Frances Beinecke, past president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, discusses the U.S. climate trajectory, the need for national leadership, and how to make an impact on climate change.
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Martha Broad: From MIT, this is the Energy Initiative. I'm Martha Broad. Today we're talking with Frances Beinecke, past president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC. Frances currently serves on the boards of the World Resources Institute and Climate Central, in addition to being a member of the MIT Energy Initiative External Advisory Board. Welcome Frances, and thanks for joining us today at MIT.
Frances Beinecke: Martha, it's so great to be here. Thank you.
MB: Great. Wonderful. As you know, we're here to get your perspective on the US climate trajectory for 2025 and what it will take for us to meet the U.S. Paris Agreement commitments for 2030. Tell us more about where we are as a country and what you think it will take to get where we need to be, from an advocacy, a technology, a policy perspective.
FB: Well, I think, Martha, there's good news and bad news. First of all, the good news is that the United States is on target to meet its first set of commitments, which was a 17% reduction in emissions by 2020. We've actually pretty much achieved that and so that was our first marker and we’re on it. But the bad news is that our goals for 2025, which is a 26-28% reduction, we are not on target for that. We're about halfway there, according to the Rhodium Taking Stock report in 2018. So we have a long way to go. The most disturbing part of it is that at the latter years of the Obama administration they put in place a whole series of policies, using existing authorities, to create a climate plan for the United States. The Trump administration, no surprise I'm sure to the listener, has very deliberately rolled back, or has an intention of rolling back, every single one of the policies that was put in place by the Obama administration. If the Trump administration is successful in doing that, there's no national trajectory to meet the US commitments in Paris, and of course, the president intends to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement. So we are not going to achieve our emissions targets with national policy. If we are able to achieve them, it's going to be through a whole myriad of activities by what we call the real economy players or subnational actors. Basically, cities, states, and corporations. And there is some good news. I think there actually is good news there. There are a lot of people in this country who have positions of authority, whether they're mayors or they're governors or they're corporate leaders, who feel a moral responsibility to fulfilling those commitments. And they have repeatedly made public commitments and ramped up their ambitions in this sector. We first saw that actually in Paris at 2015, when there were lots of subnational players there who were all in on climate and when Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, they all banded together in a common coalition. And then, just last month, in September, Jerry Brown and Mike Bloomberg hosted a global climate action summit in San Francisco with the intention of getting all those subnational actors to talk about what they were doing and to ramp up their commitments. And that indeed happened. They also did a study really doing the analysis. They had a whole team from Rocky Mountain Institute, WRI, and others who did the analysis to figure out what is actually happening and are we on target. I think the good news is that they found that existing commitments get us to about a 20% reduction. So further than we are but not where we need to go. Using ten different strategies that they identified that we could reach the 26% target and if there was a doubling down on ambition we could actually go past that. The important takeaway from there is, we know what the strategies are, we know what the technologies are, we know how to do it. But it does take leadership and it takes will and whether the United States can achieve it without leadership at the federal level is, I think, a big, big question at this point.
MB: I also followed the Jerry Brown and Michael Bloomberg hosted summit out there and, of course, California's announcement about getting to net zero emissions is pretty striking and hopefully California will be leading the way, as it often does. But it does concern all of us, I think, about without the federal government involved, how are we going to get there. Who else do you think, state-wise, is doing interesting things?
FB: First, let's pause on California for a second. California’s a major player here. They're not just a major player in the United States, they're a major global player. It's the 5th largest economy in the world, as Jerry Brown likes to tell us all the time. It is a big entity. They have put in place policies across the entire climate spectrum and they have the regulatory body, the California Air Resources Board, that has the ability to put muscle behind these policies and implement them. So California is really, in some ways, showing us the way, doing the trial and error, finding out what works and doesn't. And so that enables lots of other both states but also countries, or regions in countries, to use that model, to learn from their experience. I think since the federal government is not doing that, what California is doing is hugely important. But there are plenty of other states involved, too. There are 17 states in the US Climate Alliance which have all committed to the Paris targets and, in some ways, I think there is a healthy competition going on. States like New York are creating green banks. They're trying to create policies to unleash electric vehicles to put in the infrastructure. Of course, the northeastern model of RGGI is very, very important. And now those same RGGI states are considering a transportation alliance that would be used to model… kind of unleash the RV revolution. So there is a lot of activity. Also, in cities, of course, there's a lot of activity. I think it's a healthy thing if different states become competitive with each other, different governors get competitive with each other, they want to show that they can do it or do it as well as California. I think there's a lot of good news out there, but 17 states is not 50. We have a long way to go.
MB: I was noticing, you were talking about RGGI, that one of these 10 tools that Michael Bloomberg and Jerry Brown were promoting that could be used to really get us all the way, almost all the way, to the climate goals, was forming state coalitions for carbon pricing. So it's good to think about RGGI and using that as a model.
FB: One thing that's interesting, there's a ballot initiative in the state of Washington coming up a few weeks setting a price on carbon in Washington. It's the second time, I think, that Washington has considered it. That will be a real indicator about whether other states can get on a pathway. But just yesterday, I think, Justin Trudeau announced that in January 2019, Canada was going to put a price on carbon in those provinces that hadn't done it themselves. So it doesn't all have to be here in the United States. This is such a global problem that I think there is lots of room to learn from one another as we go forward. Not to deemphasize the United States. The United States is the largest economy in the world. It's got the largest historic emission responsibility. And the rest of the world expects leadership from the United States. I know there's a lot of concern going in to the Conference of Parties in Poland next month that without the US leadership, other countries are not going to feel the obligation to really move forward. Not only on the targets they set in 2015, but the 2015 mandate, which is to increase their ambition starting in 2018. There's a lot to be worried about, certainly a lot to be worried about. This is such a tremendous issue and one that has such devastating human consequences. We have to be hopeful looking at the signs that are out there. There are a lot of good signs and there's a lot we can learn from. What it's going to take, I think at all levels of government, and in the private sector, and in civil society, is real leadership. That's what we're lacking at the national level here. That vacuum has to be filled by others.
MB: Right. I think that we're all realizing that it's not going to be federal policy. It's unlikely to be federal policy in the next couple of years that will get us there.
FB: But ultimately we need it. I don't think we can get there without it. We hope that in the early 2020s we begin to see that. It's interesting, having worked on this issue for many decades at this point. There was hope, I'd say, in the early 2000s, that we could set a national policy and learn from that. We had our effort to get the Waxman Markey bill passed the House and not the Senate. It was clear in the Obama administration that Congress would not pass legislation, therefore they used existing authority. Ultimately, we have to get legislation. In order to get legislation, we have to have the political will to do that. That actually becomes a grassroots, bottoms-up activity. Which is why all the activities in the various cities and states is so important. Because it will actually show the path which will enable people to believe that this is really possible. They'll see it being done and it won't be such a heavy lift.
MB: Well, so, getting back to federal policy. What do you envision? It's been such a divisive time on Capitol Hill. What do you think could be implemented in our near-term future?
FB: I think the general consensus is right now the policy solution at the national level is a price on carbon. Whether it's a carbon tax or a carbon free or tax and dividend or whatever it turns out to be. I think the experience with Waxman and Markey killed cap and trade as a strategy. Even though it's working well in California, I don't think at the federal level, United States Congress is ever going to take it up. The good news about a carbon fee is that there are more and more republican or conservative voices that are speaking to it. That I think is good. Do we have momentum on this issue? I would say no. No, we don't have momentum. But yes we do have a conversation.
MB: I think eventually, it will become clear after enough states have acted that we need a federal policy to give clarity to industry, et cetera.
FB: Exactly. Beginning to change, I think, is that corporations are both making commitments. Out in San Francisco, 492 companies agreed to science-based targets on their emissions, so that was a big step forward. But equally important is that corporate leaders are beginning to speak out on these issues as something that has to be addressed. They’re stepping into that vacuum where there's no national leadership. Recognizing the moral responsibility to address this.
MB: Right. And I think consumers are part of the reason in some cases. It is a moral responsibility but I think that some of these companies realize that, hey, so-and-sos doing it, we really should be thinking about this, too.
FB: I think that's part of it but I think they're increasingly understanding the risk if they don't. Not only for the fossil fuel companies but lots of companies are building in an internal carbon price to understand what their risk is and all of that is a learning experience. The more we can learn from those who demonstrate and test different ways to price carbon and put it into their business plans and make decisions based on that, it will be easier to get policy at the national level.
MB: Right. Let's change gears and talk a little bit about you. I know a little bit about your background and I think our listeners would really enjoy hearing about it. You were president of the NRDC. You joined NRDC early in your career and you eventually served as executive director and then president for nine years, from 2005 through 2014. And I happen to know NRDC well because I worked there long ago in the Washington office. But for those of our listeners who may not know the Natural Resources Defense Council, share with us what NRDC is all about.
FB: What is NRDC? Well, NRDC is a powerhouse for environmental policy. It's an organization that is committed to using law and science to advance environmental policy and to implement and defend environmental laws. It was established in 1970 by a group of Yale law students and some practitioners in New York. Just at the very beginning of the environmental law movement. In fact, it was probably the first environmental law firm in the country. EDF was also started at about the same time. The premise of NRDC is that we're a society based on the role of law. That we need environmental laws that are implemented and enforced to advance human well-being and protect public health and natural resources. NRDC over the nearly 50 years has worked on that very diligently. Originally, on the basic laws of the country. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Superfund, endangered species, National Environmental Policy Act, et cetera. Of course, now, it has a very large energy practice because of the challenge of climate change. It also works more and more globally because the issues that it works on are truly global. But fundamentally it's law and science and the power of voice. They have a membership, a group of members and activists, that are... gee, I'm not even sure, maybe 2.5 or 3 million people at this point. So they are a real force and have been, quite spectacularly, for nearly 50 years. It's quite a story.
MB: I have a warm place in my heart for it.
FB: So do I, so do I.
MB: I'm sure it's tough to pick one, so you're allowed to pick a couple if you want, but what are you most proud of, in terms of the accomplishments of NRDC during your tenure as president?
FB: Well, the thing that makes NRDC what it is, is having an enormously talented staff. NRDC's number one mandate was hire top talent and support them to do their work so that they succeed and therefore we all succeed. I got great pleasure in supporting them and really looking at what are their needs and how do I ensure that those needs are met so that people want to be here and they want to stay here.
MB: So you've continued, obviously, in this podcast and other places, as an ambassador for NRDC. A very articulate one. And a board member and advisor to our own organization and others. What are you focusing on now? What's next for you?
FB: Well, actually, right now I'm doing a number of things that are providing strategic advice to more newcomers on the scene. So for NRDC I continue to work with them. But specifically in India. They've been working in India for about the last five years. We did, in the mid-2000s, 2006, open an office in China after we'd been working there for about 15 years. And of course there are a billion people in China and what they do in the energy field is going to have a huge impact on climate. Equally true in India. India has a billion people. They need to electrify the country. How that happens, how they become efficient, how they cool the country, how they generate electricity, all of that matters. To be able to work with NRDC on beginning that program in India has just been very, very satisfying. Then I'm working with a couple of smaller, newer NGOs. One is an environmental law firm in London, Client Earth, which is started by a former NRDC attorney, James Thorton, modeled on NRDC. Which is doing litigation, much the way NRDC did in the early years in Europe, to ensure that the environmental rules of the European Commission are met and that they're implemented and enforced, so similar work. I'm advising this much newer organization in much the same way that I did at NRDC. Then another one is working with WRI, World Resources Institute, that is growing like mad globally and has a lot of growth issues, as NRDC did, as it is really in that sweet spot between development and environmental protection. They do a lot of analysis, they do a lot of partnering with governments and companies. It's very exciting, actually, to be part of WRI right now and seeing all the great things that they're doing. Trying to advance solutions and do the analysis to show what the impacts of those solutions should be. I'm actually working with different organizations and learning a lot from them and enjoying doing what I can to help them to be a success.
MB: So, tell us something that most people don't know about the current state of the environment that you think more people should know about.
FB: The human environmental nexus, I think, is one that we have not talked about enough. I think that particularly on the issue of climate where we've talked a lot about the science and on a global scale what the changes will be, it's very important to talk on a human scale what those changes are going to be and how if we don't address them, the human consequences are going to be devastating. The people who are going to be most affected are the poorest people in the world. We have a responsibility to address that. What I think people should think more of is not, we're trying to protect some unique species, although we should protect all species, but it's not about a critter in a place, it's about how you protect the natural systems that we all depend on. People depend on nature. It's a small planet. It's providing the air, the food, the water, the natural resources. If we don't manage that well, we are going to be under severe hardship a century from now. Getting people to understand those connections I think is absolutely critical.
MB: So, Frances, of course, we have a new younger generation coming along, as we always do. What would your advice be to someone who wants to get involved and make an impact and address climate change right now?
FB: The most important thing to do is to do what you're most passionate about. It's not as though one thing is going to be more important than another. We need all of the above. We need to figure out how to unleash electric vehicles, how to put in an electric vehicle infrastructure, how to maximize efficiency across every source of energy that we can figure out, how to use natural sinks of soils and forests to store carbon. So, pick it. Pick whichever thing you care about and jump in with everything you've got.
MB: All hands on deck.
FB: All hands on deck. Absolutely right.
MB: So thanks so much for joining us, Frances.
FB: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.