David Keith on Climate Policy

by Doug Gavel, interviewed April 17, 2014

Americans are well acquainted with the many arguments framing the global warming debate, yet governments across the world seem paralyzed in the face of potentially serious environmental consequences. David Keith, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has worked at the nexus of climate science, energy technology and public policy for twenty years.

Q. What are the key facts right now in the discussion around global climate change?

Keith: The key fact is that while essentially nothing is happening in global climate politics the world is spending $300 billion or so each year on clean energy, but we’re not getting that much to show for it in terms of reduced emissions. This fact will drive a growing tension between green technology claims and reality. As these debates play out the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which accumulate with each year’s emissions, are building up slowly and gradually increasing the risks.

Q. You teach a class called "Learning from the Failures of Climate Policy." What are those failures, and what are the lessons they teach us?

Keith: Climate is it’s the biggest public goods problem of all time. We have essentially failed to make any meaningful progress in managing emissions. And that’s despite the fact that we’ve made enormous progress on all sorts of local pollution problems all over the world, from toxic metals, to organo-chlorines, to ozone in the stratosphere, to, most of all, air pollution. It’s now been half a century since the first high level report on climate change got to a U.S. president and, essentially, nothing has been done. And as to what the lessons are, I suppose the central lesson is that this is not about what this or that politician did, or what happened during Obama’s first term. There are lots of individual stories about why various individual policy initiatives have foundered, but the fact that we’ve consistently failed for half a century tells you that something else has to be going on; and that something has to do with the scale of the public goods problem, and the misfit between the kinds of solutions people talk about and the problem itself.

Q. Describe the potential geo-engineering solutions to this problem. How do they work? What are some of the potential negative side effects?

Keith: So, it’s pretty clear that it’s technically possible to substantially reduce climate risk in most places in the world for many kind of variables, not just temperature, but also precipitation or soil moisture, and to do so, say, for the next 50 years by putting reflective particles into the stratosphere. Putting pollutant like sulfuric acid in the stratosphere is an ugly technical fix, yet and the core technical knowledge is broadly agreed by a significant number of people in the climate geo-science world. But politically it could hardly be more controversial. Al Gore, for example, has said that it’s delusional for a scientist to even consider this idea, and that very statement shows you the disconnect between the political establishment’s commitment to the a tightly constrained path that contemplates a sharply limited set of technologies – just renewables and efficiency – and a pretty limited set of political instruments centered around the framework convention on climate change and the growing realization that this path will not adequately manage climate risks.

Q.  Are there some potential negative side effects from that sort of geo-engineering solution that, perhaps, are raising the attention of policymakers, or that we haven’t even thought about?

Keith: Yes, there are most certainly negative side effects. Anything you do at that scale is going to have all sorts of negative consequences, and, of course, the most terrifying things are the unknown unknowns. But I don’t the reaction – like Gore’s statements about it being delusional – have to do with a rational look at the risks and benefits. The technical efforts to understand the risk suggest that the risks of geoengineering – if applied I moderating – are very small compared to the benefits. I think they have to do with a fear of stepping off the commitment to the current way forward, which means renewables and efficiency in the U.N. framework convention on climate change. I think we need to open the conversation up to a broader range of political solutions and a broader range of technological solutions, if we really want to manage the climate risks in an effective way.

Q.  Are you optimistic that policymakers will eventually garner the necessary political will and courage to confront the challenges of climate change?

Keith: Well, I don’t think one can be pessimistic about the past. One is just realistic about what’s actually happened. The fact that we made such enormous progress on air pollution and clean water, for example, shows that people are willing to spend real money to protect their environment, and I think that is what gives me hope that people will solve this problem, too.

I should say that I don’t really buy the most apocalyptic statements about climate change. So, statements such as “it will be game over for the planet if we build the Keystone pipeline,” I think that kind of sounding the alarm isn’t really helping us get to a useful deal. I do think climate is the most serious environmental challenge of our age, but I think it is manageable in a way that could reduce the risk to humans dramatically. I think it’s going to be very tough – probably very tough without doing geo-engineering – to reduce substantially the risks to the unmanaged ecosystems, like the high Arctic or low-lying islands.

Q. We know the U.S. has been stalled from a public policy perspective. Are there examples from other countries of successful public policy efforts that should give us hope, or that the U.S. could learn from?

Keith: Well, there are lots of good lessons around the world, and there’s no question that U.S. federal policy debate on this has been particularly toxic, the ugly public denial of rational science by significant factions of the right-wing political establishment is shameful. But I actually do not buy the framing which has the U.S. as the big villain here with Europeans as the white knights. The reality is, in terms of actual action on the ground, nobody has done that much, and the U.S. has, in fact, done lots, from really large-scale programs to support wind and solar, to the most serious efforts on climate science research. So, in fact, in lots of ways that are ad hoc and uncoordinated, the U.S. has done a lot and there are things that other countries can learn from that, and there are things that we can learn, in turn, from the Europeans, but there’s no country that has a truly effective  – and cost-effective  – climate policy.

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