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.


U.S. Climate Change Policy in an Era of Political Polarization

Political polarization has reached alarming levels in the United States, with few moderates remaining in either the Republican or Democratic party who are capable of bridging the partisan divide on many, indeed most issues.  Climate change – and more broadly, environment – is one such issue.  I’m pleased to say that in the most recent webinar in our series, Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy, sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA), we featured a conversation with Congressman Garret Graves, a Republican from Louisiana’s 6th Congressional district, who serves as the Ranking Member of the House Select Committee on the Climate CrisisA video recording (and transcript) of the entire webinar is available here.

As many readers of this blog know, in this webinar series I feature leading authorities on climate change policy, whether from academia, the private sector, NGOs, or government.  In this most recent Conversation, I was fortunate to engage with someone who has had solid and important experience in government. 

While stating that climate change is a “huge problem” in need of innovative solutions, Congressman Graves makes the case for bridging political divides by aligning environmental sustainability with economic sustainability.

It is significant that Graves represents a district that has been and will be seriously affected by climate change. The region has lost more than 2,000 square miles of coastline to subsidence and rising sea levels, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. “This is a huge personal issue for us…South Louisiana is a state that doesn’t have a large margin of error in regard to sea level rise.” he says.

Yet Congressman Graves also acknowledges that the political divides in Washington make it very difficult to agree on climate policies, noting that politics has become “a blood sport, with party first, and the country after that.” And he remarks that things don’t seem to be getting any better at the moment.

“I don’t see a trend in the right direction,” he says. “I think people are taking things that people used to be able to rally around, like kittens and dogs and apple pies, and found ways to make them partisan.”

Climate change is certainly one of those issues, the Congressman states, because the discussion has become more emotional than science- and data-driven. But he also notes that if politicians begin speaking about the issue with an eye toward the economic benefits of creating a more diverse energy portfolio, the issue may begin to gain traction among people in both political parties.

“If you bring up climate change and global warming, you’re going to have pretty different views among Democrats and Republicans. However, we have found that if you begin slicing it up into different components [you can achieve some consensus],” he says. “I can be in a room with some liberal folks and talk about the protection of communities and the resilience of ecosystems; it resonates, absolutely. And I can be in rooms with conservative folks talking about how we’ve funded these [climate-related] disasters over and over…and there are all sorts of studies…that have clearly shown how making investments in the front end in resilience or hazard mitigation more than pays for itself in the longer term.”

While Graves expresses his ambivalence toward instituting a national carbon pricing system, he speaks passionately in favor of investing in technological solutions that balance environmental with economic sustainability, including investments in wind, solar, and geothermal. The challenge, he says, is in understanding where the best returns-on-investments will be.

“We’ve got to do a better job now helping decision makers know where and how to most effectively use the tools available to where you get affordable energy, where you get resilience performance, and where you get lower emissions over the long run.”

Congressman Garret Graves also argues that small innovative businesses could play a significant role in helping mitigate the climate crisis in the coming years.

“That is exactly where the problem is going to be solved,” he remarks. “We are going to innovate our way out of this…[because] innovators have the opportunity to come in and disrupt.”

All of this and much more can be seen and heard in our full Conversation here.  I hope you will check it out.

Previous episodes in this series – Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy – have featured Meghan O’Sullivan’s thoughts on Geopolitics and Upheaval in Oil Markets, Jake Werksman’s assessment of the European Union’s Green New Deal, Rachel Kyte’s examination of “Using the Pandemic Recovery to Spur the Clean Transition,” Joseph Stiglitz’s reflections on “Carbon Pricing, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Green Economic Recovery,” Joe Aldy describing “Lessons from Experience for Greening an Economic Stimulus,” Jason Bordoff commenting on “Prospects for Energy and Climate Change Policy under the New U.S. Administration,” Ottmar Edenhofer talking about “The Future of European Climate Change Policy,” Nathaniel Keohane reflecting on “The Path Ahead for Climate Change Policy,” Valerie Karplus talking about “The Future of China’s National Carbon Market,” and Laurence Tubiana reflecting on “A European Perspective on COP26.”

Watch for an announcement about our next webinar. You will be able to register in advance for the event on the website of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.  


Geopolitics and Upheaval in Oil Markets

I’m very pleased to announce that we have launched a new webinar series from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements“Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy,” which features presentations, interviews, and other engagements with leading authorities on climate change and related energy policy, whether from academia, the private sector, NGOs, or government.

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We were fortunate to be able to launch this new series on June 3, 2020, with Meghan O’Sullivan, the Jeanne Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she directs the Geopolitics of Energy Project.  Her most recent book, published by Simon & Schuseter in September, 2017, is Windfall:  How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power.  A recording of the webinar — plus a complete transcript — is available here.

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Megan O’Sullivan

I think it is fair to say that Professor O’Sullivan is 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 as a Special Assistant to President George W. Bush.

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On location in the Middle East during the Bush 43 administration

The webinar begins with Meghan’s presentation on “The Geopolitics of the Global Upheaval in Oil Markets,” in which she touches on the recent impacts on global oil markets of both price competition and the demand shock associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.  Following her presentation, I pose some questions, drawing – in part – on ones submitted by webinar participants. 

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In conversation at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2011 with Richard Haass, former State Department and National Security Council official, and President, Council on Foreign Relations

Again, a recording of the webinar with a complete transcript is available here.  I hope you will check it out.