The first Dean’s Discussion of the 2023 fall term brought together faculty with diverse viewpoints on the climate and energy challenges facing the United States and the world. Meghan O’Sullivan, the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and director of the Belfer Center, spoke about the intersection of the energy transition and geopolitics. Joseph Aldy, professor of the practice of public policy, looked at global interests and the efforts made at UN climate conferences, also know as COPs. Kathryn Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy, spoke on human rights climate litigation. Charles Taylor, assistant professor of public policy and a climate economist who joined Harvard Kennedy School in 2023, offered optimism about how institutions, companies, and NGOs have responded to the changing climate.
The discussion was moderated by Sarah Wald, adjunct lecturer in public policy, senior policy advisor, and chief of staff to the dean, with opening introductions from Dean Doug Elmendorf. Here are excerpts from each of the panelists.
Meghan O’Sullivan: energy transition and geopolitics
The focus of my work over the last couple of years has been about how the energy transition is going to remake the global order. And that's based on the idea that when there's a big change in energy or energy markets, it has a lot of political implications.
I got frustrated when people were saying, “Well, one good reason to transition away from fossil fuels is it will usher in this period of global peace where oil doesn't matter in politics and there won't be wars about oil and all of that.” I think it’s possible that by 2050, while we won’t be completely free of reliance on fossil fuels, it will be far less. But I think I’d be much more interested in the push and the pull between the energy transition and politics during that interim period between today and 2050.
There are many junctures in the transition that could exacerbate geopolitical tension. In the short run, we have all kinds of things that are somewhat counterintuitive, like the fact that supply and demand are not always well synced up. We could talk about how the energy transition is remaking global politics and I think we will continue to do so as we continue on this essential journey towards a net-zero or carbon-free global economy
More recently, and I would say almost more interestingly, I’ve been looking at how today’s geopolitical order is influencing the pace, the scope, and potentially but ultimately, the success of the transition itself. What are the key ingredients to a successful energy transition? Technology and policy are two essential things. But the third pillar in this stool in my mind is geopolitics. If you don’t have a geopolitical environment that's conducive to expediting the energy transition, it makes the transition that much harder.
Think about the U.S.-China relationship, think about the many ways in which that relationship is influencing the pace at which the world can pursue the energy transition. There’s a lot of concern about the dominance that China has in mostly processing critical minerals that are needed for wind power, for batteries, for solar panels. And so right now, we see a big effort to recreate those supply chains outside of China so that they’re not susceptible to geopolitical hiccups. That of course means that all of those inputs into clean energy are going to be more expensive and that it’s going to take longer to do. That’s just one way in which this geopolitical environment is making the energy transition more challenging.
We need to think more about how we can harness the rivalry and the great power competition and use that in crafting a strategy that can advance the objective of getting to net zero.
Joseph Aldy: The efforts of the COP
I think when we look at what the COPs [the annual meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] have been, they are a venue for bringing together representatives of basically all the governments in the world to try to craft a path forward. And one thing we’ve learned over time is that because of the nature of our international system, our significant deference to national sovereigns over any kind of international institutions, we’ve wound up in a world where we are basically a bunch of volunteers. No one is going to be surprised that we are not doing enough. The challenge though is that insufficiency occurs on several levels.
First, the goals that countries have set for themselves, what we call Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs, they’re not enough to keep us on a 1.5-degree trajectory, one of the goals set in Paris. The other goal is to keep warming well below 2 degrees Celsius.
We also know there’s an implementation gap, where countries haven’t started implementing policies sufficiently to deliver on what we’ve pledged to do. Take for example, the United States. Under President Biden, we said we’re going to cut our emissions at least in half by 2030.
The Inflation Reduction Act will probably cut our emissions to about 40% below the 2005 levels by 2030, which is a stunning change in the trajectory of emissions. You look before 2009, the only times U.S. emissions fell year-on-year, it was a major recession. That’s why there’s going to be, I think, renewed interest certainly by the Biden administration and by Democrats to try to do more to build on the Inflation Reduction Act.
We’ve set ambitious goals because of the lack of progress over the past three decades. And even though we’re seeing unprecedented change in a lot of the economics of renewables, it’s not at a fast enough pace.
Overall, we’re finding that companies are falling behind on what they’ve pledged to do, not unlike countries. What we’re finding too is that some of what appeared to be the cheapest and easiest ways for companies to demonstrate progress in cutting emissions, was not doing it within their corporate footprint, but going outside the company and pay for emission reductions in projects elsewhere, so-called emission offset projects.
Can we stay within 1.5 degrees C? It’s hard for me to find someone who’s an expert who thinks 1.5 degrees C is still a feasible goal. I think it’s going to be important for us to think about adaptation, about loss and damage for those most vulnerable around the world, and even other novel interventions on climate like climate geoengineering.
Kathryn Sikkink: Human rights climate litigation
My presentation brings together my research interest in human rights and my interest in climate justice.
One path that’s been taken has been young plaintiffs bringing climate cases before courts, often in order to get voluntary NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions, individual countries' plans to cut admissions] some legal teeth in their countries. You’ve got important cases like the (Dutch environmental group) Urgenda Foundation case in the Netherlands, and cases in Germany and Colombia where constitutional courts or supreme courts are deciding that the plaintiffs have grounds to sue and that they have made a persuasive case that their rights are being affected and that the government needs to respond.
There is also a fascinating case in the Colombian constitutional court where the government had to agree to a significantly diminished deforestation, which was part of its commitment to the Paris Agreement.
In our country, we have a case in Montana which hasn’t gone to the Supreme Court, but a trial judge found that the young plaintiffs have established that their human rights are being affected today and found the state must take responsibility. The Legislature passed a law of environmental protection that said the Environmental Protection Agency could not consider climate change when deciding whether to give licenses. The plaintiffs pointed out that the Montana Constitution says, “that the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations, and that the legislator shall provide for the administrative enforcement of his duty, the legislature.”
We don’t know what’s going to happen with that case. But given that wording in the Constitution, I find it hard to believe at least that the Supreme Court isn’t going to find that particular law is unconstitutional. And there are about five other states in this country that have similar laws. Massachusetts does for example. There are venues here in the United States for these types of litigation to continue.
In the Montana case, of course it’s a constitutional right, but in many other places, it’s international human rights. International human rights instruments are being used by courts in Germany and the Netherlands and Colombia, and in 274 other cases to bring this case. And they do it exactly because the Paris Agreement is voluntary. They are asking: how do we give it some teeth? Apparently, human rights law has more teeth than environmental law. So they’re using human rights law to oblige their governments to have more ambition in their climate commitments.
Robert Keohane, who is here in the audience, is the leading expert in explorations on the climate complex, in the environmental climate complex. His work brings together the human rights regime and the climate regime into a relationship with one another whereby you get the ambition that comes out of Paris Agreement to the highest possible ambition, but you get some kind of teeth from human rights law.
What’s happening with these cases? Because so many of them are so recent, the majority are still on appeal. The defendants are winning 28% to the plaintiff's 19%, but the plaintiffs are starting to win more as these proceed. As you get these very successful cases in some countries—Germany and in the Netherlands making persuasive legal arguments—legal arguments are being picked up by courts in other countries and plaintiffs are starting to win some more.
Litigation is one tool that we use together with many, many other tools that we need to bring about climate justice and to have a healthier future. I don’t think this is somehow going to save us, but I think it is one of the arrows of the quiver that needs to be there.
Charles Taylor: What can we actually get done
I spend a good chunk of my time staring at the climatological data, the hydrological data, the things that are meant to scare you when you look at climate trends, and when you look at what’s happening to our natural resources. But I wanted to spend a little bit of time to assert some optimism because there can be a lot of gloom. We’ve made some real progress when we think about how institutions, companies, and NGOs have responded to this very real change in climate. The last IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report says there’s a very low chance of our worst-case scenario.
I don’t know how much optimism that is for you, that we’re avoiding a truly terrifying five degrees Celsius warming scenario, but we can take that off the table because of progress that we have made. And what is driving a lot of that progress? It is a remarkable improvement in renewable energy, and this expansion and deployment that we really didn’t think was feasible under current market structures. As of this year in the United States, wind and solar combined will pass coal in terms of generating electricity.
Five years ago, coal produced five times the electricity in the U.S. So, in five years, that much can happen. And this is before the Inflation Reduction Act. This is before the bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. I am talking a lot about the U.S. here, but if you even look globally, at the new electricity capacity that’s coming online, over 80% is renewable. Now the issues are on the implementation and the political side.
There are some other reasons for guarded optimism. What effect will climate change have on premature deaths, particularly heat deaths, and on agricultural yields? We found that we’re adapting better to heat, even within the last 10 years, often through very simple things like air conditioning. And making sure that it’s equitably distributed. In agriculture, the crop genetics and the crop management practices have also evolved with the changing climate as well. So I’m somewhat optimistic on those fronts.
Where I get a little bit more worried is the second-order effects of climate change or where these climate damages will interact with human institutions. That’s where we think of things like water scarcity. When we have prolonged periods of drought, there’s less water available, farmers can’t irrigate as much. There’s less waters available for municipalities and drinking in cities. This can drive conflict and potentially migration, which also has these second order political costs.
Another risk is flooding from extreme weather events. It’s not necessarily easy to quantify or predict that a one degree C increase in temperature resulted in a specific flood event. It’s going to be this murkier side of where the science meets how institutions are able to adapt and mitigate the damages from climate change. And that’s where I'm trying to focus a lot of my research, but solutions are less clear and it’s not as easy to fit into a policy box.
What I’m increasingly worried about is this: we have the renewable technology, it's cost competitive. We finally have these hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. unlocked. What’s holding things up now? Well, I was just reading an interview with John Podesta, the czar of the Inflation Reduction Act, and he’s concerned about permitting. How do we actually build out the solar and wind projects and the large-scale transmission projects? We need to update some of our institutions or think of ways that we can do permitting reform to overcome some of this local and environmental opposition if we want that end. And at the very least, to acknowledge the trade-offs. We have the technology; the constraint is largely going to be figuring out this political solution.
The next event in Dean’s Discussion series will be on November 7 and on the topic of China and its role in the world. The panel will include Jie Bai, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Rana Mitter, the S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations, and Anthony Saich, the Daewoo Professor of International Affairs.
Photos by Winston Tang, MPP candidate 2025.