An International Relations Authority Expresses Optimism about Climate Change

When thinking about the challenges the world faces regarding climate change, the global commons nature of the problem immediately highlights the importance of international cooperation, and that suggests that thoughts from those who study and who have experience in international relations can be very informative.  In the most recent episode of my podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” I have the opportunity to engage in a conversation with someone who combines international relations scholarship with significant high-level experience in government.  I’m referring to Meghan O’Sullivan, the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, where she directs the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  You can listen to our podcast conversation, produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, here.

In my view, Meghan O’Sullivan can be thought of as the quintessential Harvard Kennedy School faculty member, because in addition to her extensive and relevant scholarly research, she has had abundant experience in the policy world as a practitioner, including work in policy formulation and negotiation.  In that regard, I will mention just one appointment, namely her role as Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and Deputy National Security Advisor.  Among her other books, she is the author of Windfall: How New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens American Power.  Her research and writing have focused on the intersection of global energy strategies and international affairs, which inspired her to found the Geopolitics of Energy Project at the Kennedy School in 2011.  I ask her to describe the essence of the project.

“The project is founded on the idea that… this interaction [between energy policies and international affairs] is really important for foreign policymakers to understand… [because] energy is a big explanatory variable when we think about power dynamics in the system, and for people who may be on the energy and climate side to… better understand how the global system impacts their ability to move the energy system in one way or the other,” she explains.

O’Sullivan responds to another question by noting that two recent changes in world energy markets are having significant geopolitical consequences – technological advancements, and the global push toward clean energy.

“I think it’s incredibly important [that] the world can get to net-zero and in a time frame that’s going to have a big impact on our climate, and allow us to address all of the insecurities that come about through climate change,” she states. “The push to try to get to net-zero, the effort that countries and businesses and foundations and individuals are making in the interest of either advancing the energy transition or slowing down the energy transition, that has become a really big driver of international affairs.”

Meghan acknowledges that the U.S.-China relationship is also a critical component in the international effort to confront climate change.

“One of the big changes in the international system that’s become very apparent in the last several years has been this U.S.-China great power competition. And it’s in that framework that… we have to drive towards net-zero. And it makes a big difference that we’re no longer in this kind of cooperative environment that characterized a lot of the last 30 years, and we’re in a global environment that is much more competitive,” she says. “What we can achieve through global mechanisms or through international bodies, we have to assess it differently because the U.S.-Chinese relationship is a big part of the environment in which our actions are unfolding.”

She also maintains that while global emissions continue to rise, there are solid reasons for hope that climate solutions will emerge.  

“On the one hand, it’s absolutely true that we’ve seen much progress just in terms of technological advancement and the bringing down of costs of certain renewable technologies and…the really large amounts of money that are going into clean energy investments… That is very heartening,” she says. “On the flip side, though, we can’t ignore the fact that emissions continue to rise. And last year I think was the highest level of global… carbon emissions that we’ve ever seen.”

Taking a big picture view, O’Sullivan expresses the opinion that the global community will coalesce around climate strategies that will foster real progress.

“We’re going to be in a world with hopefully greater technological [capacities]… but also I think we’re going to have more and more political pressures to address this [issue], and I think our political landscape will continue to evolve in a direction where greater climate action will not just be possible, but it will be necessary,” she remarks.

You can hear this and much more in my conversation with Meghan O’Sullivan, which is the 60th episode over the past four years of the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunesPocket CastsSpotify, and Stitcher.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.