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Former Top Obama Science Advisor: US Has 'Real Economic Opportunity' Rejoining Paris Climate Accord


The U.S. formally rejoined the Paris Climate Accord last week, and the Biden administration is now preparing new carbon-dioxide reduction goals.

David Reidmiller was former President Barack Obama’s top science advisor during the original Paris negotiations, and he was also a member of the Biden transition team. Now Reidmiller directs the new Climate Center at Portland’s Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

Reidmiller told Maine Public’s Fred Bever that when the Trump administration stepped away from the agreement, the most damaging result may have been the unraveling of an important bilateral relationship with China.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Reidmiller: Because what we knew was that if you had the world’s two largest economies — the world’s two largest emitters, one representing historically developed countries, one representing historically developing countries — if you had both of them on board, then, you know, sure, there’s still a lot of complicated things to work out, but it sure does make a difference. And so when we stepped away from that relationship, not only did it in a sense give China an out to perhaps not be as ambitious over the past few years, but it sent a signal to the rest of the world as well that, ‘Well, if the U.S. isn’t going to be playing that leadership role, maybe we don’t need to be as accountable. Maybe we don’t need to develop our economies in as low- or no-carbon of a way going forward.’

Bever: It was just a week ago that the U.S. did formally rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. What’s the Biden administration’s task now, as it rejoins?

We have to come up with a new emissions reduction target. And you’ve seen the Biden administration has already signaled the international leadership role they intend to play in this space by convening a leaders’ summit in just a couple of months, at the end of April on Earth Day. And the goal there is going to be, presumably, to demonstrate to the world ambitious new targets that the U.S. is going to put out, and to send a signal that we’re back in the game, and we’ve got to make up time, because the science that keeps coming out doesn’t suggest that things are getting any easier.

There’s excitement at U.S. leadership again in reengagement in the international stage. But I think there’s also a growing wariness about the reliability of the U.S. as a negotiating partner. Remember, we did this before, right? The Clinton administration negotiated the Kyoto Protocol and then the Bush administration didn’t move forward. The Obama administration negotiated the Paris Agreement, and then the Trump administration withdrew. And the worst thing that we can do internationally and domestically is just have this whipsaw policy position, right? Sending that signal is critically important. There’s a sense of invigoration and a sense of excitement. But I think also a sense of caution that it can happen again, and we need to make the case for consistency.

What’s your prognosis for a renewed commitment and faster achievement of these goals?

It’s gonna take a lot. And it’s an all-the-above approach. And you’ve seen this, you know, the Biden administration has said they’re taking a whole-of-government approach. They’re integrating climate considerations into every agency. And I think we need to look across the economy, and we need to look across the globe to where these opportunities are. We as a country have a real economic opportunity to be captured if we take aggressive action. But I think it’s also important to recognize that as we pivot and capture that economic opportunity, there’s going to be other folks that are going to potentially face some adverse impact.

Are you talking about losses in the fossil fuel sector?

That’s exactly right. Yeah, potential job losses — or job evolution, I think, is one way to think about it. Just look at whether you work for a utility now. Those utilities are pivoting, right? If you work for some of the major fossil fuel companies, they’re starting to diversify their assets. And so all of these companies are starting to see the writing on the wall and are either being pressured by their shareholders or by other economic interests to kind of face the music that’s coming.

Are you optimistic that the global governments will in fact, be able to avert the worst-case scenario?

I don’t think we have a choice. The reality is that we are going to be paying for this one way or another. And we can either pay a little now or pay a heck of a lot more later. And I think the important thing to know is that we still control our own destiny. We are going to deal with climate change — that’s inevitable, there’s a degree of warming that’s already locked into the system by historical emissions — but the future is still in our control.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.