Greater Cooperation Needed Between Public and Private Sector on Climate, Experts Say

In a year when Americans are facing the multiple crises of a global health pandemic, sharp economic recession and protests over racial injustice, climate change remains an important issue in the presidential campaign. But successful strategies to slow the increasing emissions that are warming the planet remain elusive.

A coherent strategy to tackle climate change will balance the roles that the public and private sectors play, according to participants of a Milken Institute panel discussion earlier this week that featured politicians and climate change activists examining approaches to slow global warming.

Midway through the discussion, a Harris poll allowed attendees to vote on whether they thought salient measures to prevent a climate crisis would come from the government or the private sector. Out of 25 respondents, an overwhelming 88% said the private sector would bring about effective solutions.

Despite that near-consensus, one of the panel participants, Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, pushed back.

“I’m not relying on the fossil fuel industry to fix the climate problem,” she said. “The government sends signals in the marketplace about what’s necessary to keep our economy strong, and to make everybody healthy. I am not relying on the private sector to send those signals.”

The panel, held on Tuesday, also featured former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D), philanthropist Nat Simons and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder of the Urban Ocean Lab — a think tank focusing on coastal cities.

Whitehouse agreed with McCarthy’s skepticism of markets triggering climate change action, and called for partnerships between policymakers and industry.

“Yes, the private sector is going to bring solutions,” he said. “But only if the government creates the environment in which those solutions can flourish. At the moment… what we’re perpetuating is a system that the fossil fuel industry is driving to protect its dominance and to squash competition, to squash carbon removal, to squash pretty much everything else.”

Americans overwhelmingly acknowledge the existence of climate change, its causes and its place as a priority on the U.S. national agenda.

A September survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that nationwide, 72% of Americans acknowledge the reality of global warming. In contrast, researchers estimate that about 12% of Americans completely deny that climate change is an ongoing phenomenon.

According to U.S. News’ 2020 Best Countries Report, 20.6% of respondents in the United States expressed some skepticism about climate change. According to that survey, only respondents in Egypt and Russia expressed higher levels of skepticism than the U.S., where 22.1% and 28.6% of respondents respectively disputed the effects of climate change.

Research released earlier this month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center shows roughly two-thirds of Americans surveyed say climate change is a very or somewhat important issue. While views on climate change generally cleave along partisan lines, younger Republicans are far more likely to say human activity plays a large role in climate change than their older peers, according to Pew data released in June.

Balancing how aggressively the public sector should push companies to meet goals established by the U.N.’s Paris Agreement has vexed governments in many countries. In Germany, that challenge has been particularly acute, while in Denmark the government has established ambitious emission-reduction goals seen as a possible model for other countries.

At the panel discussion, Johnson of the Urban Ocean Lab urged U.S. policymakers to downplay what she called a mostly white, male conservative bloc that remains out of step with scientific consensus, and to engage in more aggressive tactics with the private sector.

“There is some bipartisan action here, but the majority of climate deniers are conservative white men,” Johnson said. “There’s actually a lot Congress can do to say, ‘We’re not doing [the fossil fuel industry] any more favors.”

According to Johnson, several companies would have gone bankrupt if not for continued government subsidies. “We have been bailing them out repeatedly. Fracking doesn’t make financial sense, for example.”

Whitehouse agreed, citing an International Monetary Fund report according to which the United States spent about $649 billion on fossil fuel subsidies annually in 2015. In a global context, that figure came second only to China, where policymakers spent $1.4 trillion on fossil fuel, and outpaced Russia’s $551 billion for that year.

The same report said that fossil fuel subsidies amounted to $4.7 trillion — or 6.3% of global gross domestic product — in 2015.

“It’s really hard to have the private sector work around what is globally a multitrillion dollar subsidy for fossil fuel,” Whitehouse said. But he also said it should be incumbent on general business interests beyond the fuel industry to prompt more implementation of clean energy.

“Nobody should think that corporate America is on the political playing field for climate action right now… That can change rapidly, and it will change soon, I think.”

Simons, the billionaire philanthropist, said the fossil fuel industry can bring substantial change to energy production and consumption.

“There’s no question that the clean energy revolution is going to be a tremendous boon to a lot of energy companies that are in the traditional fossil fuel industry now,” he said. “If corporations aren’t doing the right thing, efforts have to be made to hold them accountable,” which he said may lead to defections from highly skilled job candidates.

More from U.S. News

Denmark’s Aggressive New Climate Law Blazes Path for Developed Countries

The 10 Countries That Care Most About the Environment, Ranked by Perception

The 25 Best Countries in the World

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