National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi — who was at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s Keller Center on Oct. 24 — struck a hopeful tone as he outlined steps to tackle the climate crisis, stressing that this is “the decisive decade to do that work.”
“When I say ‘decisive,’ I don’t mean think about it, I don’t mean study, I don’t mean analyze. I mean: let’s deliver the visible, tangible difference,” said Zaidi. “For folks here who will be in public policy positions, it means making the decision. It means casting the vote.”
And that work, he said, must be done “with a sense of boundless aspiration that we won’t just tackle climate, we won’t just make the environment more resilient and stronger, but that society itself will be better for it.”
Zaidi’s call to action came during his hourlong “Clean Energy for All” fireside chat with Katherine Baicker, dean and Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris. The event, which packed the Harris Family Foundation Forum, was held in partnership with the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) and the Illinois Environmental Council (IEC).
Baicker introduced Zaidi, who became the White House climate advisor in September, describing him as “a driving force in the most significant climate policy that we’ve seen in generations.”
Zaidi then sped through the climate ecosystem, talking environment, equity, energy policy, and economics. He spoke about grid expansion, tax cuts, jobs, the front-line role of state and local governments as change-makers, manufacturing’s transformation, and, in response to audience questions, ensuring private sector buy-in and measuring the impact of industries like fast fashion. And he emphasized major wins for climate under the Biden administration.
Those include this past summer’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and last year’s approval of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), or –as he said they like to joke in his office – “Bil and Ira, the couple that will save the planet.”
The Inflation Reduction Act, with its estimated $369 billion to fight climate change, aims to move the United States closer to President Joe Biden’s goal of cutting climate pollution in half from 2005 levels by 2030. According to a study by the Department of Energy, the act — along with other policies and previous actions — will get America to 40% of that goal.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes nearly $50 billion in protection for disasters linked to climate change.
Looked at another way, “you’ve got BIL with investment in the poles and the wires and the charging stations, and then you’ve got IRA creating the demand for … generation of renewable assets, new fuel sources, and also an emphasis on environmental justice,” Zaidi said.
The United States, he said, is leading the world by example when it comes to climate strategy, noting that the global climate problem has been labeled “a code red for humanity” by the United Nations.
“You don’t have to go to the top of Mount Mauna Loa where they measure the atmospheric concentration of CO2,” Zaidi said. “You don’t have to flip open the IPCC’s latest report to know that the code red is real. It’s in our communities, in the surging seas, in the scorching fires, in the droughts that have ravaged fields, in the lives destroyed. And in economic terms, it’s in the supply chains, and the value disrupted.”
Such a scenario may “make us feel despondent and hopeless, maybe even cynical about our ability to tackle a problem of this magnitude,” he said. “And I hope if you take nothing else away tonight, zero, that you will take away a sense of validation that by showing up and taking on this challenge, you’re making a difference.”
That resonated with Melody Lu, MPP ’24, who attended this Harris Policy Forum feeling that “the world is marching toward the end.” She left, she said, feeling more hopeful.
Weaving the idea of hope and the notion of the “decisive decade” throughout his remarks, Zaidi said he wanted to underline how work on climate change is an opportunity to advance the cause of environmental justice.
“If we take the action and we do it the right way, it can actually lift up people who have been looked over and left behind,” Zaidi said. That includes people in places such as Pakistan, where unusually strong monsoon downpours flooded a third of the country this past summer, killing nearly 1,600 people and displacing millions.
“Pakistan, for me, that’s pretty personal,” Zaidi said. “I was born there. I close my eyes and imagine what it looks like for a third of a country to be flooded.”
Urged by Baicker, Zaidi also looked ahead at what needs to be done on the climate front, noting that “this is really hard work, it’s not going to happen overnight.”
He outlined a range of measures including:
- Elevating global sights on resilience and adaptation, bringing the same sort of inventiveness and innovation seen in climate change mitigation to the response to the next hurricane or drought;
- Continuing progress on global collaboration in areas including methane reduction; and
- Facing up to the fact that in certain instances the past cannot be ignored.
“We’ve got to really grapple with reality,” he explained. “So, in the Inflation Reduction Act we have $1.5 billion of funding to plant trees and there’s a reason for that. It’s because in communities that were historically redlined through racist housing policy here in the United States, it is literally hotter today because there’s more pavement and fewer trees. We’ve got to go do repair work so that those communities are not absorbing more of the pain than everybody else.”
“The biggest risk in this decisive decade,” he said, “is that we somehow stall out or shift our direction. We can’t do that. It’s way too late.”
“Let this be the moment,” he added, “where we all recognize how powerful we are to impact change.”