Philanthropy has a unique and critical role to play in tackling the climate crisis, with the potential to increase global ambition, create new climate solutions, innovate new technologies, scale proven mitigation strategies, and drive collaboration between the public and private sector.
But there are many different theories of change in the advocacy community. There are different views about the role of technology, how to integrate correcting historical racial and equity injustices into climate action, and how to build political support to drive policy change.
In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Jason Bordoff is joined by Jane Flegal to discuss the governance, science and decision-making processes needed to unlock climate action and new innovation.
Jane Flegal is a Program Officer in the Environment program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, where she leads U.S. grantmaking to combat climate change and support a clean energy transition. Jane previously served as a senior program officer for the environment program at The Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust in New York. She has been a policy analyst, published academic research, and taught and lectured in universities.
Jane holds a doctorate in environmental science, policy, and management from the University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Mount Holyoke College.
Jason Bordoff: Hello and welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I'm Jason Bordoff. Today we're going to talk about philanthropy, social movements, technology, politics, climate policy, and much, much more. Philanthropy, of course, has a unique and critical role to play in tackling the climate crisis, with the potential to increase global ambition, create new climate solutions and innovate new technologies, scale proven mitigation strategies and drive collaboration between the public and private sector.
But there are many different theories of change in the advocacy community, different views about the role of technology, how to integrate historical racial inequity and justices into climate action, how to build political support to drive much needed policy change. One of the most thoughtful people I know about all these questions, and much more, is my friend Jane Flegal. So I called her this week to ask her to share her thoughts about the governance, science and decision making processes that are needed to unlock climate action and new innovation.
Jane is a program officer in the Environment Program at the Hewlett Foundation, where she leads U.S. as grant making to combat climate change and support a clean energy transition. She previously served as a senior program officer for the environment at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust here in New York. She's been a policy analyst. She's published academic research, she's taught and lectured in universities. She does it all. She holds a doctorate in Environmental Science, Policy and Management from the University of California, Berkeley, and a bachelor's degree in Environmental Studies from Mount Holyoke College. Jane Flegal, thank you so much for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange, it's so good to have you.
Jane Flegal: Thank you so much for having me. I'm looking forward to the chat.
Jason Bordoff: I'm really excited to talk with you because, we're at this moment where we have an administration that's going to be coming into power in Washington. Albeit, quite likely, though not certain with divided government. With Republicans still in control of the Senate, it seems we don't know what's going to happen in Georgia. But you're a close watcher of the policy agenda moving forward, there was enormous ambition, in President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris's climate plan.
There're obviously limits, constraints in terms of what one can actually achieve in the political world. And you're looking at what a lot of the groups, the advocacy groups are spending their time doing to try to enable as strong a policy agenda as possible. So can you talk a little bit about what you expect to see after January, in terms of where the focus will be for climate action in Washington?
Jane Flegal: Yeah, I still, I don't know if you feel this way, Jason. But I still feel like I'm in a fog of uncertainty around all of this stuff, although things are starting to feel like they're becoming a little clearer. So there are really, very significant sources of optimism on the climate agenda federally and I'll say more about that in a moment. I also think there needs to be some real politics around some of the constraints and what the climate advocacy community might be able to do to help to address them, which I also want to talk about. Which, by the way, would be relevant, even if Democrats are to win in Georgia, actually.
So, the first thing is important to say, which has been said elsewhere is that President-Elect Biden, you couldn't really find a sharper juxtaposition in terms of how one talks about and thinks about and acts on climate between President Trump and President-Elect Biden. So Trump has spent much of his time framing the economy and the environment and climate in particular, as inherently at odds, right? Any concern for the climate, or for the environment is inherently a drag on economic activity, which is an old trope, so not surprising, but also like just very out of step with where we are in the energy transition conversation.
Biden, by contrast, spent his campaign elevating climate in the context of economic growth and economic recovery and equitable economic recovery, I should say. That's just a huge difference and really critical to underscore. In terms of what we can expect, at the federal level, from a Biden presidency, much has been made about the various kinds of executive actions that are all really critical that a Biden administration might take on the climate front.
So I won't relitigate them here, but everything from regulating cars and power plants under the Clean Air Act, to thinking about methane regulation, to Federal Lands Policy to accelerate the deployment of clean energy, to federal procurement of clean energy products, to governance interventions at the federal level, in terms of how we actually organize ourselves to execute on an economy first climate agenda. These are very significant steps forward. And then of course, you've done a lot of writing and thinking about what it might mean for foreign policy and climate.
So, all of that, there have been 78 lists of the 89 things President Biden can do through the executive. And I think it's all really critical. And it is true that for a multi decadal, low carbon energy transition, we do need Congress. And we need Congress for a bunch of reasons. But particularly for the Biden administration, which has really elevated, as I said, the role of climate in economic recovery, you really need an investment strategy, to think about how to do that well, and how to do that equitably. And so the prospects for that, are less rosy than some had hoped, going into the election.
As you already mentioned, not just because Democrats did not take the Senate, but because of some significant losses in the House, actually, that were not anticipated which lowered the margin there. And so, as I hinted earlier, maybe this is my, I have a tendency toward skepticism. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, maybe backwards, I don't know. But even in a Democratic Congress, we have a country in which there are very real in-state political economic constraints on climate forward action, particularly in rural states that are heavily dependent on fossil fuel development, and/or heavy industry.
And it's really critical to foreground those constraints and develop a climate strategy through the executive, but also through the legislative branch that confronts those barriers in a direct way. So that's something that we at Hewlett had been talking about with advocates in the field for many months leading up to the election. It would have been relevant, even if we had a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, because the marginal senators would have been folks from places like Montana and West Virginia and Arizona.
Jason Bordoff: And so you've, just so I understand when you say you've been talking about that here, you're talking, these are like political economy barriers to more ambitious climate action. Does that kind of?
Jane Flegal: Yeah, exactly. So one of the things--
Jason Bordoff: What falls into that, we would think about, dislocated coal communities or something, but what's the suite of things you're thinking about there?
Jane Flegal: Yeah. One way this often gets framed is like, a just transition strategy. And there are some problems with that framing, because it has, in many respects, failed to deliver or been like really narrowly defined as about retraining programs for coal workers, rather than a broader strategy about diversification of rural economies. Folks have talked about a carbon capture utilization and storage agenda that might have some appeal in some of these places, there is an innovation agenda that could be, if well designed, generator of jobs in key states.
There is a whole infrastructure strategy, there's water infrastructure, there's. So there's a pretty broad actually set of things that in many cases have not been the kind of made the top tier list of priorities in conventional climate advocacy communities, but I would argue, could go a long way toward, unsticking some of the politics, including within the Democratic Caucus on more ambitious climate policy over time.
Jason Bordoff: When I hear you talk about the need for a legislative action, and then you talked a lot about spending. So is that just a function of the moment we're in with an opportunity for economic recovery and stimulus? Or is your view that, this frame of standards, investment, justice, that government spending investment is really the tip of the spear when you think about what has to happen in Washington to drive a deeper, deeper --.
Jane Flegal: Yeah, so yes, and yes. It's especially important now, given the economic situation that President-Elect Biden and Congress are, but that's currently happening at their, and that they're like we do inherit, and so that just underscores the need for relief, first for states and for citizens of this country, and also a very significant focus on economic recovery. And the folks at the Roosevelt Institute put out a paper recently and I've also heard David Victor make this argument that in fact, this will perhaps aggravate our dear friend, Dr. Kaufman. But I would argue that economic recovery is de facto climate policy.
Because what matters most for the climate problem is the slope of the line of the carbon intensity of the recovery. So even if we are not elevating green in the context of economic relief and recovery, we are still shaping the trajectory of climate just in a less intentional way, or maybe in an intentional way that is bad for climate. So that's a really critical point. But to your meta question about, the extent to which I fetishize investment, I do think, actually, that the green new deal and the focus on standards, investment, and justice is, well, a very, very deeply needed and appropriate reframing of the climate problem, away from just thinking about climate as an isolated economic problem that can be solved efficiently through pricing externalities, but rather, taking politics as the point of entry.
And thinking about how climate might actually be the source of quite a lot of economic opportunity. So I do think the investment piece is really critical. And I don't want to be pollyannish, about the prospects for investment in, particularly in a Republican controlled Senate. But I also think there are glimmers of hope that some of us are might be maybe too negative about. We've seen, actually a reasonable amount of innovation spending, tax credits, incentives, appropriations packages move, even in a Trump administration, that did not solve the climate problem.
Let's not kid ourselves, but did move the needle on things like clean energy, RD&D, advanced nuclear technologies, carbon capture and carbon removal, among other things.
Jason Bordoff: You mentioned, my colleague and our friend, Noah Kaufman, to channel him who would agree investments are needed, but I think would say, the scale of the transformation needed is so large and so big and cover so many sectors, you're not going to government subsidize your way to a net-zero economy. You can make smart investments that lower the cost profile of some of these alternatives. And then when you complement that, with standards, clean electricity standard, EPA regulations, carbon price, whatever your mechanism is, then that combination can be what drives deeper decarbonization.
I'm wondering if you disagree with that, or if you're leaning in more heavily on the investment side is a disagreement about the optimal policy mix, or actually just again, one of political economy where it turns out, we can get our political system to agree on carrots, more than we can sticks to the humorous Twitter exchange you and I have had?
Jane Flegal: Yeah, it is principally a political economy frame. I am personally a little bit tired of both academic work and practical policy development, that takes us at this point of entry, like how to design the optimal mix, because we just have enough empirical experience now to suggest that, that often is not actually relevant to the political world. And I'm not just dumping on carbon pricing here, by the way. I actually think this is true across a bunch of domains. And you said something really critical, which is, there's a tendency and this is definitely true in climate advocacy to pit technology and politics against one another.
You either are a techno optimist about the climate problem, or you think we have to shift politics. And I just think that whole framing is insane, because they're so deeply interrelated. So you pointed out that an investment led strategy that subsidizes the development and deployment of clean energy technologies, can lead and has led in very significant ways to major cost reductions in those technologies. And there are two related dynamics here. One is that, if you lower the cost of climate action, the marginal amount of political will that's required to enact more ambitious climate policy decreases, you don't need as much political will to overcome cost barriers.
And the second thing that's really important is that as you subsidize or incentivize clean energy alternatives, you are presumably growing political coalitions that stand to benefit from more ambitious climate policy over time, and blunting the power of opposition to climate action, potentially simultaneously. So I think that's good because my view to your question about sequencing, I suspect that we are unlikely to have particularly after the outcome of this election.
I think it's even less likely that we are going to have one moment of progressive climate hegemony, where we cram through the comprehensive climate bill, like we're going to need multiple bites at the apple. And so the question is, with every bite, how are you shifting the political economy and/or creating the conditions for more ambitious climate policy in the future. So I'm certainly not anti-standard at all. In fact, standards themselves can drive investment.
Jason Bordoff: So when you think about that intersection of political viability and good policy and economics and all the rest, and you're thinking, your role thinking about how to deploy meaningful amounts of philanthropy towards solving these problems, what does that mean for how you at Hewlett think about this? And then, I'm curious how you see the conversations playing out, because you're also talking with many other funders, many other people in the NGO community, many other people in the advocacy community, where will be the primary points of focus, in terms of trying to drive more ambitious policy in the near term?
Jane Flegal: Yeah, no, it's a great question. Again, like fog of post election aside, I can try to say a few things. One is that, it's impossible to have a conversation appropriately about this topic without foregrounding issues of equity. And that's been a really core focus at Hewlett in our grant making and elsewhere. And in the context of what is likely or could potentially happen over the course of the next several years, at the federal level, one of the things that we've been thinking through, is not just how do you elevate the priorities, that fall on the top of the list for environmental and climate justice communities, which is critical.
And actually, I would argue, is happening in a much more fulsome way, at least as a procedural matter than has in the past. And that is, in part, through efforts of many of those folks in those climate justice communities and in the broader advocacy community to understand that these priorities need to be elevated as a political matter, in addition to the morally correct thing to do. But the other thing here is that we need to actually go beyond just thinking about EJ, when we think about equity in an energy transition, to think about, these questions of who's going to win or lose in a low zero carbon energy transition.
One thing that's really central is that, we do what we can to ensure that we're not just continuing to do harm to communities that bear the brunt of our existing polluting infrastructure, but that we are offering and expanding economic opportunities as we rebuild a new energy economy. And so that's one area where, we've been funding a lot of groups on the ground. The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund is one good example of this, the Equitable and Just Climate Forum is another. There are lots of groups that are doing both the analytical and advocacy work to flesh out what some of these priorities might look like.
And obviously, Biden made this commitment to invest 40% of the investments from the climate plan in historically disadvantaged communities. And we're really excited about that, and also need to figure out what to do now that Congress is what it is. So, that's one huge piece. There are a bunch of existing environmental and climate groups who will continue to both push the Biden administration to do as much as they can through the executive, including by providing robust analysis to underpin some of the regulatory actions that they might undertake that have a better chance at least of withstanding, we'll look to be quite brutal prospects in the courts.
But that will continue to be an effort. And really, most of the-- one of the potential gaps here is that we tend to think about executive action on climate as regulatory, but as we talked about earlier, there are actually like a pretty long list of tools beyond regulations under the Clean Air Act that are relevant for an energy transition, including some investment tools, potentially. And I'm especially interested in procurement. And there, many of our grantees and partners have been doing a lot of work to figure out what the --.
Jason Bordoff: You're talking about the power of, how much the federal purchasing power. There's just so much money there that if you target that toward trying to help advance and scale clean energy technologies, that's what you're referring to.
Jane Flegal: Exactly. And that's across government, right. It's across all of the agencies, it's really quite interesting. There is of course, so in addition to all of that work, there are a set of grantees who've been doing a lot of work on the investment side, most of them have been focused more on the innovation agenda where you have to be doing navigations of the appropriations process. And many of those groups are not actually like the mainstream environmental groups. It's folks like, Third Way and Clean Air Task Force and like a, Columbia has been doing a lot of work on this issue.
So, there is some existing capacity there that could be scaled, can and should be scaled up in my view to pursue the investment agenda, including innovation but also broader industrial policy interventions in a more aggressive way. Given that we think if something moves through Congress, it's likely to be, as we've discussed an investment and recovery strategy. And then the last thing I'll say, is a quite a big question for funders and for the advocacy community is always this relative balance of state, local and federal action on climate.
And we've talked a lot about the federal dynamics here, but Hewlett has, with other funders, been very supportive of state based work on climate and clean energy. And that work will continue. Continues to be very important, for a bunch of reasons. One, you can actually just get some non significant chunk of abatement at the state level through policies. But also there's a progressive federalism argument to be made that state action can scale up to federal action. One good example of this is the proliferation of clean electricity standards.
And because I made Noah mad earlier by talking about investment, I will say I said electricity and not energy. So I don't want him to attack me on Twitter. But yeah, so the States CES work continues to be important utility commitments at state levels are really critical. But I do think there are questions about the capacity for States to execute with the level of ambition we need, unless and until we unlock the federal politics on investment. Because States budgets are just so constrained right now. And so the point that I'm trying to make is that the State federal stuff is actually very deeply interconnected.
Jason Bordoff: Yeah, I guess, just I don't want to spend the whole podcast talking about, Noah, as wonderful as he is, but he would agree with everything. You said, we need investment, we need EPA regulations, we need government procurement, we need investment in technology, we need all these tools. And they're not enough, to get us on track with, net-zero, by 2050. We will need, as you said, comprehensive economy wide climate legislation, or maybe not economy wide, you could have sectoral approaches and clean electricity standard or a cap or carbon, whatever mechanism you're using.
I'm just wondering if you think well, do you agree with that? And then, do you think about your funding strategy as, the steps we take now, to change the political economy and enable us to get there over time? Is that the strategy?
Jane Flegal: Yes. So I do agree with that. I am more optimistic about this, of the -- around sector by sector strategy, than I am about the economy wide strategies. But two things here, one; I have been unsurprisingly, I would expect to deeply influenced by one of my dissertation advisors, Jonas Mechling, who's a political economist, who's been writing a lot about this issue of, ratcheting up climate ambition through a political economy strategy.
And it's very much in line with this, again, this like sequencing strategy, which is to say that, like you probably do need some green industrial policy or investment strategy first, followed by a more comprehensive standards based approach. To the extent that you can pursue these things in parallel successfully, we of course, should, but we need to really focus on cracking the political economy problem, to get the level of ambition that we need. But it can be frustrating,
Jason Bordoff: You’ve painted a picture of some harmony and agreement on what the NGO and advocacy strategy looks like. There is a perception that they're also fault lines between what might be called, more progressive left and more centrist. I don't know if those are the right labels. But talk a little bit about those and how significant they will be.
Jane Flegal: Yeah, I just like I don't know if you're experiencing this, but I feel like the axes underpinning all of this are off all of a sudden. So it is true when we saw some of this play out in the House around the American Energy Innovation Act, which included some support for things like nuclear power and carbon capture. And a bunch of progressive House members defected from the bill, in part because they were hearing from climate justice organizations and other climate advocacy groups that, those technologies were not in line with a justice first, ambitious climate agenda.
Now, I disagree with that view. I think that fundamentally, we need to reduce emissions as quickly as possible to avoid unequitable impacts. And every analysis that I have seen suggests that we need to keep the existing nuclear fleet online as long as it's practical and safe. And that we are very likely to need carbon capture and storage certainly in the industrial power sector and the, sorry, in the industrial sector, where there are far fewer options. And quite frankly, probably, in the electricity sector. So I actually think it is a more climate ambitious agenda, to be inclusive of those technologies than not.
And we need to do a better job of communicating that and working through some of the challenges, because in my view, it should work against your commitment, your reputation as a climate advocate, if you don't agree with those positions at this stage, and in my view.
Jason Bordoff: I'm wondering if that ties back, you mentioned before, the importance of equity and justice, and that is a very consequential development. The convergence of the environmental movement and the racial justice movement, that has enormous power. I'm wondering to the same question I asked you before, about potential fault lines, where do you see things could, where might there be tension between these goals?
And one; the reason I thought of it is because you can imagine someone saying, my concern with carbon capture is not only, it's never really going to happen. And this moral hazard problem, although, I don't think that argument is right. But it allows you to continue to operate, a plant. And we know a lot of those plants are in low income communities and all the rest. How do you address the concerns, that come from the power of bringing these two movements together?
Jane Flegal: Yeah, look, there are very real challenges. And I don't think we do ourselves any favors by pretending that it's going to be seamless. And so you want to ensure that-- I actually think there's a path through this to be frank. For one, there are really complicated questions, in democratic theory that show up in climate philanthropy and the nonprofit domain, where it's, who is authorized to speak on behalf of any communities actually.
And nonprofits, we're not democratically elected. So there are real tensions around this. Unions are, by and large, pretty racially diverse, actually, and take a very different position on CCS than some of the climate justice organizations do. So, that's just to say, it is very complicated. I also think it is incumbent on advocates of all clean energy technologies, actually to take seriously the trade offs, because, there will be trade offs for everything.
This is actually not just a CCS problem. It's, there are supply chains for all energy technologies. And so we need to be thoughtful about that, across technologies. I don't think it's a CCS or nuclear specific concern, actually.
Jason Bordoff: And I want to ask you about some of those specific technologies. So what I hear you saying is, you think there will be areas for hopefully, bipartisan work, on supporting innovation and technology, particularly with a wide lens that includes advanced nuclear and carbon capture and hydrogen and other things. And a strategy for bringing the environmental community together to advocate for that. Talk a little bit about where you think some of those technologies are and what role they will play?
Carbon removal, for example. That was, for example, in the Sanders-Biden unity coalition and stuff, there was some disagreement about how much emphasis to place on that. And relative to moving forward and moving toward a different fuel mix. How do you think about where that stands? And what role that should play?
Jane Flegal: Yeah. You're talking to someone who did a dissertation on solar geoengineering. So whenever there's controversies about other technologies that feel more benign, I'm like, wow, we can't even figure this stuff out. But I do think, look, the conversation on carbon dioxide removal has progressed in ways I had not anticipated, even two or three years ago. There was a view in the carbon removal, advocacy world, even that it would be perceived as too expensive and a distraction. Like, why would we do this? And it's been remarkable to me how quickly that has shifted.
Actually, a lot of folks in the geoengineering world, were predicting that that would be more likely to happen with solar geoengineering, than with carbon removal. So watching carbon removal, get mainstreamed, has just been really fascinating. And the IPCC 1.5 degree report had a big impact here. It shook people out of complacency around solutions, that's like we're just nowhere near where we have to be. And that, every scenario that got us to 1.5 degrees and the vast majority that got us to 2, imagined wide scale deployment of carbon removal.
And so if you're going to take seriously those temperature targets, you have to be talking about CDR. You just have to and there are the natural climate solutions, which are gaining a bunch of traction, and then there are the more technologically based ones, that distinction is annoying. But that's part of the reason. It's interpretive flexibility as a thing, has helped it in terms of being able to mainstream. Because, for some people, it's planting more trees. And for other people, it's building technology that can suck CO2 out of the ambient air.
Jason Bordoff: And are those both real and important and serious or are you worried? You see a lot of corporate commitments now to be net-zero by 2050. And there's, some of that involves changes in business practice, some of it involves just buying negative emissions. And there's a concern, at least I have a concern about how much you can scale those, before you start to wonder whether these are all real reductions. How do you think about that?
Jane Flegal: Yeah, and we are funding some of this. And there are very smart groups working on this. Carbon180 is an example of an organization obviously, like Julio Friedmann and your colleagues at Columbia have been doing great work on this. But this is why, responsibly incentivizing carbon removal, doesn't just mean funding the RD&D and the infrastructure, it means, setting up appropriate guardrails. Because otherwise, this will go off the tracks very, very fast.
So, I am on the record at expressing a little bit of annoyance around some of the rhetoric on the natural carbon removal side in particular. So this is mostly tree planting and soil carbon. Because, I've done social science looking at public views on technology. And what you find is that when things are framed as more natural, people like it more. So, there's this inherent popularity around things that we frame as natural. But they can actually have, pose huge governance challenges, have very significant social and political effects.
So, if we were talking about doing tree planting, as like the primary vehicle by which we scaled carbon removal, we're talking about very significant land use changes, on a scale people don't fully appreciate. And then, the other issue with the natural climate solution side, which by the way, we should do a lot of this stuff. I'm just critiquing it’s frame as this panacea, is that, when you're taking CO2, out of the biosphere, and then temporarily storing it elsewhere in the biosphere, that is not the same thing, as permanently returning CO2 from the biosphere to the geosphere.
So, trees-- I live in California, trees do in fact, burn and re-release emissions. And there are similar questions around permanence for soil carbon. So it's not to say I don't think these are really worthy avenues. But, A; we need to be much more rigorous about this. And to your point about corporate commitments, if people are not fundamentally changing their business models, then we have a real reason to question, their commitment to achieving goals through, buying dubious offsets through tree planting schemes.
Jason Bordoff: Have you, as you said, you know as much about solar geoengineering as anyone, so explain to people what it is. Explain to people what geoengineering broadly is. I'm curious if you would call the things you've just been talking about, removal technologies, whether they are geoengineering? And then talk about what solar geoengineering is.
Jane Flegal: Yeah. So, God, this is like, there's a nerdy definitional politics around geoengineering, that does really matter. So geoengineering, as it's usually defined is, large scale, intentional efforts to counteract the effects of climate change. And so historically, the Royal Society in the UK put out a report, that was pretty influential in 2009, on geoengineering. It included carbon dioxide removal alongside solar geoengineering.
So, we've already talked about CDR, which is, removing CO2 from the ambient air and doing something with it. Solar geoengineering is usually defined as a set of ideas that enhanced the reflectivity of the earth to cool the planet. So there are a bunch of sub techniques just like there are for CDR or conventional mitigation. So in SRM, the one that occupies the public imagination, the most, is Stratospheric Aerosol Injection.
Where you would, take, basically mimic a volcano, shoot a bunch of aerosols into the upper atmosphere, they would reflect incoming sunlight and cool the planet. That's the idea that occupies the public imagination the most. There are other ideas like marine clouds.
Jason Bordoff: You just said mimic a volcano, just, so people listening know, that is an effect of large volcanic eruptions, is actually a cooling period.
Jane Flegal: Totally. Yeah, yeah. They are really interesting, actually, Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, wrote that novel, in the wake of a very large volcanic eruption that ruined the weather patterns on a vacation she was taking and made things feel very spooky. So that's just one of my favorite stories about how culture is in fact, influenced by climate. We might not have Frankenstein if it weren't for, quasi geoengineering through volcanic eruption.
Jason Bordoff: So, tell us how you currently think about, what role, how do you think about the role of solar geoengineering, as part of a climate solution? Is this a stopgap measure to buy time? Is this part of a permanent low carbon trajectory to meet, 1.5 degree goals? And what do you think is needed now in terms of policy and research?
Jane Flegal: Yeah. At some level, this question goes back to our earlier discussion about differences between optimal and most likely outcomes. So the optimal scenario for solar geoengineering and the climate policy toolkit is actually not as a stopgap measure. It's to shave off peak climate temperature, by deploying it at lower levels now, basically, alongside efforts to reduce emissions and pull carbon removal out of the air. That would be the ideal scenario, certainly the one that folks like David Keith and others have talked about.
Jason Bordoff: But meaning like spraying asphalt, and then spraying aerosols, that would continue in perpetuity then and have some permanent cooling impact?
Jane Flegal: Yeah, it wouldn't. And what's interesting about this, actually, is that the aerosols, one of the engineering challenges, is that they don't stay in the atmosphere for very long, they can fall out very quickly. So it's not so much an issue of, you do it once and it becomes permanent. In fact, these things would like fall out and fall out pretty quickly. But the scenario I'm talking about would be, an active campaign by society is to continue to inject smaller amounts of aerosols into the upper atmosphere, to shave off the peak temperature, while we are drawing down emissions.
So, what you don't want to do and this is like where, you'll see these conflicting reports about doing geoengineering will screw the global poor or doing geoengineering will save the global poor. A lot of it has to do with these questions of scenario design. So the ones that the model results that say that, will cause major problems in the Sahell, for example, are usually scenarios where the model assumes that we quadruple the amount of CO2, that is in the atmosphere, and then counteract, all of that associated warming at once, with a big injection of aerosols.
Jason Bordoff: And just explain the link to the global poor, why people would have that concern?
Jane Flegal: Yeah. So the idea with solar geoengineering, that makes it different both from carbon removal and mitigation, I would argue is the leverage issue. So, it's not incredibly, unimaginably expensive to think about someone putting aerosols in the stratosphere. And it would inherently have global impacts. Now, climate change, unchecked, also has highly unequal global impacts. And so the way that people think about this, is how do you weigh the risks and benefits of climate change, as is currently occurring against the risks and benefits that might be associated with a geo engineered world?
Those are really hard questions, as an epistemological matter, but also in terms of people's values, like preferences around what the climate should look like. So, the advocates of geoengineering research will say, the worst impacts of climate change, both for actual physical reasons and for social and political reasons are likely to be least developed nations. And it is a question of whether we can reduce emissions fast enough to mitigate some very bad impacts in those places.
Geoengineering is attractive, because it offers a way to cut the link between emissions in the atmosphere and impacts people experience in a way that no other tools really would. So that's the optimistic case for this, on behalf of the global poor. Then you have to imagine that either those nations themselves are doing the geoengineering and presumably guiding it toward the outcomes that they most prefer.
And that the rest of the world would just let them do that or that some other constellation of actors would do this, really would do this on the behalf of someone other than themselves. And that's an open question.
Jason Bordoff: Yeah. And as you said, it's not particularly expensive to do, which even raises not just nations, but some billionaire philanthropist decides to go spray a bunch of stuff in the upper atmosphere. Many of the issues geoengineering are not only technical, they're issues of ethics and social acceptance and governance. I'm curious your thoughts about those. And what kind of, maybe research we need to examine those further?
Jane Flegal: Yeah. To this thing about the green finger scenario, of a billionaire doing this, I do think that, a misunderstood part of geoengineering is that it's impermanent like it is that the aerosols would fall out of the sky. And I suspect that States would sanction, a rogue actor like that pretty quickly. So I do think, it's not to say that we should be dismissive of those risks, but I do think they can be overstated. But the whole, the entire question of geoengineering, is largely not about technical questions.
It's about social and political and cultural ones. I've done a good amount of empirical social science, both focus groups and engagement exercises with environmental practitioners in the global south and surveys trying to ascertain what various publics think about geoengineering. It's extremely difficult to do. We're seeing in the wake of this election in the US, a bunch of reflection about the accuracy of polling and issue polling is also very difficult to do well, especially when the public knows nothing about the topic.
And that's what you tend to find about geoengineering people don't really know what it is. And so then their responses are almost entirely shaped by how you frame it in your questions. But I do think ongoing empirical research, looking at public views, particularly outside of the US, and Europe, would be very useful. There's just not been a lot of effort to understand preferences in other parts of the world. So that seems really important, especially, if we're going to argue that we're doing research on their behalf. We should try to understand if they want that.
So, that's one set of questions that is really useful. We need more attention not on governance, in terms of speculation about what deployment will look like. There's a lot of that actually, like a good amount of social science looking at, how would you govern geoengineering deployment. And way less on how you should govern research programs, to try to make them more responsive to various social goals and concerns. So that's another area where there should just be a lot more research.
Jason Bordoff: We only have a few minutes left. But I'm curious, there are lots of people listen to the podcast, but obviously, many students at Columbia and elsewhere as well. And your own background is so interesting, having deep technical expertise, done, as we just talked about, a PhD in a pretty technical area. And then moving away from academia in some way to think about engaging in public policy and the advocacy world and the philanthropic world.
First, just help people understand what you do every day. People have an image of you sitting there signing big checks and throwing money at people. But it's much, I know more strategic and how do you think about, career advice for how people who are pursuing academic work in this field? How they should think about the different ways one might use that to impact the policy process or in other ways?
Jane Flegal: It's a good question. So I came to where I am in a really bizarre way. I've always had a really strong interest in politics and policy, probably because I grew up in New Hampshire, which is, A; the greatest state of the nation and B; very weird, because you have access to politics and policymakers in a way other people don't. So that has shaped all of my interests in science, that I wanted to make an impact on policy. For some people, that's not the case. And I actually think that's fine.
If you want to pursue a purely academic research path without influencing policy choice, that should also be permissible. But for those who do, I don't know, I also went to a small liberal arts college where I was forced to take a bunch of classes, I didn't want to take. And that was in the sciences and math mostly. But that turned out to be really important for me, particularly as, I don't know how much of this is gender based, but, I really underestimated my ability to do the technical work when I was younger.
And then, when I got to college and was forced to do it, I was like, “Oh, I can totally do this. This is fine”. So I do think getting experimenting in your education and taking classes across disciplines is really important for cultivating, both for understanding where your strengths actually lie, which we often underestimate ourselves. But also, forgetting our broader sense of the cross disciplinary and interdisciplinary nature of all of these problems, that sit at the intersection of research and policy,
Jason Bordoff: And can you just, also just talk for a moment, we have a Women in Energy program at the Center on Global Energy Policy. The energy sector broadly speaking, has a diversity, racial and gender diversity problem. Talk a little bit about what progress you've seen there and what advice you have, particularly for young women looking to pursue leadership roles in the energy and climate sector.
Jane Flegal: Yeah, it's such an important question. And actually one that doesn't get enough attention. We tend to think about equity and justice in the context of, climate justice organizing, which is really critical. But I also think we have a problem, which is that, the pool of expertise that is being brought to bear as an inside strategy matter is very much not diverse. So it's really important.
For me, I've had a couple of, giant mentors in my life who have been women in the energy and climate sector, well before me. So Dr. Jane Long is one person who has really influenced my thinking, Sue Tierney is another. They may not actually realize how much their existence in the world has mattered for my own.
Jason Bordoff: Yeah, Sue was a member of our board. She's amazing.
Jane Flegal: Yeah, just incredible. And so, that mentorship does really help. I have to say so. But there's a pipeline problem. And so it's an area that philanthropy should continue to explore, is there more that we can do, to help address some of those questions. The Women in Energy Program at Columbia, I've supported in other roles, I think, it's really critical, and really useful. But there are a whole bunch of fellowship programs, we can be thinking about supporting, that might be very useful.
And of course, we need to make sure that these areas are not hostile to new entrants, either, which requires a different kind of work on the part of us, who are like incumbents in the sector.
Jason Bordoff: Jane, thank you so much. It was a great conversation. And as we talked about, in these 45 minutes or so, the challenges are so complex, and the solutions require technological, financial, political, geopolitical tools, that few people, bring that whole mix together, the way you do. So thank you for making time to talk with us about it today. I really appreciate it.
Jane Flegal: Thank you so much. Lovely to talk to you too.
Jason Bordoff: Thank you, Jane, again for joining us today. And thank you to all of you, our listeners for joining on this episode of Columbia Energy Exchange. For more information about the podcast or the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online, at energypolicy.columbia.edu or follow us on social media, @ColumbiaUEnergy. Thanks for listening. I'm Jason Bordoff. We'll see you next week.