Eileen Claussen is the President of the PewCenter on Global Climate Change and Strategies for the Global Environment. Ms. Claussen is the former Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
Prior to joining the Department of State, Ms. Claussen served for three years as a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Global Environmental Affairs at the National Security Council. She has also served as Chairman of the United Nations Multilateral Montreal Protocol Fund.
Ms. Claussen was Director of Atmospheric Programs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where she was responsible for activities related to the depletion of the ozone layer; Title IV of the Clean Air Act; and the EPA’s energy efficiency programs, including the Green Lights program and the Energy Star program.
Ms. Claussen is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Singapore Energy Advisory Committee, the Ecomagination Advisory Board, the Natural Gas Council, the Harvard Environmental Economics Program Advisory Panel, and the U.S. Commodity Future Trading Commission’s Advisory Committee. She is the recipient of the Department of State’s Career Achievement Award and the Distinguished Executive Award for Sustained Extraordinary Accomplishment. She also served as the Timothy Atkeson Scholar in Residence at YaleUniversity.
Interview with Eileen Claussen
What are the main drivers for you in believing in climate change and taking action?
The issue of climate change is not about belief but science. The scientific community has reached a strong consensus regarding the science of global climate change. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe the warming of the earth is unequivocal. This warming is largely the result of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities, including industrial processes, fossil fuel combustion, and changes in land use, such as deforestation. Enough is known about the science and environmental impacts of climate change for us to take actions now to address its consequences. In the words of the
Can you explain how the cap and trade emissions trading program operates and why do you advocate this program over the emissions tax option?
A cap-and-trade system is one of a variety of policy tools that exists to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. I believe it is the best tool because it offers environmental certainty (a cap) and economic flexibility (ability to reduce emissions in places where it’s most cost-effective). Once established, a well-designed cap-and-trade market is relatively easy to implement, can achieve emissions reductions goals in a cost-effective manner, and drives low-greenhouse gas innovation.
The key difference between a tax and the cap-and-trade approach comes down to the issue of certainty and environmental benefit. A tax provides cost certainty; the cost is fixed because of the tax. Cap and trade, on the other hand, provides environmental certainty because of the cap. With a carbon tax, many emitters will reduce their emissions rather than pay the tax.
In more detail … In a cap-and-trade program, the government determines which facilities or emissions are covered by the program and sets an overall emission target, or “cap,” for covered entities (firms held responsible for emissions). This cap is the sum of all allowed emissions from all included facilities. Once the cap has been set and covered entities specified, tradable emissions allowances (rights to emit) are distributed (either auctioned or freely allocated, or some combination of these). Each allowance authorizes the release of a specified amount of greenhouse gas emissions, generally one ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). The total number of allowances is equivalent to the overall emissions cap (e.g., if a cap of one million tons of emissions is set, one million one-ton allowances will be issued). Allowance trading occurs because firms face different costs for reducing emissions. For some emitters, implementing new, low-emitting technologies may be relatively inexpensive. Those firms will either buy fewer allowances or sell their surplus allowances to firms that face higher emission control costs.
I understand that the PewCenter has produced 85 peer-reviewed reports on climate change in an effort to demystify the subject for members of Congress and interested companies. Can you point out what has been the focus of this effort in relation to what exactly the Center has aimed to demystify and how do you regard the outcomes of this effort in leading the Pew Center on Climate Change?
As a non-profit, non-partisan and independent organization, the
More than any other area, I believe our greatest impact has and continues to be engaging the business community on climate and clean energy policy and solutions. When the
While a great deal of work remains to be done, I firmly believe the
What do you see as some of the best practice solutions which
Energy efficiency is one key area where businesses are taking action that delivers tangible environmental benefits and saves substantial amounts of money in the process. A comprehensive PewCenter study released in April 2010 found that leading companies that give greater attention to energy efficiency have realized billions of dollars in savings and millions of tons of avoided greenhouse gas emissions. The report, From Shop Floor to Top Floor: Best Business Practices in Energy Efficiency, documents leading-edge energy efficiency strategies, describes best practices, and provides guidance and resources for other businesses seeking to reduce energy use in their internal operations, supply chains, and products and services. We are now involved in an assessment of how companies do clean energy innovation, and hope that this analysis and the report we will issue will also be of great value to those in the business sector.
Through our employee-engagement program – Make An Impact – we also know there is a large appetite among employees to learn about constructive solutions to reduce energy use that saves money and helps the climate. By arming their employees with tools to address our climate-energy challenges, companies find great benefits in employee morale and performance.
With recent studies showing that the media in the
The attacks on climate science – mostly dishonest claims driven by ideology and profit – have proven highly effective at misleading the public and souring its support for climate action. Other factors like the down economy make advancing climate policy an uphill battle, but the well-orchestrated, well-funded campaign to discredit climate science is an influential barrier to progress.
To help overcome this obstacle, the
While we believe the science is indisputable, we know that others do not. So it’s critical to frame the issue in different ways for different audiences while advancing the ultimate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Talking in terms of energy security or economic opportunities in clean energy are two examples that resonate with people who are not swayed by the science. As President Obama has said: There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Discussing climate action in terms managing risk is another way to reach audiences that question climate science. This approach is often used by national security experts, and it forces people to consider the level of risk they are willing to live with and steps they can take to minimize that risk. Risk management is a formal version of choices that families regularly make when buying insurance, deciding where to live, or investing in retirement accounts. It’s an approach that offers a way forward on the complicated and highly politicized issue of climate change. And our knowledge of climate impacts, while not perfect, is much stronger than evidence security experts rely on to make decisions regarding highly sensitive topics such as nuclear proliferation or the actions of rogue states.
How can communication about the risks and opportunities of climate change be improved to effect change and action?
To generate greater support for action, the public needs a clearer understanding of the impacts likely to become more common in a warming world. The reality is that talk of global average temperatures does not reach people; we need to make the impacts more tangible. I believe this starts with telling compelling stories about impacts occurring in people’s own backyards. From garden club members to city planners, people are being forced to address climate impacts. Their stories, and the connection to changes in our climate, need to be more clearly communicated to broader audiences.
These impacts translate into the costs of inaction. While opponents of climate policy attack the costs of regulation as a reason for inaction – and surely there are costs – the overwhelming analysis shows that the benefits of action far outweigh the costs. This message needs to be more clearly communicated so the public better understands the benefits of climate action, or conversely, the costs we face by not reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
There have been many reasons put forward as to the failure of the Obama Administration's Climate Change legislation being passed in the Senate in 2010. To what do you attribute this failure?
Passing comprehensive climate and energy legislation through the U.S. Congress was a huge lift under the best of conditions. It required the White House to lay out a legislative roadmap and push its agenda through Congress. The President also needed to use the bully pulpit to help make the case for climate action to voters. Unfortunately, this did not happen.
The poor economy was a major reason that impacted the climate and energy debate in Congress last year. Unemployment was at an all-time high, and Americans were more concerned about creating jobs than anything else. Another issue was the health care debate. Passing that legislation used up a great deal of political capital, and it took time away from addressing other issues, including climate and energy. Climate change also became too politically contentious and there was not the bipartisan support necessary to pass the legislation.
What do you see as being significant about the
The agreement reached in Cancún in December fills in many key missing elements of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, including a stronger system of support for developing countries and a stronger transparency regime to better assess whether countries are keeping their promises. The Cancún Agreements also mark the first time that all of the world’s major economies have made explicit mitigation pledges under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Of course, the ultimate goal of the continuing international talks must be a comprehensive binding climate treaty. That’s the goal of the journey we started on this issue way back in 1992 at the Earth Summit in