On February 6, 2023, Columbia Business School’s “A Climate of Change: Stories from Climate Leaders on the Front Lines” series hosted Nathaniel Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) and former special assistant for energy and environment under President Barack Obama, for a discussion on climate change policy and action.
After a brief introduction from CBS climate economist Gernot Wagner, Keohane joined Danny Wagemans '23 in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on everything from the technicalities behind how the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was signed into law in 2022 to the future of nuclear power and what is ahead for young people entering the climate and sustainability field.
Keohane’s visit was the first in a new climate speaker series organized by the Green Business Club and Student Government Executive Board and supported by the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise and Dean's Office.
The series brings leaders from the worlds of business, NGOs, policy, and academia to CBS to share their perspectives on climate change and climate action. Its goal is to develop the future climate leaders of tomorrow by bringing CBS students into conversations with the climate leaders of today.
Here are four takeaways from the discussion:
1. There are two groups to thank for the passage of the IRA.
At the Climate of Change event, Keohane elaborated on how the IRA was passed by Congress and who specifically should be credited with the success of its passage.
“It was interesting in that it wasn't the same kind of broad campaign around one bill that we've seen in the past,” he remarked.
According to Keohane, the IRA was passed for a couple of reasons. First, young people have made a clear effort to ensure that climate policy is salient among elected officials, in particular with Democrats. The second reason is that NGOs like C2ES mobilized business voices in support of the IRA. The combination of these efforts was a driving force behind the passage of the bill into law.
2. Nuclear power has promise -- as a zero-carbon energy source.
On the benefits of nuclear power as a resource, Keohane noted that zero-carbon energy and renewables are quite different.
“You'll notice that I try to say zero-carbon energy rather than renewables,” he said. Keohane added that distinction because he believes that there is still a need to create a zero-carbon energy source that would include not only wind and solar, but also natural gas, carbon capture, and nuclear power. These options are not all technically classified as renewable energy sources.
Keohane went on to share his thoughts on the nuclear power debate, arguing that nuclear power has potential as a viable resource.
“I think the environmental community has been opposing nuclear power on the wrong grounds,” he said, adding that while nuclear power poses definite risks and dangers, other energy resources still in use, like coal, are far more dangerous.
“I've said for a long time, coal kills people and causes enormous amounts of air pollution deaths.”
3. We need to work on phasing out coal.
“One of the biggest challenges we face as a global community, and that we have to think about in terms of policy, is how do we put in place the policy incentives and the international agreement incentives for countries to stop using coal?” said Keohane.
Solar and wind power are cheaper than coal, but only on a per-kilowatt-hour-generated basis.
“It's a total cliche, but the wind doesn't blow all the time and the sun doesn't shine all the time,” Keohane clarified. “I guess the short story is the reason countries are still [using coal] is because coal is still abundant and cheap.”
Keohane shared his thoughts on the challenges facing efforts to transition to full-time solar or wind power, explaining that there is not currently a system or mechanism in place to reliably store electricity on a long-term basis.
While it is clear that coal poses serious risks to the environment and the well-being of humans, it is easily accessible and still cheaper than other zero carbon alternatives, at least until the obstacles mentioned above can be addressed, he added.
4. ‘Jump in.’
Keohane’s parting advice to Columbia Business School students considering a career in the climate and sustainability field? “Jump in.”
There has never been a better time for climate tech in terms of industry standards and economic opportunity, he added.
Keohane pointed to the CEO of Sila Nanotechnologies as an example of how it’s possible to combine an MBA degree with a master's in chemical engineering to create a career path in the climate and sustainability field.
“Do whatever it is you need to, to run to that really exciting place where you can get involved,” he said, adding that there are many career paths to consider, including working for an NGO or in government.
“Climate tech is in a boom right now,” he added.