June 2nd, 2016


Former Assistant Energy Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy

2020 Democratic Presidential Candidate, Activist, Businessman


When the Paris climate summit convened last December, there was a surprise guest – corporate America. Wall Street giants such as Coca-Cola, Disney and Wal-Mart gave their blessing to the agreement signed by nearly 200 countries, signaling that the fight against global warming has become more than a grass-roots effort. But the climate treaty came under swift political attack in the United States, and Donald Trump recently said he would cancel the deal if he is elected president. So what’s next?

At a recent Climate One event, former Assistant Energy Secretary Andy Karsner and billionaire activist Tom Steyer offered their assessment of the Paris outcome, and discussed what we can expect going forward.

Karsner, a veteran of several previous COPs, led off by expressing dismay at the glacial pace of progress. “I don't think anybody anticipated in Rio all that time ago that it would take almost a quarter-century to get to some sort of uniform global consensus…everybody rowing in the boat in the same direction for the same purpose,” he says. “That's what Paris was, and it was important because Paris was the end, no matter what.

“In other words, the end of negotiation needs to yield the beginning of demonstrable, measurable, potentially enforceable action that takes us onto a pathway and trajectory to realize the objectives.”

But is all of America on board with those objectives? Host Greg Dalton pointed out that the Bali summit, which laid the groundwork for Paris, was held under a Republican president. Yet since then, Republicans seem to have abandoned the climate change issue. Steyer thinks the fault lies with party leaders.

“The fact of the matter is, Americans have moved very substantially on this, including Republicans, including the vast bulk of American business people…we are being held hostage by elected officials who are not actually representing the views of their own constituents, of their own party.”

In fact, Steyer adds, most of the environmental measures of the past fifty years have passed under Republican administrations, “including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the establishment of the EPA, the Endangered Species Act, the Montréal protocols.

“We have traditionally been a bipartisan country when it came to clean air, clean water, preserving our environment, handing on a country to our children and grandchildren that we are proud of.”

But Karsner fears that the current rancorous political atmosphere could be getting in the way. “We should be amplifying an enlightened competition of ideas across the political spectrum… [Instead] we’re regressing into grotesque and ugly soundbites on all sides.

“We are regressing at a time that our problems are scaling beyond our capacity to manage,” Karsner warns. “So we need to catch up or we're going to have the risk of political obsolescence to some degree.”

Both guests are spearheading bipartisan efforts to address the effects of climate change.

Karsner, who manages The Emerson Collective, draws a parallel between today’s fight for environmental equity and earlier social compacts, such as universal access to electricity. “We sort of take that for granted,” he says, “but we now are at the precipice of needing to revise all of that…we have a need to ensure that the social compact itself evolves, so that it's beyond access to electricity and is access to all of the technologies that are available now to improve people's lives.”

Along with Hank Paulsen and Mike Bloomberg, Tom Steyer founded the Risky Business Project, which reports on the business risks of climate change to corporate America.

Their next report, he says, will give a positive spin by showing “down to the community level, what is the impact on jobs, wages, costs of accelerating the move to clean energy based on existing technologies.”

“The idea is to be able to say to people, ‘Let's move beyond the emotion. Let's be as hardheaded as we can be, and present the information objectively, and use that as a basis for making decisions.

“Because if we can do that, then we see this is a huge American problem – and a huge American opportunity,” Steyer concludes. “We are not winning this by being cynical.

“We learned; we’re going to have to go back to our most basic values together.”


Related Links:

NextGen Climate

Emerson Collective

Risky Business Report

This program is underwritten by ClimateWorks and the Energy Foundation. 

Written by: Anny Celsi
Photography: Sonya Abrams