On Tuesday morning, Bwog staff writers Lexie Lehmann and Sarah Kinney dragged their tired butts out of bed to attend an event that was actually pretty legit, a conversation on sustainable energy and climate change with Brian Deese, senior advisor to President Obama. The event was hosted by SIPA’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
At 38 years old, Brian Deese has a resume that would be impressive even if he were 100. Former Deputy Director of the National Economic Council. Former Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Current senior advisor to President Obama. As a matter of fact, Deese’s West Wing office is located right in between the Oval and the office of the Chief of Staff. Considering White House geography is directly correlated with power, this is pretty dang cool.
Deese was introduced by Center Director Jason Bordoff, who also added that the talk would be livestreamed and open to questions from viewers through the hip and trendy Twitter hashtag, #cgepevents.
Deese began his talk by presenting a graph that showed how carbon pollution from the nation’s energy sector had decreased and hit its lowest level in 25 years, while the US’s GDP has continued to rise. (He also casually mentioned how this is his favorite graph of all time; his enthusiasm is such that White House colleagues poke fun at him for it.) This “decoupling”, as Deese called it, disproves carbon usage and economic growth are directly correlated, and suggests the US is making legitimate strides towards reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. Some critics have said that this decoupling may just be an accident of history. Deese disagrees. He says that the growing GDP and diminishing emissions are both direct results of policy put in place by the Obama administration.
After showing off his favorite graph, Deese spoke about environmental policy from an economic standpoint. One of the key ideas that he repeatedly emphasized was that current global sustainable energy and climate change policies are second best. In Deese’s mind (a mind that just so happens to be an authority on this particular subject), in order to combat climate change in the most effective and efficient way, we would have to completely uproot our entire global economic system. We would have to rebury oil. We would have to say no to coal. We would have to redesign every single factory, every single car, every single home. Obviously, this is simply not possible. So, according to Deese, the Obama administration operates on a platform of activating the first-best nature of second-best ideas. If we can’t go back to the beginning and undo all of humankind’s detrimental decisions, we can use policy to change current practices and increase regulations to ensure a better, cleaner future. Second best isn’t a last resort; it’s the smartest plan we have.
After Deese’s formal presentation, the floor was opened for questions. Many revolved around Deese’s perspective on the 2016 election, and to what extent he felt a new administration could help or hinder the Obama administration’s progress. In his answers, and in the talk as a whole, we felt that Deese strayed away from taking a distinctly political stance. Instead, he responded by talking about the private sector and about how the United States is not the sole participant nor victim of the climate crisis. He has faith that private businesses and corporations will continue to uphold environmentally conscious agendas. He also repeated that this issue doesn’t need to be partisan; the question is not whether or not climate change exists, but rather how we should combat it.
The conversation ended with a question from Bordoff: “So Brian, how can we be like you?” — which tbh is something everyone in the room was thinking. Deese’s answer was threefold:
1. By attending events like this you’ve already done yourself a favor (thanks again, alarm clock!!)
2. Engage with public service frequently and meaningfully (which reminds us, are you registered to vote?!), and
3. Be audacious. Continue to question the presumption that you cannot change the status quo.
On this Wednesday afternoon, we invite you all to do the same. Cheers!