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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Environment and Energy

It Takes the Planet: Why Collective Action on Climate Change Is More Important Than Ever


With each passing year, the fight against climate change becomes more critical to our success in maintaining livable communities around the world. In December 2015, 195 nations recognized the urgency to take action and joined together to adopt the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).[1] The global accord represented decades of work to bring developed and developing nations onto the same page. By all accounts it was an extraordinary success of international diplomacy.

But agreeing to the accord is not enough. The truly challenging work started after Paris. Now each country must implement its nationally determined contribution and uphold its commitment to the international community. This challenge is one the United States is poised to meet and must if we are to remain a global leader on climate change, both morally and economically.

The United States committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent, from a 2005 baseline, by 2025.[2] The United States outlined that it would use existing authority under the Clean Air Act, the Energy Policy Act, and the Energy Independence and Security Act to achieve these reductions. The Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Power Plan regulating carbon pollution from the power sector is the driving force behind meeting our reduction target.[3]

The US contribution accounts for an impressive 15 percent of global emissions.[4] While it is still the new president’s early days, most signs—including the appointment of Secretary Scott Pruitt, a fierce opponent of the Clean Power Plan,[5] to lead the Environmental Protection Agency—indicate that the Trump administration will seek to reverse course on the Obama administration’s climate policies. Undoing the Clean Power Plan would require an extensive regulatory process or legal challenge. If that process goes underway, cities, states, businesses, and the international community would be left to question what the United States will do to adhere to its commitment in Paris. Despite uncertainty at the federal level, waiting to act is not an option.

We are already confronting the impacts of climate change. Communities in America are starting to lose their homes, and the federal government is bearing the cost to relocate them.[6] Human-caused climate change increased the likelihood of a recent extreme flooding event in Louisiana by 40 percent.[7] That mid-August 2016 storm killed thirteen people and caused $8.7 billion in damages.[8] Meanwhile in California, human-caused climate change substantially increased the likelihood of extreme drought between 2012 and 2014.[9]

By the time of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) Paris talks in 2015, the world had already warmed 0.85 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.[10] The UNFCCC included language on keeping warming under two degrees because that’s “the highest rise we can afford if we want a 50 percent chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change.”[11] If temperatures rise any higher, we enter into a territory with uncharted risks of extreme precipitation, drought, sea-level rise, and heat. Current nationally determined contributions put us on a trajectory to 3.4 degrees of warming.[12] The next round of negotiations will need to be even more ambitious. Delaying now will make each subsequent commitment harder.

Action at the Local Level: Reason for Hope

Local leaders have long been acting to deal with the types of situations that climate change will exacerbate. They knew they could not wait for national or global consensus to protect their constituents. Instead, they started doing their part to prevent the increasingly perilous impacts of climate change in their communities and around the world. With carbon emissions and commitments mounting, their continued action is more vital than ever. There is reason to be optimistic that progress will continue.

The United States’ success in Paris did not belong to the State Department Office of the Special Envoy for Climate Change alone. In addition to federal commitments, the COP21 saw an unprecedented level of engagement from subnational actors, including business, local, and civic leaders. Their contributions were included in the final agreement.[13]

Leading up to COP21, 154 United States companies signed on to the “American Businesses Act on Climate Pledge.”[14] In doing so, each company committed to its own goals, including significant emissions reductions and renewable energy purchases. These companies, which represent operations in all fifty states and total $4.2 trillion in annual revenue, include corporate giants like Amazon, Google, Starbucks, and Verizon. Mayors from 117 US cities signed the Compact of Mayors, committing their cities to developing a greenhouse gas inventory, setting a reduction target, and developing a plan to meet it.[15]

Since the election, major companies and city mayors have reiterated their support. During the 22nd Conference of the Parties talks in Marrakesh, Morocco in November 2016, over 360 companies signed on to a “Low-Carbon USA” letter to President Trump and other officials.[16] The letter noted that business leaders wanted the United States to remain in the Paris Agreement, to meet or exceed our commitments, and to do so in a way that indicated to global markets that low-carbon investments are the best path forward. US mayors also took action in November, when fifty-one mayors from red and blue states alike issued a letter urging President Trump to take action on climate.[17] They pledged that they would forge ahead even in the absence of federal support but stressed the importance of united action.

As these business leaders and mayors have demonstrated, much can be accomplished—with or without federal support.

Combatting Climate Change Is Good for Business

In October 2013, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and environmental businessman Tom Steyer, teamed up to create the Risky Business Project. The project produces reports quantifying the economic impact of climate change in the United States to elevate the conversation of these risks to the country. They described the results of inaction as “unacceptable,” tallying losses into the billions for multiple sectors, including real estate, agriculture, infrastructure, and energy.[18] Indeed, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, an independent non-profit that assists public corporations, found that seventy-two of the seventy-nine industries in the economy are already affected by climate risk.[19]

Risky Business’s latest analysis offers hope. It reports that achieving the reductions necessary to seriously address climate change is “technically and economically achievable using commercial or near-commercial technology . . . [and] does not require an energy miracle or unprecedented spending.”[20] It recognizes that a national energy policy is essential, but that the lack of one is not a reason for businesses to delay action. It stresses that decisions made today will affect our ability to meet reduction commitments tomorrow. To assist, it recommends several actions that companies can undertake now.

* Conducting analysis of business risks from climate change, including to operations, facilities, supply chains, and markets

* Building internal capacity to address climate change

* Developing and implementing concrete action plans, including putting an internal price on carbon

* Creating, publicizing, and implementing reduction plans

* Providing investor-facing information on climate risks and opportunities

* Pushing governments at all levels to provide necessary policy frameworks

Companies can and should begin to accomplish these tasks today. It is not only the right thing to do for the planet, but also the right thing to do for business. When Google announced that 100 percent of its operations would run on renewable energy beginning in 2017, its Senior Vice President of Technical Infrastructure, Urs Hölzle, said, “We began purchasing renewable energy to reduce our carbon footprint and address climate change—but it also makes business sense.”[21] As Mr. Hölzle noted in this announcement, having a long-term stable supply of renewable energy enables Google to manage one of the largest components of its operating budget more effectively. Others, including many that signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, have made energy efficiency commitments that can reduce operating costs overall. Many are tracking and disclosing their progress. Those that have not should follow suit.

A range of organizations can help businesses take these steps and respond to climate change. CDP is a global disclosure system that helps companies manage their environmental impacts and helps investors to assess those impacts in making financial decisions. “The choice facing companies and investors has never been clearer: seize the opportunities of a carbon constrained world and lead the way in shaping our transition to a sustainable economy; or continue business as usual and face serious risks—from regulation, shifts in technology, changing consumer expectations and climate change itself,” CDP’s CEO Paul Simpson recently said.[22] Even if the federal government cedes responsibility in regulating emissions—which may prove challenging, given the 2007 Supreme Court decision that authorized the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants[23]—businesses will continue to face risks from climate change. Implementation of Risky Business’s recommendations protects companies and shareholders in the long run. It also contributes to meeting US global obligations.

State and Local Officials Lead the Way

Cities and states across the country have sufficient autonomy to set and implement climate policies. Much of the infrastructure that directly impacts emissions is controlled at the state and local levels. Local zoning governs how communities are developed. State building codes determine how energy efficient buildings must be. Transit authorities are under city or state jurisdiction. States control energy siting and can require environmental review of major projects. Waste is collected or disposed of at the local level. State and local operating and capital budgets offer opportunities to invest responsibly. As subnational governments develop to meet the needs of residents throughout the 21st century, they have both the capability and responsibility to do so in a way that effectively addresses climate change.

Subnational leaders, including mayors, governors, attorneys general, and state legislators, must focus their own efforts on mitigating climate change. A recent report by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group shows that the decisions made in cities during the Trump administration may be a deciding factor for whether or not we stay under 1.5 degrees[24] of warming.[25] “If the 758 U.S. cities with populations over 50,000 were to halt progress towards decarbonization, their business-as-usual trajectory would result in 475 gigatons of equivalent carbon dioxide of additional emission between now and 2100. That level of emissions would single-handedly use up the global budget for a 1.5 degrees Celsius limit scenario,” according to their analysis. Waiting four years to begin bending the curve makes future actions more challenging and more burdensome.

Organizations like C40, the Compact of Mayors, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network are poised to help cities with this work. Like businesses, they must track their emissions, evaluate risks, publicly disclose those risks, create a plan to address them, and do so transparently so stakeholders and voters can hold their leaders accountable. Cities that are already members of these organizations are leading the way in finding solutions to decrease emissions, create jobs, and improve the lives of residents.

In December 2016, C40 honored Portland, Oregon, for sustaining long-term climate change action momentum in its most recent plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions while growing its economy.[26] The city is planning to reduce emissions 26 percent by 2020, 40 percent by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050. The reductions are in line with the two degrees Celsius limit. The plan also calls for adaptation actions and incorporates Portland’s anticipated growth in population and associated jobs. It seeks to ensure that all residents of the city benefit from climate action. In announcing the plan, Mayor Charlie Hales said, “Cities are a key part of the solution to climate change. Equity is a key factor. As we reduce carbon, it is imperative that we ensure that the benefits and opportunities that come along are shared with every part of Portland.”[27] If all cities with populations over fifty thousand adopted initiatives similar to the ones C40 cities are pursuing, they alone could deliver 36 percent of the United States’ total 2025 emissions target.[28] Cities and states should partner to achieve these emissions reductions and expand such practices to smaller communities.

Federal Leadership Is Not in Vain

While climate received little attention during the 2016 presidential election, recent polls show that 36 percent of Americans are “deeply concerned” about climate change and “personally care a great deal about [it].”[29] Another 38 percent acknowledge caring some about the issue. Additionally, there is strong bipartisan support for expanding clean-energy generation. Federal leaders in Congress should not treat this election as a referendum on climate change and should instead find ways to advance the commitments the United States made in Paris.

Leaders in both parties are beginning to take the lead in addressing this issue. Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s infrastructure plan includes $100 billion in new funding for energy infrastructure and grid modernization as well as reforms to tax incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency.[30] The plan envisions a more resilient and efficient energy grid and plans to provide the largest incentives to the cleanest and most energy-efficient technologies.[31] Former Republican leaders met with the Trump administration in February to propose implementing a carbon tax in place of the Clean Power Plan.[32] The group represented the Climate Leadership Council, a research and advocacy organization promoting carbon dividends as a solution to climate change, and included James A. Baker, Henry Paulson, George P. Shultz, Marty Feldstein, and Greg Mankiw. While the infrastructure tax incentives and the carbon tax differ significantly in terms of approach, both proposals take climate change seriously.

The Republican proposal may herald a shift in the party’s recent stance on addressing climate risks. While it may not persuade entrenched deniers, such as the House’s Committee on Science, Space and Technology chairman Lamar S. Smith,[33] to take the risks seriously, the opportunity for real dialogue on how to develop policies that address climate change seems more in reach than in previous years. If President Trump wants to make good deals for America, his team should engage in brokering bipartisan solutions on climate change. Reversing course on US commitments would not only diminish the standing of the United States with other world leaders but would also put us at a competitive disadvantage in the transition to a clean-energy economy.

In January 2017, China announced that it would spend more than $360 billion by 2020 on renewable energy sources.[34] China anticipates that this investment will create more than thirteen million jobs in addition to curbing pollution and supporting its climate commitments. China is already a dominant player in the renewable energy market. By reversing course on clean-energy investments, the United States, the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, could help solidify China’s future dominance in this field.

The Time to Act Is Now

Ultimately, the United States needs a strong national policy to address climate change. Without it, action at the subnational level will remain ad hoc and uneven across communities. A lack of coordination will impede progress and may prevent further action. However, America cannot wait for Washington to act. The Paris Agreement was a step forward, but it remains tenuous. All Americans can and must play a part to ensure that those who seek to deny climate change and unnecessarily stall action do not undo the progress that is essential to the long-term sustainability of our planet.

We can debate the best strategies to address climate change, but we can no longer wait for “better” science, for “stronger” national leaders, or for some greater power to hold us accountable. Businesses must act in the interest of their shareholders and in the interest of future generations. Subnational governments must use their power to build sustainable communities that can thrive into the next century. And federal leaders must do the difficult work of negotiating bipartisan solutions that both build a strong American economy and decrease emissions.

Citizens must do their part and be vocal about how they believe climate change should be incorporated into business and government policies. This should translate into local action and careful consideration of whom they vote for in the next midterm and presidential elections. It should also influence the companies from which they purchase goods and services.

Implementation of the Paris Agreement is critical to keeping global warming to a level that averts its most disastrous impacts, protecting communities around the world. Fortunately, the 21st century has seen real action to prevent these risks. Since 2007, American carbon emissions have been in decline.[35] In 2014 and 2015, global GDP grew without global emissions growing, while all prior plateaus or decreases in emissions had been associated with economic downturns.[36] These are promising signs that a global transformation to prevent climate change is underway. We’ve come too far to turn back now.

Liz Hanson is a second-year master in public policy student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Having developed climate change mitigation and adaptation policies at the state and local level, she is committed to working across sectors to improve the sustainability and livability of communities and ensure the realization of global climate commitments. 

Photo Credit: Pixabay via Pexels

[1] “Historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change, 195 Nations Set Path to Keep Temperature Rise Well Below 2 Degrees Celsius,” United Nations Climate Change Secretariat, press release, 12 December 2015,

[2] NDC Registry (Interim), accessed 16 February 2017,

[3] Gina McCarthy, “Global Climate Action at COP-21,” EPA Connect, 7 December 2015.

[4] “Deadline 2020: How U.S. cities will get the job done,” C40 Cities & ARUP, 1 January 2017,

[5] Scott Pruitt and Jonathan Small, “EPA’s clean power plan is wrong for states,” Hill, 16 December 2014,

[6] Coral Davenport and Campbell Robertson, “Resettling the First American ‘Climate Refugees,’” New York Times, 2 May 2016,

[7] “Climate change increased chances of record rains in Louisiana by at least 40 percent,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 7 September 2016,

[8] Michelle Krupa, “Louisiana floods: the water is gone, and the work begins,” CNN, 9 September 2016,

[9] A. Park Williams, et al., “Contribution of anthropogenic warming to California drought during 2012–2014,” Geophysical Research Letters 42, no. 16 (2015), 6819–6828.

[10] “Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Globle Action,” Environmental Protection Agency, 2015,

[11] “Fast Facts & Figures,” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, accessed 17 February 2017,

[12] “Renewable energy and energy efficiency in developing countries: contributions to reducing global emissions,” United Nations Environment Program, 2016,

[13] “Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action,” Global Climate Action, accessed 16 February 2017,

[14] The White House, “White House Announces Additional Commitments to the American Business Act on Climate Pledge,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 30 November 2015.

[15] The White House, “U.S. Leadership and the Historic Agreement to Combat Climate Change,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 12 December 2015.

[16] “Business Backs Low-Carbon USA,” accessed 3 January 2017,

[17] “Open Letter to President-elect Donald Trump on Climate Action,” Medium, 22 November 2016,

[18] Risky Business Project, “The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States,” 24 June 2014,

[19] Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, “Climate Risk Technical Bulletin,” October 2016,

[20] Risky Business Project, “From Risk to Return: Investing in a Clean Energy Economy,” 6 December 2016,

[21] Urs Hölzle, “We’re set to reach 100% renewable energy—and it’s just the beginning,” Google Blog, 6 December 2016,

[22] CDP, “Out of the Starting Blocks: Tracking Progress on Corporate Climate Action,” 26 October 2016,

[23] Massachusetts, et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency, et al., 549 U.S. 497 (2007), 2 April 2017,

[24] Two degrees was used as the benchmark in the Paris Agreement, but a more ambitious target of keeping the temperature increase under 1.5 degrees was recognized. This target is used by the C40.

[25] C40 Cities & ARUP, “Deadline 2020.”

[26] “Portland – 2015 Climate Action Plan,”, accessed 19 February 2017,

[27] “Portland City Council Adopts New Climate Action Plan,” The City of Portland, Oregon press release, 24 June 2015,

[28] C40 Cities & ARUP, “Deadline 2020.”

[29] Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy, “The Politics of Climate,” Pew Research Center, 4 October 2016,

[30]Brad Plumer, “Senate Democrats have a $1 trillion infrastructure plan — and it’s very different from Trump’s,” Vox, 24 January 2017,

[31] “A Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure: Creating Over 15 Million New Jobs,” United States Senate, 24 January 2017, accessed 17 February 2017,

[32] Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin, “Senior Republican statesmen propose replacing Obama’s climate policies with a carbon tax,” Washington Post, 8 February 2017,

[33] Lisa Rein, “Meet the House science chairman who’s trying to put global warming research on ice,” Washington Post, 22 December 2015,

[34] Michael Forsythe, “China Aims to Spend at Least $360 Billion on Renewable Energy by 2020,” New York Times, 5 January 2017,

[35] “U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2014,” US Energy Information Administration, 23 November 2015, accessed 17 February, 2017,

[36] “Decoupling of global emissions and economic growth confirmed,” International Energy Agency, 16 March 2016,