Building a Georgetown Community for Energy and Environmental Policy

And what to expect from the Paris climate negotiations

By Will Hackman
President of the McCourt Energy and Environmental policy student organization at the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy

The international climate change negotiations, currently happening in Paris (November 30 to December 11), has the world of energy and environmental policy (E&E) buzzing. D.C. has recently been full of “Road-to-Paris” themed events hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, the Newseum, ICF International, and many more. This week in Paris, there have certainly been very exciting announcements on topics ranging from: deforestation, renewable energies, R&D investment, sustainable cities, water usage, and more. But before we dive into the front lines of climate change, let’s look at what this means for us here at Georgetown.

Academic programs in environmental science, policy, law, and related degrees in business (eco-entrepreneurship), engineering (urban/civil planning), and other fields are gaining in popularity. Young people seem much more willing to accept their roles in the efforts to combat climate change and to help build more sustainable societies. At the very least, millennials can smell the job opportunities as these fields grow exponentially every year.

I came to Georgetown to study U.S. public policy and to focus on energy and environmental topics. A premier institution in our nation’s capital, Georgetown is uniquely positioned to not only train students in today’s most important policy fields but to also help them find jobs. The demand for well-trained E&E policy professionals is clear. Federal, state, and local lawmakers will all face policy choices related to climate change in the coming years. These may include how to: ensure coastal cities are resilient in the face of rising sea levels and storm surge, address reduced water supply in agriculture, find new sources of power that ensure an operational electric grid during natural disasters, increase energy efficiency in industrial, commercial, and residential sectors, address public health concerns by improving air and water quality, secure a sustainable food supply for growing populations, and much more. As the list of public and private sector adaptation challenges grows, building a community here at Georgetown that enables us to keep pace just makes sense.

I founded a potential new group (pending provisional status) to serve this need. The McCourt Energy and Environmental policy organization (McCourt E&E) will bring students, academics, and practitioners together to share ideas and brainstorm solutions. The policy proposals we come up with will strive to solve real-world E&E challenges. We hope to create a cohort of policy leaders who, upon graduation, will make a significant difference addressing these challenges. We’ll host education events, roundtable discussions, VIP speaker series, and policy conferences. We’ll create a platform for engagement through social media, blogs, and video channels that anyone will be able to contribute to. Finally, because E&E issues are as varied as they are important, we want to hear from students on what issues they’re passionate about.

Given the (predominant) U.S. policy focus of the McCourt M.P.P. program, the focus of our student group will similarly be on U.S. E&E policy solutions. However, as we all know, issues related to climate change are inherently global. It will therefore be critically important context to know how other states in the international system are dealing with their individual challenges, what projects are being piloted, and what our elected officials agree to in various negotiations. Which brings us back to Paris.

No one expects an agreement that would keep average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius

As a layman in international climate negotiations, I find it useful to view the Paris negotiations as dealing with two major “pots” of issues: those related to mitigation (IE: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, transitioning away from fossil fuels to a renewable energy “base load” supply) and those related to adaptation (IE: dealing with rising sea levels, displaced populations, drought). After attending a few events recently, here’s the landscape as I see it going into Paris:

  1. No one expects an agreement that would keep average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius — the previously agreed to “disaster point” for long-term sustainability of human civilization. For years, climatologists and activists like Bill McKibben of 350.Org have used 2°C of warming as a key benchmark issuing reports and constructing public awareness campaigns geared toward keeping us below this threshold. “Anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth.”
    However, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Dr. Jonathan Pershing, the Principal Deputy Director of the Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis at the U.S. Department of Energy, and many others, now believe we are currently on track for 4–6°C of warming by the end of the century if green house gasses continue to rise at current rates. Bear in mind, that this is average worldwide temperature increases. In the Arctic, which sees a disproportionate impact from climate change, mean surface temperate has already increased by 2°C and could see an average temperature increase of 7°C by 2100. This is according to Tom Armstrong, the president of Madison River Group who served within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as the Executive Director of the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), and who recently gave a great presentation that I attended at the Georgetown Mortara Center for International Studies. 7°C warming in the Artic would be very, very bad.
  2. The Paris negotiators are hoping to achieve a starting place for a legally binding international agreement. This is the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21 for short), which means it’s taken 21 years of international negotiations to even get to this point. Any agreement reached this year will need to be continually strengthened and evaluated in order for us to achieve the stronger and longer term goals we must eventually reach (IE: getting to 2°C or below). As Ms. Figueres stated at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast briefing on November 3rd, “you cannot turn around an economic model that we’ve been using around the world for 150 years in one agreement.”
  3. Paris will hope to achieve three things:
  • Get us off the “business as usual” path of 4–6°C of warming, that we are currently on if we do nothing, by creating climate change plans of action for the almost 200 countries involved in COP. These are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The U.S. plan is here.
  • Ensure adaptation also has a legally binding framework. Climate change isn’t just an issue for 2100, it’s happening now, and many developing countries are feeling the effects. Industrialized countries, responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, need to share the burden of addressing the adaptation needs for the developing countries least responsible. This can be done through large financial commitments to global funding sources, like the Green Climate Fund, and by other mechanisms that seek to help developing countries develop structures for meeting adaptation challenges (see: NAPAs).
  • Create a transparent evaluation process that seeks to measure the progress of each country’s goals. Analyses would preferably be done every five years and would contain some sort of mechanism to force countries that are falling behind to get back on track. This will be intensely challenging. The global costs of adaptation, as stated by the UNEP, could reach $500 billion per year by 2050 if GHG emissions continue rising at their current rate. Even the most well-intentioned nations could fall subject to economic slowdowns, political instability, or worse, making climate chance action politically toxic or economically impossible. Even in the U.S., there is major opposition to the Obama administration’s new Clean Power Plan with 24 states suing the federal government and similar opposition efforts in congress. These efforts, According to the National Journal, are specifically intended to “send a message to the UN that the U.S. is divided on tackling climate change.”

The politics of climate change in the U.S. will make your blood boil if you let it. But the bottom line is that business and government are already taking steps in the right direction. There are many interesting job opportunities being created every day in a wide range of interesting fields. Federal, state, and local lawmakers are crafting policy to make our cities greener, our food safer, our power supply more diverse and resilient, and more. The E&E policies we’ve been waiting for are being crafted now and there’s a calling from the halls of congress to the state capitals that experts are needed.

We came to the McCourt school to become policy experts. McCourt E&E will cater to those who came for energy and environmental policy — or at least have an interest. I believe, given the skills and training we receive in our program, that the policy students who become involved with our group will be able to meaningfully engage in a host of E&E policy issues. We also want to build bridges to other student organizations and schools in the Hoya community. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the many excellent initiatives already happening on campus that include: the Climate Center at Georgetown Law, the monthly Energy and Policy Research Seminars at the Mortara Center for International Studies, the fossil fuel divestment campaign GU Fossil Free, the Environmental Initiative, the Sustainable Oceans Alliance, and more.

McCourt E&E hopes to occupy a unique space both within the school of public policy and the larger Georgetown community. Join us and help lead the conversation from the beginning by visiting www.facebook.com/McCourtEE and clicking “sign-up.” With your passion, we will create proposals that might just go on to change how the U.S. conducts energy and environmental policy in the future.

Charles “Will” Hackman, (MPP-EP ’18) is a first year student at the McCourt School of Public Policy