Exercising Leadership on Climate Change: Choices for the Next President

Image credit: Casey Valentine/CyperusMedia
Stanford, CA – May 6, 2016: Setting the Climate Agenda for the next U.S. President at Paul Brest Hall, Stanford University.

In the year leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Stanford scholars led by former Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes, now a distinguished lecturer at Stanford Law School, have collaborated through the Climate Change Implementation Project to gather policy and governance ideas for how the next President of the United States might address climate change at the outset of his or her presidency.

Co-sponsored by Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford Law School, the Precourt Institute for Energy, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, Stanford Medicine’s Center for Innovation in Global Health, and the Hewlett Foundation, the project brought together an interdisciplinary, cross-sector group of experts to identify policy tools that the next president might employ to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the United States’ pivot to a clean energy economy. Through a series of workshops and conferences convened at Stanford and in Washington, D.C., participants generated a diverse collection of perspectives pertinent to the challenging task of identifying potential climate change priorities for our next President.

In September 2016, Hayes organized a culminating policy forum at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where a series of papers reflecting the project’s combined recommendations to the next Administration were released and paper authors gathered to discuss their recommendations and the road ahead. In this Q&A, Hayes shares key takeaways from the project and important next steps.

You helped to launch and organized the Climate Change Implementation Project. What was the spark for the effort?

The spark for this came from a recognition that the next president will have a key, foundational role in setting our nation’s climate change agenda. President Obama has established important baseline policies on addressing some aspects of climate change.  As we see more and more evidence of climate change and appreciate the urgency of the issue, however, it is becoming clear that the next eight years will be an incredibly important period for actuating effective climate change response actions.  The next President will need to marry sound policy initiatives with effective governance approaches that extend horizontally across multiple federal agencies, vertically across scores of federal, state, tribal and local governments, and outwardly to the business community, the academy, NGOs, and key international players.

The project was initiated over a year ago in recognition that a long runway is needed to develop good ideas and facilitate their uptake in a new administration. The Hewlett Foundation was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the effort, for which I am extremely grateful.

What are the main takeaways from the impressive gatherings and papers produced? Can you pinpoint the most urgent issues?

The first takeaway is that the next President cannot dally: Climate change is an urgent issue that needs immediate attention. Chris Field, the new director of Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, presented a paper, for example, reviewing studies that have come out since the last IPCC report was issued in the 2013-2014 timeframe.  New data in these studies confirm and reinforce the IPCC’s conclusions, and indicate that climate impacts are accelerating.

The second main takeaway is that climate change presents a “whole of government” challenge.  Virtually all sectors in our economy are generating greenhouse gases and/or are being impacted by climate change.  In our energy sector, for example, we need to address electricity generation, transportation fuels and infrastructure, industrial energy sources, and efficiency issues.  Climate change also has broad implications for land use, due to land use-related emissions (e.g., from forestry and agricultural practices), the uptake of carbon in forests and other “sinks,” and climate impacts on our coasts and other resources.  Developing and then implementing coordinated policies across these sectors, and with all affected governmental bodies and stakeholders, presents a governance challenge of the highest order.

The third takeaway is that we can rise to this challenge if we are smart about it, and fully engage our nation’s entrepreneurial spirit and innovation economy.

Innovation in policy and encouraging innovation in energy technology seem to be a theme from your summary. Can you talk about that?

Yes, while the climate change challenge is daunting, there is great optimism that America can pivot to a clean energy economy.  With the help of Stanford and Silicon Valley, huge technological advances are being made in the generation and delivery of energy, including in renewable energy, storage, energy efficiency, and the smart grid.  New entrants are emerging in key sectors, looking to disrupt incumbent energy systems.

It will clearly take more than innovation in technology, however, to meet the climate challenge.  As Arun Majumdar, co-chair of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, observed, policy innovations also are needed.  Government-funded R&D should be linked up with corporate investments and know-how, with an eye toward deploying new energy solutions at scale.  Likewise, regulatory systems that were developed in a different era, when energy options were limited and competition among energy providers was discouraged, need to be revamped.  Engineers, lawyers, business leaders and government officials must roll up their sleeves and take bold steps to unleash American technology and innovation in the fight to combat climate change.

What are the next steps for the project?

The next step is spreading the word about the thoughtful input that dozens of experts across the political spectrum have provided for the next president and his or her team through this initiative. We had valuable input from all parts of the political spectrum, including many prominent and experienced democrats and republicans. We need to encourage the transition team(s) and prospective appointees, as well as members of Congress and other opinion leaders, to review the excellent recommendations that the project has generated.

How will you ensure that this pressing research gets to the next president?

The materials have been provided to the two presidential transition teams.  Briefings are underway.  The input is timely, and welcome.