US Bilateral Climate Commitments Affirmed: Special Presidential Envoy for Climate’s Sr. Adviser—Reed Schuler, on the Record

Reed Schuler

As Congress works to pass a federal budget and bipartisan infrastructure bill ahead of COP26 in November, the LA World Affairs Council and Town Hall hosted a livestream event last month with Reed Schuler, the Senior Advisor to Special Presidential Envoy For Climate John Kerry. Moderated by former Under Secretary for the Environment, Christine Loh, VX News excerpts the conversation on the Biden administration’s government-wide approach to combatting the climate crisis and the status of US climate commitments both domestically and internationally. Access to the entire discussion can be found here

Christine Loh: Reed, please tell us about the climate achievements that have been done in the first months of the Biden Administration? Also, fill us in on the Federal Infrastructure Bill, as some of the spending there also has an impact on the environment and on climate change.

Reed Schuler: President Biden hit the ground running with an extraordinary commitment to addressing climate change, both domestically and internationally. His vision is that climate change is, perhaps, the crisis of the century, and it requires an all-of-government approach. President Biden put in place two new roles, both Secretary Kerry as the first-ever Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and Gina McCarthy as the White House National Climate Advisor, to oversee the president’s enormously ambitious domestic agenda. President Biden also prioritized climate by selecting agency heads and senior staff who had a deep track record in climate work and briefing every member of his cabinet that climate was going to be a top priority from day one.

I would also reference the announcement within the last weeks that coupled an executive order by the President to set a target of achieving 50% zero-emission vehicle sales by 2030. This was a statement supported by labor voices and key automakers in the country and was accompanied by draft rulemaking by the EPA and the DOT to help launch our vehicle standards into the 21st century.

The infrastructure bill that is continuing to move represents a pretty profound bipartisan breakthrough on a number of fronts. In addition to much needed repairs to the nation’s crumbling bridges, roads, transit hubs, and other pieces of critical infrastructure, this package will also make remarkable investments in elements of the President’s climate plan. It provides significant investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure that we need if we’re going to ramp up electric vehicle sales to the level that the President has called for.

Christine Loh: If we were to look back on the last administration, and even if we went back to the Obama administration, what is different today in how (the Biden Administration) deals with foreign policy and climate?

Reed Schuler: At the very top of that answer needs to be this fundamental question about the way in which fighting the climate crisis is prioritized in American foreign policy. There is no question that the climate crisis was a significant priority in the Obama Administration, yet there were always a variety of competing priorities. From day one, The Biden administration has been very clear about the primacy of fighting the climate crisis. It is integrated into our commercial diplomacy, the way that we train new foreign service officers, how ambassadors and senior staff of the United States are assessed for performing their roles, and it even means that the Secretary of State is raising climate in nearly every one of his meetings. When our foreign interlocutors here at every single level take this issue seriously, other countries know that it is a bedrock priority of the United States. This helps us to have maximum leverage in our conversations with a variety of partners and competitors alike and demonstrates that we are going to do whatever is in our power to maximize our bilateral efforts to increase climate action across the world.

Christine Loh: Would you say that this is the first time that climate has such a dominance in priority in foreign affairs in the United States?

Reed Schuler: In foreign affairs, this administration has diverse, new voices and it also has a variety of trusted, experienced National Security professionals. You can see the work that they have been doing previously to help to integrate fighting climate change into American institutions. There is also an increasing drumbeat in that happening by activists, tribes, corporate board rooms, non-profits, states, and cities in a variety of places regarding climate. At the state level, we have the United States Climate Alliance, which persists and has dedicated governors representing more than half of the country’s economy.

Everything that we do at the international level builds upon the efforts of many actors across the country. American foreign policy sits atop a huge domestic base of commitment and that allows us to speak with a much louder and more credible voice on the international front.

Christine Loh: When (a US representative is) working internationally, you are dealing with other countries at different stages of development, and you are also dealing with countries where you have conflict with. How are you [Reed Schuler] dealing with this diversity in all [the Administration’s] external partners?

Reed Schuler:  This administration has made clear that it believes in having multiple aspects to one relationship with another country. For a variety of countries, we may have areas of our relationship that are defined by competition and areas that are defined by mutually seeking progress on critical global goals. Climate is an issue where we have to be able to partner countries to make progress as a global community, even when we have significant friction in our bilateral relationships. We will not relax American standards that are high when they come to standing up for our critical values. We are not willing to sacrifice our ideals, but we are willing to continue having conversations on the climate crisis.

Christine Loh: How do you deal with, for example, developing countries that have coal as one of its domestic resources. What kind of conversations do you have with these countries and how can [the US]  help them to decarbonize?

Reed Schuler: Through the structure of the 2015 Paris Climate agreement, we had a series of profound breakthroughs which centered on the notion that effectively addressing the climate crisis was going to require efforts by all, and that those efforts would look different based on country situations. Each country would be working to understand what role it could do on its own and with the international resources. Secretary Kerry is very devoted to the goal of helping to mobilize other financial resources to help a variety of developing countries that need assistance.

In our work with developing countries, we proceed along multiple channels. The US is providing significant amount of technical assistance to countries in helping to do the overall planning for their power sectors, and transportation. We are also having conversations about the risks of continuing to invest in coal and the value of turning away from the most carbon-intensive resources. To stop the increase in temperature, it will not be enough to have action just from developed countries. It will take a transformation of the entire world’s economy and will require everyone.

We are seeing a lot of encouraging signs. Last year more than 80% of new electricity power generation put in place across the globe was from renewable sources. We are seeing renewables growth, even in developing countries that have previously put forward arguments about the challenges of finding cost-competitive renewable resources. Renewable prices have fallen very rapidly and countries are increasingly recognizing that there are a variety of non-monetary costs of coal.

Christine Loh: As we go into the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in November, what are the challenges and what would you like to see as a successful outcome?

Reed Schuler: This is a pivotal year and what we need to do for COP 26 is both alarming in its scale and urgency. It is also inspiring in the opportunity for us to collectively take action. This is the end of this first five-year cycle of the Paris Agreement which called upon countries to put forward targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through Nationally Determined Contributions or NDC’s. Countries are now being asked to revisit the goals and commitments that they put forward in 2015. Fast-forwarding six years, countries have already made significant progress in bending the curve of future emissions. They have mothballed plans to develop coal power and built renewables faster than they believed possible. Many countries have also made significant progress in addressing some of the most critical deforestation and other land-based challenges resulting in significant emissions.

It is an important time for countries to re-assess and decide not only where they have already made progress, but to understand what more is required from the global community. Secretary Kerry’s work this year is laser-focused on working with Heads of State and Ministers to push all other countries to say that they are coming to COP 26 deepening our commitment to reducing emissions by 2030. It is about how can you look across the suite of work underway to deal with all of these critical challenges and how can you aim for more.

Those goals to reduce emissions absolutely need to be backed up by domestic implementation, but there are also significant goals that will require comprehensive action across different parts of our global economy, working with leading partners on the ground. What is required in this moment is aiming higher and redoubling our efforts at home. To get to net-zero emissions by 2050 is a monumental task and it is going to require persistent efforts over many years, but that’s what’s at stake for this COP.

Christine Loh: What I’m hearing you say is that the Paris Agreement was a bottom-up approach. People put forward what they thought they could do, but now people have realized it is not going to be enough. Is the extent to which new commitments will be made the judge of collective success for the signatories of the Paris Agreement?

Reed Schuler: I think that is a great way to summarize it. The first question is: how are the world’s countries coming forward with new commitments that are in line with where we need to go as a global economy? Our work is really about advancing progress in different sectors. Pick your piece of the national or global economy, and there is work to do to transform that part of the economy into one that is consistent with fighting the climate crisis.

In the vehicle space, for example, there is a range of work to share policies of how do we speed the transition to electric vehicles. As with many of these big challenges, there’s not just one main tool. There are a suite of regulatory measures to ensure that manufacturers are moving along. There are supply chain conversations to ensure that we are getting ahead of shortages. There are labor conversations to ensure that we are getting ahead of workforce challenges. Just on the vehicles front, we have conversations going with many countries about how we can move this work forward, and these global climate conferences are almost dizzying in the diversity of different efforts happening.

Audience Q&A: Many workers are concerned about job loss in this transformation of the economy. Can you share any examples of how it can go well for labor?

Reed Schuler: We have to integrate these concerns into everything that we do. For example, Secretary of Energy, former governor Jennifer Granholm, has a new advisor to assist her on workforce transition issues and to ensure that those concerns are integrated into all the work that the Department of Energy does.

On the policy front, there are a variety of important efforts. Washington State passed a leading 100% clean electricity law pointing the pathway to zero carbon emissions in the power sector. That law contains important provisions that help to maximize incentives for utilities and clean energy developers in supporting workers. It created a sliding scale where projects that were not doing a great job of maximizing benefits for workers and communities are not getting benefits under the law.

There are also successful apprenticeship programs that are about ensuring that we are building appropriate skills in the next generation of the workforce and that we are providing those same opportunities to workers who are in parts of our economy that are shrinking.

Audience Q&A: Can you speak about regenerative agriculture and how farmers are adapting their practices to improve soil, water usage, and crop output in addressing climate change?

Reed Schuler: Agriculture lies in the heart of our food systems and is an enormous employer in many places. As the question implies, some agricultural systems are also significant contributors to pollution. There is a very high priority on ensuring that farmers and the agricultural industry are not negatively impacted by our climate work. There is a very high interest in moving to a system that is based on additional resources for farmers to be able to put into place new practices and technology that will allow them to minimize their carbon output.

Frankly, agriculture is at one end of the spectrum in terms of the challenge of reducing emissions. There are some areas where the solutions are here and now. There are a number of places in agriculture where we do not have the solutions here yet. There are a variety of activities that do generate some emissions, and it is about the collaboration between agriculture, the science innovation community, and policymakers in providing the ecosystem that works for everyone

 

“[President Biden’s] vision is that climate change is, perhaps, the crisis of the century, and it requires an all-of-government approach.”
“Climate is an issue where we have to be able to partner countries to make progress as a global community, even when we have significant friction in our bilateral relationships.”—Reed Schuler

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