate that we've got right now.


 There's this increasing reckoning with the fact that when a disaster occurs, some households are much more able to bounce back, because they've got a big piggy bank and can evacuate and then rebuild as needed. For many communities, by contrast, these disasters are having immense cumulative burdens. Bringing together those changing risks and this real need for thinking about everyone is really the vanguard in increasing preparedness.

“Trying to reduce carbon emissions is connected to our energy system and thereby connected to our economy. What we're realizing is that the 20th century paradigm of developing our economy based on energy use, which is largely fossil energy use, leads to climate change…. “Do we have the adequate governance institutions to deal with climate change? I don't think we do.” -Arun Majumdar