Carnegie Mellon University: Experts discuss what needs to be addressed by the new administration

In his first weeks in the Oval Office, President Joe Biden signaled that climate change is a national priority. On Inauguration Day, he rejoined the Paris Agreement and halted the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would have carried oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. On Jan. 27, Biden signed an executive order that officially elevates climate as an essential focus of U.S. foreign policy and national security. The order also pauses new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore waters.

Across the Carnegie Mellon University campus, experts study climate, the environment and energy, as well as the policies that shape each of these sectors. What are the most critical issues that need to be addressed in the next four years? Below is a sampling of CMU expert opinions.

President Joe Biden speaking at Carnegie Mellon University’s Mill 19 facility in August of 2020. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Karen Clay
Karen Clay
I have three priority areas for the next four years. First, we need to enforce existing environment standards and quickly return to pre-2016 environmental standards, which were rolled back under the Trump administration. Second, we need to support decarbonization by investing in areas such as electricity transmission, electricity storage and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Third, we need meaningful metrics for building energy efficiency and incentives for investment in energy efficiency for new and existing buildings. Across these three areas, attention needs to be paid to the effects on low-income groups to ensure that they benefit from improvements in the environment, decarbonization and energy efficiency.

— Karen Clay
Professor
Economics and Public Policy
Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy

One thing our government can do is to ensure that our schools are safe, equal and energy-efficient. We can start this process by taking stock of the conditions of our public schools across the country using energy and environmental assessments. Some of our schools need upgrades much more than others, and oftentimes, these are the schools with large populations of students who are Black and brown or low income.

Teachers, students and administrators sometimes have no idea that they’re in a potentially toxic or unsafe situation because no one has measured the building’s carbon monoxide levels. My research has shown a direct correlation between the condition of the built environment and test scores in math and English, as well as absenteeism and suspension rates.

Assessing these buildings could help our governments prioritize where best to spend taxpayer dollars to not only make these buildings safer for our students, but more energy efficient.

— Erica Cochran Hameen
Assistant Professor
School of Architecture
College of Fine Arts

Erica Cochran Hameen
Erica Cochran Hameen
Neil Donahue
Neil Donahue
Carbon dioxide essentially lives forever — the climate warming from emissions lasts for about 100,000 years. This is why decarbonizing to net zero fossil carbon emissions is essential. We have about 30 years to bring the entire world to net zero. This means electrifying transport (cars and rail) and extending transmission and storage.

Particle pollution, much of it from fossil combustion, kills millions worldwide, so decarbonizing will have great pollution benefits too. However, this will be incredibly disruptive. It is crucial that we work to ensure environmental and climate justice, locally and worldwide, with sustainable energy development in the global south.

— Neil Donahue
Thomas Lord University Professor in Chemistry
Departments of Chemical Engineering/Engineering and Public Policy
College of Engineering and Mellon College of Science

Climate change is the result of many interrelated, interdependent and wicked problems such as deforestation, fossil fuels consumption, meat-based diets and globalized supply chains to name just a few. In order to address these problems, we need to move away from siloed, discipline-based approaches and begin addressing problems systemically.

For this reason, I’d like to see the Biden administration include a systems thinking expert in the cabinet who can lead an effort to map the top three to five interrelated issues that are driving climate change. Mapping the interconnections and interdependencies among these problems can reveal where to situate interventions that can solve multiple problems simultaneously and ignite positive, systems-level change. This approach can reveal strategies for both short-term results (the low-hanging fruit in the system), as well as identify the places in the system that will require longer investments of time, money and energy to resolve.

— Terry Irwin
University Professor
School of Design
College of Fine Arts

Terry Irwin
Terry Irwin
Akshaya Jha
Akshaya Jha
Burning coal to produce electricity remains one of the primary sources of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Production from wind and solar sources is expected to play a key role in the shift away from coal-fired production. However, wind and solar sources only produce when the wind is blowing and the sun is out, respectively. This highlights the environmental benefits of developing low-cost electricity storage for consumption at later times.

Though the United States has been able to use low-cost natural gas as “bridge fuel” in the transition away from coal, the bulk of electricity production from other countries without the benefit of low-cost natural gas still comes from coal. For example, roughly 60% of electricity production in China and 75% in India still comes from coal as of 2019. Subsidies to spur the development of wind and solar resources, as well as electricity storage, will be especially important to meet our climate goals.

— Akshaya Jha
Assistant Professor
Economics and Public Policy
Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy

In regions that are most dependent on fossil fuels today, an environmentally sound low-carbon transition must bring new opportunities for employment, technological innovation and equitable economic growth.

— Valerie Karplus
Associate Professor
Department of Engineering and Public Policy
College of Engineering

Valerie Karplus
Valerie Karplus
A photo of Vivian Loftness
Vivian Loftness
Full decarbonization of the United States by 2050 is critical to addressing climate change, but this is not achievable without significantly reducing buildings’ demand on energy.

The building sector is the biggest “player” in our country’s use of energy and our carbon output. Commercial and residential buildings use 70% of the country’s electricity and are responsible for more than 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions. Yet buildings and the built environment have been seriously undervalued in national policies and investments, and we currently lag behind other nations in advancing codes, standards and research in low-carbon design.

Dramatically accelerating national investments and policies to substantially increase building energy efficiency will have the greatest impact on minimizing energy demand and optimizing energy supply, while providing measurable gains for human health, jobs and environmental quality.

— Vivian Loftness
University Professor, Paul Mellon Professor
School of Architecture
College of Fine Arts

Over the next four years, the biggest challenge I see is how to recover from COVID-19 while addressing climate change. The pandemic has unveiled huge inequities in essential worker populations and who has access to reliable electricity and internet services. The stay-at-home measures have revealed the discrepancies between those with adequate cooling and heating in their homes. As heat waves become more frequent it is vital that everyone have access to cooling in their homes.

During COVID-19 recovery, we need to create jobs, deploy vaccines, realign this nation with sustainable development goals and fight climate change. As we are doing these things, the challenge at hand is how to do them equitably. As we create jobs, update homes to help reduce heat wave impacts, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and deploy vaccines, we need to ensure that this nation’s most vulnerable populations (disabled, elderly, racial minorities and low income) are not left out of the equation.

— Destenie Nock
Assistant Professor
Departments of Engineering and Public Policy/Civil and Environmental Engineering
College of Engineering

Destenie Nock
Destenie Nock
Costa Samaras
Costa Samaras
It’s absolutely essential that we, as a country, undertake bold climate actions over these next four years. The actions we take now will shape the trajectory of our success through the end of the decade and beyond.

We can use standards, investment and efficiency to help usher in a clean electricity system, smart buildings and manufacturing, and a transformed and electrified transportation system. The federal government can start with its own buildings and vehicles. We also need to reinvest in our engineered and natural infrastructure to be resilient to climate change. When developing policies and strategies, we need to center equity and justice to ensure that everyone can participate in a clean and resilient economy.

— Costa Samaras
Associate Professor
Departments of Engineering and Public Policy/Civil and Environmental Engineering
College of Engineering

Top of mind for the Biden administration’s clean energy agenda should be the advancement of new technologies, leveraging recent innovations in AI, machine learning and research to drive toward a zero-carbon energy future. Their goals will be accelerated by strong collaborations in the major energy producing and energy consuming sectors: power generation, transportation, buildings, industry, agriculture and forestry, and materials. But decarbonization will require more than increasing the amount of electric vehicles, or shifting to renewable sources like wind and solar. It will necessitate deep partnerships between corporations, cities, universities, energy institutes and startups to double down on our collective energy and cleantech efforts to date, spurring future economic momentum and growth.

— Anna J. Siefken
Executive Director
Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation

anna Siefken
Anna Siefken
Edson Severnini
Edson Severnini
During the Biden administration, climate and environmental policy should be front and center. In an effort to rebuild the economy from the pandemic, this administration should invest in infrastructure that mitigates emissions of global and local pollutants. Two key projects may be transmission lines to tap the enormous electricity-generating renewable resources — solar and wind — in locations far from urban centers and electric vehicle charging stations along the interstate highways. These efforts should consider environmental justice concerns. The communities most affected by both infrastructure projects and local pollutants should participate in the policy decisions, especially regarding the exact location of those projects/emissions.

— Edson Severnini
Associate Professor
Economics and Public Policy
Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy

The United States must swiftly transition from being an obstacle to a global leader by drastically reducing our addictive dependence on fossil fuels. We are already seeing the effects of climate change (flooding, droughts, extensive wildfires and disease proliferation) and have baked in significant additional warming from our greenhouse gas emissions. Every delay or obfuscation in aggressively transitioning to sustainable renewable energy sources only makes the environmental crisis worse. Regulation, enforcement and economic incentives that promote already existing technology are the most immediately effective approaches. New technological innovations will help, but we cannot afford to wait for them.

Climate change affects every aspect of the planet and our society (food and agriculture, disease and health, environmental justice, air and water quality, national security, demographics, natural resources, industry, transportation, etc.). We must comprehensively study the many effects of climate change on interwoven environmental systems to fully understand their multi-faceted impacts, and how to best adapt to the global environmental change we have inflicted.

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