With a strong push from the Biden administration, the United States has once again become a global leader in galvanizing meaningful national and international actions to combat the climate crisis, according to a prominent climate expert. “Clearly the United States is back in the position of leading,” economist Nat Keohane PhD 2001 said in a recent Harvard Kennedy School talk. “Since literally the day President Biden came into the White House, there has been a sea change,” he added, starting with an executive order on day one to take steps for the United States to rejoin the Paris climate agreement.
Keohane, president of the independent, nonpartisan Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), cited major Biden administration accomplishments in driving congressional passage of key climate-related legislation, including the infrastructure and CHIPS semiconductor laws as well as the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. That act provided large-scale investments in domestic energy production and manufacturing, as well as efforts to dramatically reduce U.S. carbon emissions.
“There is more to be done. But I do think there has been remarkable progress,” said Keohane, who served from 2011-2012 as special assistant to the president for energy and environment under President Barack Obama. Keohane said much of the Biden administration’s progress was due to a push for government-wide climate action. “If you look across the whole administration, everyone is a climate champion in some way or another,” he said.
In addition, Keohane cited global leadership by Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry in helping to “galvanize the world” at recent international climate meetings—a dramatic change from the Trump administration.
Keohane spoke on May 10 at a Harvard Climate Action Week event organized by the Environment and Natural Resources Program (ENRP) at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and co-sponsored by the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, the Harvard Alumni for Climate and the Environment, and the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability. He was interviewed by HKS Senior Lecturer and ENRP Director Henry Lee in the JFK Jr. Forum before an in-person and online audience of nearly 300.
Keohane, an economist with more than 20 years’ experience in energy and environmental issues, has a broad background in academia, government, and the nonprofit sector. C2ES, which he has led since 2021, is consistently ranked as one of the world’s leading environment and energy think tanks. Keohane joined C2ES from the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit education and advocacy group where he served as senior vice-president for climate. He has also taught at Yale School of Management and earned a PhD from Harvard University.
In response to a question from Lee about the “carrot versus stick” approach to significant climate action, Keohane said that he would strongly favor setting a price on carbon through an economy-wide cap-and-trade program but current U.S. politics make that very challenging. “Yes, we would like a carbon price across the economy … but we don’t have the politics for that,” he said. Keohane said it was encouraging that 12 U.S. states have active carbon-pricing programs.
Internationally, Keohane acknowledged that the voluntary emissions reduction targets set by individual countries under the United Nations’ Paris Agreement were likely to fall short of the goal of limiting the increase in global average temperature this century to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. “There is no question,” he said, “that the developed world in general and the United States in particular ought to be making much greater order of magnitude investments” in climate assistance to developing countries, both for adaptation and mitigation. “That’s a scandal,” he emphasized.
In terms of the private sector, Keohane said his organization works closely with its Business Environmental Leadership Council, comprised of 42 major companies across the economy.
Lee asked about how well companies were doing in combatting climate change, noting that many of his students expressed concern about “greenwashing.” Keohane responded that most companies had set their own ambitious carbon reduction targets and were under tremendous pressure from “shareholders, civil society, investors, and customers, but most of all from employees.” He felt that “for the most part, these are genuine commitments.” But, he added, there is “room always for skepticism” and students “should be pressing these companies,” particularly to increase R&D investments in new technologies.
Keohane noted that public and private sector investments leading to technological advances are key to meeting ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Asked about nuclear power, Keohane said “we need to be throwing everything we can at [the climate crisis]. … Nuclear power definitely has a role to play.” Construction of new nuclear power plants is “really expensive,” said Keohane, and “cost continues to be a big block.” He noted the importance of developing small modular nuclear reactors as a more effective and efficient energy alternative.
In an interview after the talk, Keohane said that, despite the serious climate challenges ahead, “I tend to be hopeful.” He graded the Biden administration’s climate actions to date as an “A-” but stressed “the final grade has yet to be determined.” Keohane and other experts agree that far more needs to be done to meet the ambitious climate goals set by the United States, including a 50% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030; 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035; and net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050.
A recording of “Climate Policy in Action: A Conversation with Nat Keohane” can be viewed here.
Author: Cristine Russell is a science journalist and senior fellow at the Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program.
Photos: Martha Stewart