NAT KEOHANE PHD 2001 feels that he’s in the right place at the right time. Recently appointed president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), a nonprofit environmental organization and the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, he perceives a transformation in the politics of climate change, led largely by youth activists and new opportunities in alternative energy but also by natural disasters, which just this year included devastating wildfires, floods, and heat waves. “I feel extraordinarily lucky to get to lead a top-notch organization at such a critical moment in time for the climate fight,” he says. “We have dramatic falls in the costs of wind and solar and electric vehicles and other zero-carbon technologies, and new innovations like hydrogen and carbon capture are appearing on the horizon, opening up new avenues for economic opportunity and for policy change. It’s an exciting time to be part of the climate movement!”
And yet, he can’t deny that the United States’ polarized political system has enveloped climate and environmental policy, which historically has been a bipartisan issue. He is optimistic that politicians understand how climate change is affecting their constituents, however, and he knows that C2ES can work with that. “C2ES has always been dedicated to working both sides of the aisle when it comes to politics,” he explains. “Some of the major victories in environmental legislation—such as the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments—were the product of bipartisan collaboration.”
Keohane’s love for the environment began at an early age, nurtured by his grandmother, Mary Pieters, an author of books on democracy and a docent at her local state park. His professional path began as a research assistant with the Environmental Defense Fund. “I was totally won over to environmental advocacy and to the vision of using economic incentives to help solve environmental problems,” he says. Recruited by Robert Stavins, the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development at HKS (and also an EDF alum), Keohane found the Political Economy and Government PhD program a perfect fit. After HKS, he became an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management, an important step in his leadership development. (Spending a few years in academia after a doctorate is “like doing a residency after medical school,” he says.) In 2011 he joined the Obama administration as special assistant to the president, helping to shape administration policy on energy and environmental issues. He sees real value in moving between government, nonprofit, and academic work and making crucial contributions. “The experience of being in the White House was extraordinary, just because of the influence and reach of the federal government and how much you can accomplish being in that role,” he says.
Keohane believes that hopefulness is required to work as an environmental advocate. But he is encouraged by how smart, effective advocacy can drive real change. “We’ve seen that in the European Union and in California,” he says. “We see that in the wave of companies making net-zero commitments. We see that in efforts like the LEAF Coalition announced earlier this year, which I helped put together, which will mobilize a billion dollars in finance to protect tropical forests and reduce emissions from deforestation.” And he believes that we are only just beginning to align private policies with social good.
“I’m enough of an economist that I believe that once we put in place policies like a tax on carbon pollution, or cap-and-trade programs, we will see a much more rapid transformation of the economy toward low-carbon prosperity and innovation than we think is possible,” Keohane says. “We’re starting to see that already, and I’m hopeful that we can make it even more of a reality.”
Image courtesy of Nat Keohane