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President Barack Obama meets with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Senior Advisor Brian Deese, right, in the Oval Office
President Barack Obama meets with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Senior Advisor Brian Deese, right, in the Oval Office, April 21, 2015. Credit: White House/Pete Souza.
INTERVIEWS
10 April 2017 8:00

The Carbon Brief Interview: Brian Deese

Leo Hickman

Leo Hickman

04.10.17
Leo Hickman

Leo Hickman

10.04.2017 | 8:00am
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: Brian Deese

Brian Deese served as President Barack Obama’s senior adviser on climate change, energy and conservation from January 2015 to January 2017. Previously, he served Obama’s administration as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. He is currently a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

  • Deese on Donald Trump’s efforts to upturn Obama’s legacy on climate change: “The change in rhetoric and the change in posture is, in and of itself, damaging, frankly, embarrassing for those who operate internationally.”
  • On seeing Trump trying to tear up his work on climate: “As a citizen and as a father, it’s clearly very frustrating…The real issue is the lost opportunities for the country…I take quite a bit of personal offence and find quite frustrating the cavalier attitude.”
  • On the impact of Trump on climate action: “I think that anyone who cares about this issue, anyone who cares about the country and the trajectory of the country, can’t look at what’s happening and be anything other than alarmed. Alarmed by the posture, alarmed by the rhetoric.”
  • On the Republican’s extreme reaction to climate change: “This is a debate that the rest of the world has moved on from…Within the United States, there is one segment within one political party that has a vested financial interest in continuing to push that debate into the mainstream.”
  • On the “new breed” who deny climate science: “The challenge is that, as climate denial becomes increasingly out of fashion, there is a new breed that says, “Well, maybe climate change is happening, but there’s nothing we can do about it.” In some ways, that’s just as dangerous.”
  • On getting people to care about climate change: “[Must] find ways to connect climate change and meet people where they are. It is a challenging issue to say global average temperatures are rising by a degree. That doesn’t mean anything to anybody in their life. It’s hard to take that home and stack that up against how am I going to meet my next health insurance payment?”
  • On Trump and the Paris Agreement: “No administration is capable of cancelling Paris, cancelling the momentum behind it…The irony of this is that the biggest loser, if the United States steps away from the negotiating table here, is the United States…Countries with their own tumultuous political processes have come through that saying, ‘We’re committed to this.’ Take the UK and Brexit as an example. We know where the world is going.”
  • On the US not engaging in international climate talks: “US industries will be put at a competitive disadvantage. There’s no question about that…If the United States backs away, that conversation is going to keep going. That table is going to keep happening. That train has left the station.”
  • On how the history books will judge this era’s efforts on climate change: “My hope is that you look back several generations and say…for the first time, that was the turning point where you started to see the global community put the priority on this issue that it deserves.”
  • On Trump’s support of coal: “Donald Trump’s election ostensibly would be the most significant pro-coal market event that has happened in recent memory. And, since that period, you’ve seen no material improvement in market performance.”
  • On Trump and coal miners: “Ultimately, I think the administration is going to have to answer for the fact that they have put forward a completely unrealistic picture of what is actually happening in coal communities, and what could happen if they pulled some magic levers that they don’t have. And they’re going to have to answer for that reality.”
  • On CCS: “Whether you can produce effective carbon capture and sequestration technology is an incredibly important question for the purposes of our economy and our climate…We have a real stake in getting that technology right…Whether it’s carbon capture or advanced nuclear technology, or wind, or solar, or batteries, or otherwise – is an incredibly smart down-payment, cost-effective investment, that actually could, if we got those technologies right, provide a viable future for coal as part of the energy mix going forward.”
  • On the partisan fight over picks of Supreme Court judges: “It is extraordinarily disheartening, the decision that Republicans made last year to block any consideration [for Obama’s pick]. And I think the events of now today in what’s happening to the filibuster in the US are the result of those decisions. And so it’s disheartening, and it’s bad for our country.”
  • On Trump’s dismissal of the social cost of carbon: “It is very important that other countries, and outside of the government, people continue to do work on objectively using the best science to try to arrive at the best effort to measure the social cost of carbon. And that’s an effort that should be left to science.”
  • On Obama saying the world is not doing enough on climate: “Anything that slows down the US progress, or halts US progress for some increment of time, is a dangerous, dangerous undertaking. And it will set back our efforts to get ahead of an issue that we were already behind…Doing nothing is a very dangerous path.”
  • On Republican attacks on climate science and slashing of science budgets: “I think it is economically wrong-headed and I think it’s, frankly, embarrassing for a country that has been founded on the basis of scientific integrity, innovation, and the entrepreneurship that comes from that…And it is embarrassing to be in a posture where you have the federal government diminishing the important role that science plays in our life, in our education system, and in our economy.”
  • On the media and climate change: “There are undeniable and indisputable facts that are affecting people in their lives. And so having an unbiased, clear, and unrelenting effort to try to make sure that people have that information is critical in any free society and in any democracy.”
  • On why the US should not pull out of the Paris Agreement: “Great countries keep their commitments…One thing that’s unambiguously clear is the Paris Agreement is moving forward and the countries of the world are committed to moving that forward as well…First and foremost, when you have the rest of the world moving forward, thinking creatively about how they can position themselves in that race for clean energy jobs of the future, stepping back, isolating yourself, is going to first and foremost put the United States in an impaired position…It is absolutely in the United States’ interest and the world’s interest for the US to stay engaged in that process going forward.”
  • On the chances of limiting global warming to well below 2C: “You don’t have to believe in unicorns and fairytales to see how that could happen, but we’re behind. And Paris, in and of itself, provides the best shot to get there, but Paris itself, in terms of the cumulative impact of the INDCs, is insufficient.”
  • On China and climate change: “The durability of the Chinese commitment on this issue is real…The Chinese commitment…is not a function of its relationship with the United States. It is, ultimately, a function of its own self-interest…I anticipate that you will see other countries that are looking for partners on clean-energy technologies and clean-energy deployment increasingly look to China, which is an enormous missed opportunity for the United States.”

 

Carbon Brief: It’s been more than two months since you left the White House as President Obama’s senior advisor on climate change. How much damage has Donald Trump already done in that time to upturn Obama’s legacy on climate change? What might come next?

Brian Deese: I think that it’s important that you keep the big picture and the long term in perspective. One thing about that question… On the one hand, the change in rhetoric and the change in posture is, in and of itself, damaging, frankly, embarrassing for those who operate internationally and have to deal with the realities of climate change in their businesses or in their operations.

On the other hand, the power sector continues to move toward lower-emission sources of energy. People, businesses, innovators in the United States continue to move toward making more fuel-efficient vehicles. The energy-efficiency business in the United States is booming. More than two million people employed in that industry.

Those trends are pretty well established within the fabric of our economy. The market is driving them forward. The new administration has done very little to affect those plans. I anticipate that they will have significantly less impact on those market trends than some of the more dire predictions suggest.

CB: On a personal level, how do you feel watching the president now effectively trying to tear up what you’ve been working on over all that time?

BD: As a citizen and as a father, it’s clearly very frustrating. The effort that we undertook in the Obama administration was never about a single person, or a team, or a president. It was about trying to reorient this country to address one of the most significant threats of our time and also harness one of the biggest opportunities of our time. At the end of the day, the real issue is the lost opportunities for the country.

I will say that, having had the privilege of working with dedicated career public servants in agencies across the government for several years, I take quite a bit of personal offence and find quite frustrating the cavalier attitude toward the contributions that they have to make and the extraordinary work and body of work and body of knowledge that exists within the federal government. At the end of day, the real opportunity here is for the American economy and the real stakes for people in-country.

CB: Have you spoken to President Obama since leaving the White House about what President Trump is saying on climate change?

BD: I didn’t get into talking about my individual back-and-forth with the president when I was there working for him. I’ll keep that as one of my rules going forward. I think that anyone who cares about this issue, anyone who cares about the country and the trajectory of the country, can’t look at what’s happening and be anything other than alarmed. Alarmed by the posture, alarmed by the rhetoric.

I also think it is very important for those people who care about the United States continuing to make progress in climate change that they keep the big picture in perspective and be able to weed out the things that matter, the impacts, that will actually make a difference versus the rhetoric. The signal versus the noise.

CB: Please can you explain to our readers, particularly non-American readers, why so many Republicans seem to have such an extreme reaction to climate science and the resulting climate policy response. Why is there such a pronounced partisan divide in the US over climate change?

BD: It’s something that I think is very difficult for people outside the United States to understand in large part because this is a debate that the rest of the world has moved on from. One of the things that was most striking to me about being in the middle of international negotiations on climate was that we had very difficult negotiations over a variety of different issues – relative contributions of countries, financing and who’s going to pay. But the one thing we never debated with conservative governments from other countries or otherwise were the basic set of facts about what was happening to the climate and human’s role in that trajectory.

Within the United States, there is one segment within one political party that has a vested financial interest in continuing to push that debate into the mainstream. The good news is that, increasingly, there are parts of the Republican Party, as well as the middle of the political spectrum in the Democratic Party in the United States, that realise that they can’t afford to continue to forment climate denial.

The challenge is that, as climate denial becomes increasingly out of fashion, there is a new breed that says, “Well, maybe climate change is happening, but there’s nothing we can do about it.” In some ways, that’s just as dangerous. This is a political project that is an undone project in the United States and does put us in a different place than other countries around the world.

I think my message to those people outside the United States is it’s important also for them to keep the bigger picture in perspective, for them to realise that states representing half of the population and more than 60% of the electorate in the last election are led by governors who are doing everything they can on a daily basis to try to move the ball forward to address climate change.

The business community in the United States has, for the most part, moved aggressively into the posture that it’s in the United State’s interest to try to compete and win for the new clean energy jobs of the future. It’s important outside the United States, as well as inside the United States, that people keep their eye on that bigger picture.

CB: How do you deal with an intergenerational, international problem like climate change within a democracy built on two- to four-year political cycles in which politicians are in a never-ending loop of campaigning and fundraising?

BD: The $64,000 question. The political challenge of climate change in the United States is relatively easy to diagnose. The latest data suggests that, in the last election, more than 50% of voters in every county in the United States supported putting limits on carbon pollution coming out existing coal-fired power plant. In every district – red districts, blue districts or otherwise – actions that were at the core of the Obama climate agenda are popular. More than 50% of people support them.

On the other hand, when you ask where does climate change rank among the priorities that are most important to you – jobs, economic security, national security – climate consistently ranks outside of the top five. It’s a popular issue, but it’s a low-intensity issue. The question is, “How do you overcome that?” Increasingly, the answer is connecting this to local issues that affect people in their lives today.

If you look at places that are increasingly affected in real terms by climate issues; pockets of the American west where wildfires have now encroached upon people’s communities in an annual way that they can’t avoid; parts of the eastern seaboard where you’re seeing these sunny-day floods where the water is seeping up through Miami Beach, for example, when you get to high tide. Those are places where people are starting to realise and recognise the impact in their day-to-day life.

Part of what’s incumbent on people who work on this issue is to find ways to connect climate change and meet people where they are. It is a challenging issue to say global average temperatures are rising by a degree. That doesn’t mean anything to anybody in their life. It’s hard to take that home and stack that up against how am I going to meet my next health insurance payment?

If you can find ways to connect it into people’s lives in very practical terms… This is what it’s going to mean for your job. This is what it’s going to mean for the community that you live in. For the insurance rates that you’re going to have to pay for your home. For the risk to the air that your kids breathe when you put them on the bus to go to school in the morning. Those are issues that capture people and capture them to activism and capture them to care about and prioritise those issues at the ballot box. It’s an undone project, but one where the path is clearer now than it has been in the past.

CB: You mentioned that you are a father. How do you explain climate change and the US’s role in dealing with an international problem like this to your children, or your child?

BD: I have a 4-year-old daughter. We’re just beginning that process. I think it comes back to the basics of the way that you try to connect this issue to anyone, which is she already understands the importance of having clean air, having clean water, and taking responsibility for the environment that you operate in. If you are kind and you are conscientious, then you are going to leave the world a better place for those who come after you.

It is striking that typical people, whether they’re in the United States or elsewhere, whether they’re young, old, or otherwise, connect to the local environment within which they live. People are passionate about the local air quality and the local water quality because they’re worried about their own lives and livelihoods, but because they also feel they have a stake in that. Making those connexions between the very localised impacts and the global nature of this problem is at the heart of the challenge. I think those who care about climate change need to do a better job of figuring out how to localise these issues and meet people where they are.

 

CB: The Paris Agreement. Trump has signalled that he wants to pull the US donation, if he can get his budget through, out of the GCF [Green Climate Fund], etc. He’s also signalled – he hasn’t decided yet – but there may be an effort to wind down the US [emissions reduction] pledge or lower it. Is this essentially handing game, set, and match diplomatically and economically, in terms of clean energy innovation and economic opportunities, to China?

BD: If you look at the Paris Agreement, you have to understand that it is not just the words on the page. It’s the movement that not just countries diplomatically, but business and NGOs and others contributed to. If you look at the momentum behind that movement, what’s clear is that the Trump administration, nor any particular political party leading any particular country right now, is capable…No administration is capable of cancelling Paris, cancelling the momentum behind it. Technically, the agreement is entered into force. That happened last year, years quicker than people anticipated.

For the United States to pull back from that, there’s a technical process that we need to go through. More generally, the irony of this is that the biggest loser, if the United States steps away from the negotiating table here, is the United States. The countries of the world have already made clear the direction they’re intending to go. More than 130 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement. Every major economy has reaffirmed its commitment to the Paris Agreement since the election in the United States in November. Countries with their own tumultuous political processes have come through that saying, “We’re committed to this.” Take the UK and Brexit as an example. We know where the world is going.

The principal risk, if the United States backs away, is that that’s the negotiating table where other countries are going to seek opportunities, opportunities to partner on clean energy technologies, opportunities to deploy the kind of financing in the Green Climate Fund and otherwise, to try to deploy the most innovative, scalable technologies in their own countries. If the United States isn’t part of the conversation, then US industries will be put at a competitive disadvantage. There’s no question about that.

Having sat at that negotiating table for several years, other countries are looking opportunistically for opportunities. Part of what the job of the United States delegation is, is to sit there and protect US interests. If the United States backs away, that conversation is going to keep going. That table is going to keep happening. That train has left the station. The risks for the United States are real in that context. I hope, as a citizen and as somebody who recognises the jobs and the economic opportunity that can come from clean energy in the future, that we don’t end up in that situation.

The last thing I would say – and this is important in an international context, too – is that the clean energy opportunities run across the technology standpoint. Some of the most exciting opportunities in the future are around partnering on things like carbon capture and storage technology. If you look at what the long-term future for coal is internationally, as well as in the United States, it’s around breakthroughs in carbon capture technology that allows you to capture the emissions so you can continue to produce energy and electricity from coal.

Same is true for nuclear technology. There’s going to be a big push to instal more nuclear technology in places like China and India. The United States has a choice. Their businesses can be part of those export opportunities and they can be part of setting safety standards to try to help ensure that these things are done the right way, or we can back away from the table. Those conversations can continue without us. Our businesses can be handicapped. We will have less of a hand in what happens in the future.

CB: Looking ahead two, three, or four generations away, how will the history books look back and remember both the Obama and the Trump administrations, when it comes to climate change?

BD: I think the people who are living the issues in the era now are usually the worst at projecting what historians will say about it in the future. I will start with an upfront, quite a bit of dose of humility about what historians will say. What I hope they’ll say as they look back at this period in the country and the world and they see this as the turning point when the global community, for the first time in a serious and durable way, took seriously the issue of climate change and resolved to try to start to solve it.

The actions to date aren’t anywhere close to what’s going to be necessary to solve this issue. Obviously, as the political change in the United States suggests, this is not going to move in a straight line. I think if you look at what’s happened over the last several years, the momentum toward addressing climate change is irreversible. There’s something different about that than has ever happened before. That’s embodied in the Paris Agreement, but it’s much bigger than the Paris Agreement.

My hope is that you look back several generations and say, “They didn’t get it right. They weren’t moving fast enough. They weren’t as aggressive as they should have been. But, for the first time, that was the turning point where you started to see the global community put the priority on this issue that it deserves.”

President Barack Obama meets with senior advisors in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Oct. 22, 2014. Seated across from the President are Katie Beirne Fallon, Director of Legislative Affairs, and Brian Deese, Deputy Director, Office of Management and Budget

President Barack Obama meets with senior advisors in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Oct. 22, 2014. Seated across from the President are Katie Beirne Fallon, Director of Legislative Affairs, and Brian Deese, Deputy Director, Office of Management and Budget. Credit: White House/Pete Souza.

Part two of the interview took place via Skype…

CB: OK, so just to pick up from where we were, I just want to go through a few issues one at a time, rather than the big picture stuff. So can we just start with the Clean Power Plan? Just how vulnerable is it to Trump at the moment?

BD: Well, I think you need to start with the legal basis of the Clean Power Plan, which stemmed from the Supreme Court decision in Mass vs EPA and then the subsequent finding by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] – the so-called endangerment finding – that created a requirement for the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act. So, if you start from that premise, the EPA is under an obligation to regulate in some form or fashion. The Clean Power Plan was a final rule in place to fulfil that requirement regulating existing sources under Section 111(d). If you want to take that away, you have to answer two questions, neither of which I’ve seen an answer to.

The first is on what substantive basis are you changing those rules, given the extraordinary extensive record that was put in place in the context of finalising the Clean Power Plan, the record of not only input from all sorts of stakeholders, but also the record about the economic and the emissions benefits of the rule?

But you also then have to say how it is that you are going to meet the obligation to regulate greenhouse gases in the absence of the Clean Power Plan? We haven’t seen the answer to either of those two questions from the administration, and so, as a result, it’s impossible to answer with precision. But I think, as a general rule, it’s going to be much more difficult for them to answer both of those questions in a way that will survive legal scrutiny than I think that people generally anticipate.

The last thing I’ll say is that, under any circumstances, that process takes a significant amount of time. The process for us of going from designing the proposed rule to notice and comment, to final rule over time, took years. And so the process is – even at its fastest pace – will take years here as well, and that’s without taking into account doing it within an EPA that is being very stressed in terms of budgets and personnel.

CB: Realistically, what do you think President Trump’s prospects are for reviving jobs in the US coal industry through his recent executive order? And, in a related way, he talks about “clean coal”. Is that just a fantasy?

BD: I think that the market is answering that question and the market’s answer is definitive. If you look at the coal market since Donald Trump has been elected, the coal sector in the United States has underperformed the market. You’ve got to step back and think about that. Donald Trump’s election ostensibly would be the most significant pro-coal market event that has happened in recent memory. And, since that period, you’ve seen no material improvement in market performance. And what that underscores is this is not principally an issue about regulation.

The basic narrative that has been put forward is not factually accurate. The coal industry has been under market pressure for decades and that pressure is going to continue to accelerate. And so I think that nothing in the executive order that was [recently] released is going to change those dynamics. And, ultimately, I think the administration is going to have to answer for the fact that they have put forward a completely unrealistic picture of what is actually happening in coal communities, and what could happen if they pulled some magic levers that they don’t have. And they’re going to have to answer for that reality.

To the last question about clean coal, one unfortunate thing that gets lost in this conversation is that the question of whether you can produce effective carbon capture and sequestration technology is an incredibly important question for the purposes of our economy and our climate.

One of the things we did before we left office was we did an assessment of a long-term strategy, a mid-century strategy [pdf] that looked out on what are the pathways that the United States economy could decarbonise between now and the middle of the century. And one of the big takeaways from that is, that under almost any scenario, it is cheaper, easier, and more cost effective to decarbonise the economy, if you assume technological breakthroughs in carbon capture and sequestration, which could be applied in the coal context, but other sources as well, like natural gas.

So we have a real stake in getting that technology right, to a place where it could be commercialised on economic terms. That’s not where we are today and that’s the kind of thing that would require a significant investment in basic research over the next several years. And I hope that the current administration recognises that basic research into clean energy of all forms – whether it’s carbon capture or advanced nuclear technology, or wind, or solar, or batteries, or otherwise – is an incredibly smart down-payment, cost-effective investment, that actually could, if we got those technologies right, provide a viable future for coal as part of the energy mix going forward.

But that’s the truth of how to think about how coal fits in the energy mix and it’s far removed from the rhetoric and the current context, but there’s nothing in what’s happened to date that is going to change the truth of what I just said.

CB: Moving onto the next big issues. How secure do you think the EPA’s endangerment finding is around CO2 being treated as a pollutant? What would be the fallout if that was ever reversed? And how might the Trump administration actually go about reversing that, realistically?

BD: Well, I haven’t seen any indication that they will and I don’t understand the legal reasoning on which you could do that, given the record in that case, in that rulemaking. So I have not seen, nor do I understand, a supportable logic or approach to unwind the endangerment finding. So my hope and expectation is that we’re not going to see that happen.

CB: And, equally, how secure do you think the use of the social cost of carbon as a cost-benefit-analysis metric, and for policy making… how secure do you think that will be under Trump, given he has specifically said that he wants to target it?

BD: Well, the executive order that was released formally pulled back the social cost of carbon reports and work that had been done. So, in practical terms, the answer to your question is I don’t anticipate the social cost of carbon will be incorporated into rulemaking that is happening in federal agencies in the coming years.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how much actual climate regulation is going to happen under the Trump administration. The broader question about the social cost of carbon continues to be an important one because, notwithstanding the current administration’s position, it is very important that other countries, and outside of the government, people continue to do work on objectively using the best science to try to arrive at the best effort to measure the social cost of carbon. And that’s an effort that should be left to science.

The way that we did it in the Obama administration and how the National Academies of Science do an extensive review of that effort, that’s the way that it should happen going forward. So I don’t anticipate that it will be something that will be operationalised in the Trump administration, but I do hope that other countries continue to move that forward.

CB: In the US system, can you explain how significant Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court will be for the coming years around climate and energy policy?

BD: Well, I think that the stakes for climate policy are quite significant when it comes to the Supreme Court. Nearly all of the things that we’ve talked about so far are issues that are going to, ultimately, be determined in the courts. And, ultimately, those issues will rise up to the Supreme Court. And so the composition and the makeup of the Supreme Court will be a significant factor. And as I was the person who was tasked by President Obama to help run the process of selecting Merrick Garland and then sherpa-ing him through the process last year, it is extraordinarily disheartening, the decision that Republicans made last year to block any consideration. And I think the events of now today in what’s happening to the filibuster in the US are the result of those decisions. And so it’s disheartening, and it’s bad for our country.

But, in terms of questions about existing Supreme Court precedent, it is important for people to keep in perspective that the current Supreme Court vacancy that we’re talking about is replacing Justice Scalia, so if you’re thinking about existing Supreme Court precedent, including Mass vs EPA, which happened in 2007 when Justice Scalia was on the court, I don’t think you’re likely to see a significant realignment around existing Supreme Court precedent. The question about future cases is obviously less certain.

CB: You already mentioned the deep decarbonisation plan that you obviously worked on and presented at COP22 in Morocco last November. Do you think that is totally scuppered now by Trump, or are there some key elements of that vision which you think can still be achievable in the years and decades ahead?

BD: Well, the mid-century strategy [pdf] was intended not to be a policy document. It was intended to be a tool for policymakers, stakeholders, industry participants and others to help understand what it looks like and what it would take for the US to be on a more aggressive decarbonisation pathway. So I think that the value and the analysis that went into that report will continue to stand the test of time. And it continues to be a resource that is available for the public, including the data and the modelling that went into that report.

So that was not intended to be a prescriptive policy document. It was intended to be a resource and I hope that it continues to be so. Including, importantly for other countries, because the Paris Agreement itself invites all countries to submit a mid-century strategy. The United States, Canada, a few other countries have now done so.

And that template, in terms of a way of going about doing the analyses, is one that is still out there, and other countries, I hope, will continue to look to as they think about how to do their modelling exercises and their analytical work that will feed into their own mid-century strategies.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by White House Senior Adviser Brian Deese and State Department Chief of Staff Jon Finer, speaks on December 12, 2015, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius - President of the COP21 climate change conference - about the final draft of a multinational environmental agreement

US Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by White House Senior Adviser Brian Deese and State Department Chief of Staff Jon Finer, speaks on December 12, 2015, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius – President of the COP21 climate change conference – about the final draft of a multinational environmental agreement. Credit: US Department of State.

CB: In August 2015, President Obama travelled to Alaska and gave a speech in which he stressed four times that, “We’re not acting fast enough.” Will the US now have to rely even more heavily on largely untested negative emissions technologies such as BECCS, bioenergy carbon capture and storage, in the decades ahead?

BD: I think we don’t know the answer to that question, but it underscores the really serious and dangerous moment that we find ourselves in. Because if you look at what’s happened over the last several years on climate change, we’ve made extraordinary and, in fact, improbably progress with emissions falling faster than most people projected, and the cost of renewable technologies falling faster than most people anticipated.

But, at the same time, there’s no question that, even in the midst of that progress, we’re not moving nearly fast enough to avoid the immediate and worst impacts of climate change. So anything that slows down the US progress, or halts US progress for some increment of time, is a dangerous, dangerous undertaking. And it will set back our efforts to get ahead of an issue that we were already behind.

So I think the question of the exact technology mix that the United States or other countries are going to need to get ahead of this is one that we can’t predict sitting here today. But the one thing we do know is that policies to combat climate change is a little like insurance, and the earlier you undertake activities to mitigate the long-term damage, the cheaper and more cost effective they can be. And the longer you wait, the more costly it is to underwrite against those risks, and there will be some point where, ultimately, the costs will be uninsurable. So that means that doing nothing is a very dangerous path.

CB: There’s a few US scientists at the moment who are about to begin field research into geoengineering techniques, such as solar radiation management. Do you support that research?

BD: I think that basic curiosity-driven research in the area of clean energy technologies is worthy and important. I don’t have a particular expertise in geoengineering technologies other than a broader policy view that if you look at the extraordinary potential for emissions reductions associated with deployment of already known technologies, or technologies that are close to be commercialised, I think that we should be placing significant priority on ramping up the deployment of existing or near-commercialised technologies.

And so I think that we don’t want to lose our focus on those types of efforts. This is a more general point, getting away from the geoengineering point, which I think people generally put too much effort on, and turn too much into a hot-button issue. I think the more basic issue is that the world and governments around the world should be doing more basic research into material science and other inputs that could help unlock new technological breakthroughs in this space.

CB: In your view, what do you think the US energy mix is going to look like in, say, about 20, 25 years time, compared to today?

BD: Well, I think that under almost any scenario the reliance on coal as part of the electricity mix will fall. The question of exactly how quickly that happens is subject to debate and uncertainty, but it will fall under almost any scenario.

I think you’ll see a continued, significant increase and ramp up in the deployment of renewables. I think a big question mark is what the baseload power looks like in the United States. The question of the ramp down in costs of battery storage technology is an uncertainty, but an upside risk; meaning that you could see even greater deployment of intermittent renewables if coupled with battery storage deployed at scale. I think if you see that starting to enter into the mix, then you see a more fundamental shift away from existing sources of baseload power, including natural gas.

CB: On the matter of energy efficiency, it’s kind of hard to see why anyone would be against measures that increase energy efficiency. But I’m thinking of Trump’s rollback of the corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE) in vehicles. Can you explain why someone would try to go after that?

BD: Well, first, I make a broader point, which is energy efficiency is a large and thriving industry in the United States. Most people don’t realise that there are 2.2 million Americans who are employed in the energy efficiency industry. It’s extraordinary source of economic vitality and that’s a growing industry in the United States.

With respect to fuel economy, specifically, first, it’s important to recognise what the administration has and hasn’t done. They have not scrapped the fuel economy standards, nor have they indicated, definitively, that they intend to try to do that. What they have said is that they will review those standards that we, the Obama administration, put in place for 2022-2025 and work with the auto companies to see whether those standards need to be changed.

But given the way the United States’ system works, California and many other states that follow it, have the legal authority to set their own fuel-economy standards. So, to the degree that the Trump administration tries to change the federal standard, you could easily get yourself in a situation, which is the situation we found ourselves in 2009, where California sets its own sets of standards, and then the auto companies operating in the United States face an untenable choice of having two different national standards.

So I think the question of what ultimately happens in this process was one that is very much not answered, and which you have to be careful to look below the rhetoric of the current administration to the reality of what’s happening.

But, with respect to the question of why they’d be opposed, you know, fuel economy standards, we’ve conducted a very significant review of the implementation of fuel economy standards over the last several years because we wanted to objectively ask and answer the question of, “Have the standards worked to produce the kind of cost savings to consumers that would justify modest increases in the cost of the vehicles that they purchase?”

And what we found was that the auto companies have been able to deploy new technology at lower cost than they anticipated, and, therefore, the net savings to consumers was greater than we anticipated.

But, look, the debate between industry, it’s not entirely foreign. If a mandate to increase fuel economy increases the cost of making a vehicle, then you naturally are going to have companies pushing back and saying, “We don’t want to do that.” The question from the perspective of the American public, and from consumers in the economy, is, “Are the benefits associated with lower fuel costs – meaning, you can drive more miles on a tank of gas and, therefore, you’re paying less at the pump – do those outweigh any additional costs that you might pay on the front end for a vehicle?” The data show very conclusively that the answer is that the benefits outweigh the costs in this case. So, I think we’re going to have to wait and see what happens as this process unfolds.

CB: Some Republican lawmakers, such as Lamar Smith, seem to be conducting what can only be described really as a political witch-hunt against climate scientists. President Trump has signalled that he wants his budget to dramatically strip funding for earth monitoring satellites and climate research in general. In your view, is such an an assault on science and evidence-based policymaking un-American?

BD: I think it is economically wrong-headed and I think it’s, frankly, embarrassing for a country that has been founded on the basis of scientific integrity, innovation, and the entrepreneurship that comes from that. One of our greatest assets as a country is the scientific and research expertise that we have across the federal government complex, whether that’s in Department of Defence or the DOE [Department of Energy] national labs, and in our universities that are often funded through federal research dollars.

That asset has delivered extraordinary wealth and job creation to the United State for decades. It’s part of our DNA as a country. And so it’s wrongheaded to indiscriminately cut funding for the science that is undertaking, the data that people in both the public and the private sector use, and the scientists and the dedicated public servants who do that work. And it is embarrassing to be in a posture where you have the federal government diminishing the important role that science plays in our life, in our education system, and in our economy.

So, certainly, it’s a challenge, it’s a problem, and, again, I would also just encourage everyone to recognise that you have to separate the rhetoric from the reality. And while the budget that the administration put out was a festival of horrors in terms of the cuts, that’s the beginning of a long process, and so there is still time and opportunity to make the case for why, for example, cutting basic research funding for things like carbon capture sequestration, nuclear, wind, and solar, is an economically unwise thing to do. I refer to it as penny foolish and pound foolish.

But that process is one that is actively underway in the US and it’s important that people who care about these issues raise their voices.

CB: What role do you think the media in the US plays in the partisan divide that we see on matters around climate change?

BD: The media plays an indispensable role and when the political discourse is constantly trying to wear down the American public by suggesting that there are no real facts, it’s very important that people continue to focus on the fact that there are undeniable and indisputable facts that are affecting people in their lives. And so having an unbiased, clear, and unrelenting effort to try to make sure that people have that information is critical in any free society and in any democracy. It’s particularly important on an issue like climate change which has both global scope, but also real-life, local implications.

CB: What’s worse from a diplomatic point of view in your eyes for the Paris Agreement… President Trump stopping all US donations to things such as the Green Climate Fund? Or Trump watering down the US pledge for 2025? Or would it actually be better, as some have suggested, that the US just pulls out of Paris, if all the Trump administration wants to do is undermine the negotiations?

BD: Well, I think that great countries keep their commitments, and what you’ve seen in the wake of the Trump election is that every major country has recommitted themselves to the Paris Agreement. That includes countries in diverse as profile from the OPEC countries to China, India, the Europeans, Latin Americans, and otherwise.

And so I think the one thing that’s unambiguously clear is the Paris Agreement is moving forward and the countries of the world are committed to moving that forward as well. A big part of that is because people recognise that there is now a race on for the clean-energy jobs of the future and the economic benefits that will come with those.

So, on any of these questions, you’re asking about incrementally, whether and to what degree the United States may step back from its commitments and may pull itself back from that table and that race. I think the first question people need to ask themselves is what harm is that going to do to the United States? Because, first and foremost, when you have the rest of the world moving forward, thinking creatively about how they can position themselves in that race for clean energy jobs of the future, stepping back, isolating yourself, is going to first and foremost put the United States in an impaired position.

So I think that any of those actions will handicap the United States. But I think that the Paris Agreement itself is proving that it is a durable tool that can withstand really significant changes, geopolitical changes, across the world. And nobody anticipated when the Paris Agreement was first agreed to, that you would see Brexit, or the Trump election, or many other global phenomena. But you’re seeing the Paris Agreement move forward, and it is absolutely in the United States’ interest and the world’s interest for the US to stay engaged in that process going forward.

CB: What do you think the chances are now of staying “well below 2C,” let alone 1.5C, as was described in the Paris Agreement, particularly now with President Trump for one or even two terms? In your personal view, do you think we’re going to hit the “well below 2C” target?

BD: Look, I think we’re behind. And so there are still real, credible, serious pathways to hit that mark. You don’t have to believe in unicorns and fairytales to see how that could happen, but we’re behind. And Paris, in and of itself, provides the best shot to get there, but Paris itself, in terms of the cumulative impact of the INDCs [national emissions pledges], is insufficient.

So we’re going to have to do more. We’re going to have to move faster and get more aggressive. In the near term, that’s going to likely principally happen outside the United States. But the truth is that the countries that are thinking about how to gain a leg up are thinking about how to do it because it’s in their economic interest to do so. So I think that there is a pathway to hit those targets. It will require countries across the world ramping up their actions. And so I think it’s a mistake for people who care about climate to look at the challenge ahead of us and just bemoan that there’s no way to succeed, because the hardest problems are the ones that are the most important to work on.

I believe there’s a way to do that. I believe it will be hard, but I believe that that’s the path that we, ultimately, have to find a way to getting on.

CB: Finally, I just wanted to get your own unique perspective on that all-important US-China relationship that was so crucial to Paris Agreement. Can you just explain a little bit from your own perspective how that came about, but also, looking forward, what is China’s role now for the wider global effort on climate?

BD: Well, I think that over the course of the last several years the Chinese government and the Chinese economy and citizenry have come around on the issue of climate change and now recognise the threat that it poses to the local health and safety of the population, and the opportunity that it creates for leading in clean-energy industries of the future. And so I think the durability of the Chinese commitment on this issue is real. I think over the course of the last several years that is a product of intense, sustained, patient diplomacy that President Obama led, but the Chinese commitment to this issue is not a function of its relationship with the United States. It is ultimately a function of its own self-interest.

So I anticipate that you are going to see the Chinese not only continue that, but increase its leadership. And you’ve seen that in terms of their posture over the last several months, announcing $360 billion in investments into clean energy by 2020. And making clear that they intend to increase their global leadership activities independent of what’s happening in the United States.

So I anticipate that you’ll see that continue. And I anticipate that you will see other countries that are looking for partners on clean-energy technologies and clean-energy deployment increasingly look to China, which is an enormous missed opportunity for the United States, and so I hope that the United States continues to recognise that there are opportunities in the international arena that are economic opportunities, including for US businesses and exports.

CB: Great, thank you so much for your time.

This interview was conducted by Leo Hickman on 4 April 2017 at the New York University School of Law and on 6 April 2017 via Skype.

Sharelines from this story
  • The Carbon Brief Interview: Brian Deese
  • As a scientific theory, man made climate change due to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels has as many loopholes as a rodeo, and is about as accurate as astrology. It has succeeded in the marketplace of ideas only because it makes such a compelling story, a new age replacement for Christianity that puts Mother Nature on the Cross instead of Jesus. Can you imagine Albert Einstein throwing a tantrum and branding anyone who does not believe in his theories “traitors,” “heretics,” and “deniers”? If we don’t do what the high priests of climate change say, we will all burn in the hell of global warming. A hysterical witch hunt against carbon dioxide equals mass suicide through starvation, because all life on Earth, our own bodies, and our food supply are all made of CO2. Please watch *Climate Hysteria* on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jBUVce05X4


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