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Transcript U.S. Center COP26 - Coming Back Greener: Clean Transportation Secretary Buttigieg in conversation with climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Moderator:  Welcome, thank you so much for joining us. It's an honor to be here today with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, and the Nature Conservancy's Chief Scientist, Katharine Hayhoe. I'd like to start right in with questions to each of you. 

Transportation is the largest emitting sector of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and you each are involved in generational projects to address the emissions from Transportation. Can you tell us what role do you think transportation can play in climate solutions? We'll start with Secretary Buttigieg. 

Secretary Buttigieg: Thank you, and it's a real honor to be with you; I've been looking forward to this. I trust everybody can hear us? I feel like it's a silent disco of sorts. So, precisely because transportation is the biggest sector—it is, certainly in our economy and in many economies, contributing emissions—I view that as setting a high bar for us to try to be the biggest part of the solution. 

That means implementing what's already out there more quickly—electric vehicles, for example, which is a very big part of this administration's policy for surface [transportation]. But also recognizing the importance of acting on those hard-to-abate sectors like Maritime or Aviation. Everybody can picture and access, or at least see, an electric vehicle. Nobody's yet seen an electric airliner. But the steps that we took today, joining the International Coalition on Aviation, both working toward long-term for zero emissions aviation, and, in the near term, doing much more sustainable aviation fuels. Coupled with what we're doing in the maritime sector, which, pound-for-pound, is about as carbon non-intense as it gets. 

But because of how much of it happens because of the sheer volumes of dirty fuel, oil being burned is a huge part of the challenge. The commitments we made today toward green shipping corridors, I think, is a big part of the solution. And of course, back home, driving the adoption of proven technologies, like electric vehicles, I think is going to give us enormous traction in the 2020s—which is, after all, the decisive decade for meeting this challenge. 

Moderator: Katherine? 

Katherine Hayhoe: So, with transportation, there's two different ways for it to be part of the solutions to climate change. The first is by doing what we already do better and smarter. That includes electric vehicles; it includes low carbon or zero carbon liquid fuels, many of which you can put right into the same airplanes that we use today—and in fact, everyone's like United have already been experimenting with that; looking at green shipping fuels; looking at ways to get around in the ways that we already do without producing carbon and not producing air pollution either.  

Air pollution is something that we don't talk about enough. But it is responsible for almost 9 million premature deaths per year around the world. That is almost double that of Covid. And so, when we transition, when we move to clean sources of energy, we are eliminating those air pollution emissions that have a direct impact on our health today.

But we can also change our behavior. And that's where it gets very interesting, because we have already looked at the ways things like HOV lanes can change the way that people carpool, or incentivize people to buy clean vehicles. Investing in public transportation is so important. Who really wants to sit in the traffic jam, every single morning for an hour? Wouldn't you rather be listening to a book or doing something productive? And so, we can change the way that people travel, and we can change how they travel, and we can produce immediate short-term benefits for our health and our welfare today. And we can cut carbon emissions for tomorrow as well.

Moderator: Q: We’re hearing quite a bit of discussion about green infrastructure. And I wondered if you could talk with us a little bit about your views in terms of how green infrastructure can help—whether that is from the point of view of place-making, or active transportation, like bicycling and walking. What role do you see for green infrastructure? 

Katherine Hayhoe: I'll start briefly. Green infrastructure very much plays into the second aspect that I talked about. Sometimes we aren't able to bike because there aren't bike lines and it isn't safe. I've had that experience myself. Sometimes we aren't able to walk because the infrastructure does not exist. I love walking here because there's so many pedestrian areas. It makes it so much more attractive to walk. So, the way that we plan our cities, the way we plan our transportation, encourages people to a different lifestyle that leads to immediate benefits—again, for our health and for our state of mind. And it also cuts carbon too. 

Secretary Buttigieg: Let me just add to that, because I think you hit on a really important point, which is that the built environment—the design of our infrastructure—shapes our choices. You and I are both very familiar with South Bend, Indiana, my hometown—you lived there for a while. It's where I grew up. And characteristically of a lot of mid-sized Midwestern cities, it's very much organized around needing a car to get from place to place. I grew up there and then I lived in some other cities, lived in the UK, and then went back. And when I got my job as mayor, one day a light bulb went off. I think my car was in trouble or something, and I thought, “I'll just walk to work.” It was about a mile: a distance where, if I were in Chicago or Oxford, it would not have occurred to me to drive. And yet that very same distance is one where it might not have occurred to someone to walk. Simply because of the design, the culture, the perception of safety, the reality of safety, which is very important for active transportation. 

And so, as I started to form the habit of biking to work across that mile, I began to really think about the choices we make, and how it can create an environment—again, both in terms of perception and the actual mechanics—that affects choices. I mention that because, in addition to the technologies we need to deploy—a lot of green infrastructure is about technologies like charging stations, or clean, electric buses–a lot of it also is about shaping behavior. Not by wagging our finger at people and saying, “you've been bad, do this differently,” but by making it easy and natural to make a choice that is also beneficial for the climate and health perspective. 

And that's why I think we need to think about smart infrastructure that may not even, on its face, look green, or be described or advertised as green. In the bipartisan infrastructure bill that just passed—the biggest investment in infrastructure in my lifetime in the United States—I would argue that the public transit title is actually a climate title. And it's not that we tricked anybody or snuck it in. It’s just that transit policy is climate policy. And even traditional, so to speak, public transit, is also a major investment in our climate future. It is green infrastructure, whether we call it that or not. 

Moderator: Katherine? 

Katherine Hayhoe: I agree, climate policy is human policy. We care about it because it affects the water we drink and the food we eat, and the way that we travel, and the way that we live our lives. What mother does not want their child to be on a school bus that's powered by clean energy, so their children are not breathing in the pollution? What father does not want their child to be able to play outside without breathing in the fumes from the vehicles that are passing by? In South Bend, we actually picked our home so that we could walk places. And you know how hard it was to pick that home? It was the only home available. I wanted to be able to walk places—because that's such an important part of living a life, knowing your neighborhood, greeting your neighbors, being embedded in the society that we live in. 

And the infrastructure bill absolutely is a climate bill. But it's an infrastructure bill, and we need resilient infrastructure. We need infrastructure that not only provides for us, but that is resilient to the impacts of a changing climate.  Because right now, our infrastructure was built for a planet that no longer exists. Climate is changing faster now than any time in the history of human civilization on this planet. Our infrastructure is already vulnerable. It is already crumbling. It already gets a failing grade for the American Association of Civil Engineers. And that investment has to account for how climate is changing—affecting our infrastructure—and how we can build back smarter and better. 

Moderator: Could you talk a little bit more about the new infrastructure legislation that just passed, and tell us some of the additional highlights that you see there?

Secretary Buttigieg:  Yeah, how long you got? (laughter) I mean, we're talking about a truly transformational investment. It's the kind of thing that we've been talking about—and frankly, multiple presidents have promised—for a very long time. And we finally have a chance to actually do it. And what excites me most about it is its comprehensive nature. Now, unlike other efforts at this scale, there's no single project that defines it. There's no Golden Spike, like the Transcontinental Railroad. There's no Erie Canal. 

It's a whole set of things: Roads and bridges—designing them, but designing them better and smarter, too. Safety—billions of dollars for a Safe Streets For All initiative, recognizing that we need to move out of this mentality that somehow accepts tens of thousands of fatalities—as though we were in a war—as a natural cost of doing business and getting around our communities and our country. Investments in ports—which are suddenly and finally getting the attention they deserve in the United States, as well as airports. And again, making sure that they're built on terms that make sense for the world we're going into, rather than the world that they were originally built in. The investment in trains—passenger rail. We're in the UK, where people can take for granted speedy connections between cities that American citizens, frankly, often can't. And we can change that, with the biggest investment in passenger rail since Amtrak was created in the first place. 

There are elements that are outside of my lane, but I think are absolutely infrastructure, even though they're not transportation infrastructure: Energy infrastructure, like the grid which we're going to need to upgrade for these EV's to get anywhere. Water infrastructure to get lead out of our pipes—hard to think of a better investment than a child not being lead poisoned. Broadband infrastructure in an era where being connected to the internet is as important to your success as being connected to the interstate highway system. It’s all of these things taken together, including a real emphasis, again, on those climate beneficial technologies, like getting those electric vehicle chargers deployed so that range anxiety is no longer an obstacle for people to adopt. Incredibly important. 

Now, so is part two. Collectively, I call this the “Big Deal.” Teddy Roosevelt had the Square Deal. FDR had the New Deal. To me, President Biden has the Big D. Part one of the big deal passed. Part two includes things like the incentives that will buy down the cost of electric vehicles, so it's not a luxury item. 

The people who would benefit the most from the fuel savings of electric vehicles are often the people who can't capture those savings because they can't afford the sticker price of the car. We can do something about that. That's why the incentives matter, to take just one example of the many, many good policies in part two. So I'm excited about both of them. But, of course, as a Department, we’re mindful of the obligation to get to work and deploy them effectively and responsibly, which will be consuming all of us at the DOT for, as long as I'm there, I think. 

Moderator: You both are such terrific communicators on climate. And this enormous conference facility is filled with people who are passionate about doing something about climate change. What advice would you have for them? How would you like to see them communicating about climate change? Catherine? 

Katherine Hayhoe: There's a lot of smart people who know a lot about climate change, but the most effective conversations begin from the heart. So, whoever we are, there are people we love, places we love, things that we're passionate about. And those are the best places to begin our conversations with other people who share those values. 

So, I'm a parent, and I often begin conversations, as we probably could ourselves, about our kids, and about how much we care about them and about how concerned we are for the future. I live in Texas, which is the most vulnerable state in the country to climate impacts. And so, beginning with the sense of place can be so powerful. 

I have a colleague I was speaking to yesterday who actually arranged for a celebrity football match—that's soccer in the U.S.—to talk about climate change, and climate anxiety, for people who are passionate about sports. Whoever we are, we have a place that we can begin that conversation that's unique to us, with the people around us who share that value. Whether it's a sense of place, whether it's a sense of priority or shared passion, shared faith, or the same sector that you're in job-wise. That's the best place to begin, and to show that whoever we are, we are already the perfect person to care about climate change. 

Secretary Buttigieg: That's so well said, and that aligns with the approach I've been trying to take to it as well, which is to, first of all, meet people where they are. Also, I think to present people with where we're headed and not just where we could be headed if we get it wrong. Not because we shouldn't point to the catastrophic stakes of failing to meet this moment on climate, but because if all people hear is doom and guilt, those can be paralyzing emotions. And precisely because this challenge is so massive, you know, that the human brain is not perhaps wired to contend with things that massive. And we need to think about what is waiting for us on the other side of getting it right. Which in the President's view has a lot to do with jobs and economic opportunity. But I also think, at a more emotional level, it has a lot to do with the pride we would take in getting it right. 

You know, I think certainly my country does best when it has a national project, and here, we have a national project on our plate that doesn't involve going to war with any other country. In fact, it involves collaborating with others in a way we've never done before, and that represents—if we can achieve it, as we must—the most ambitious thing humanity’s ever done. I think talking about that excitement, alongside the stakes, if we get it wrong is important. 

The last thing I'll say by way of communication, by way of vocabulary—and again,  I sense this in your work, although I don't know if you'd agree with this specific thought—is that I think it might be time to retire the phrase, “save the planet.” It's not the planet that I'm worried about. The planet, in some way, shape or form, is going to be here. The question is, can the planet sustain life? And what we're really trying to save is lives. 

Katherine Hayhoe: I'm laughing because I just wrote a book. And the book is not called “Save the Planet.” It's called “Saving Us.” Because the planet will be orbiting the sun long after we are gone. The question is, will our civilization be on it? So, yes, I agree a hundred percent. The planet does not need us. We're the ones who need the planet. 

Moderator: The past years, couple of years, have seen enormous impacts of climate change on the coastlines of the United States, whether it's Hurricane Sandy in New York or the wildfires in California. But how do you connect, as communicators, the climate change issues with people in the middle of the country? Places you know well. And in helping them see the need to tackle climate change, not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity?

Secretary Buttigieg:  Where I come from, there's a lot of industry and there's a lot of agriculture. And so, part of what we have to do, again, is invite people who are part of industry and part of agriculture to feel that it is not that we’re clubbing them over the head as though they are the problem—but rather enlisting them to be part of the solution.  Which is exactly what I think the policies of this Administration have sought to do. Again, the electric vehicle example is just one. More broadly, the jobs we are going to need, the jobs we are going to create in delivering the kind of green infrastructure we need, present tremendous opportunity in places like the industrial Midwest. 

I also think the same is true of agriculture, and it hasn't really been talked about enough. My understanding is—not as a matter of technology, but as a matter of physics—it is possible for the soil of the world to take in as much carbon as the transportation sector puts out. Working toward how to do that using new technologies—and using the original carbon capture technology: plants—in the right ways, prevents enormous opportunity that could make people inland as proud of what we do on climate as the people of Iowa are over the Green Revolution that helped address famine in the world a couple of generations ago. 

So, I would go there. And then again, we talked about the plus side, am the Ghost of Christmas Future here, right? If we don't get it, right, you don't have to be on a coast to see the implications. When I was mayor South Bend, we had two floods that were each supposed to be 500-year, to 1,000-year floods. And we know there's more where that came from. And so, there is no place on the planet that is immune to the effects of climate change. But again, I'm just as excited about the upside as I am concerned about the harm. 

Katherine Hayhoe: I can verify both the floods—since my basement was one of the ones flooded—as well as what you just said about carbon emissions. The soil and nature have the potential to take up as much carbon as the transportation sector emits. And that is no reason not to cut emissions in the transportation sector, but it's every reason to do everything we can to let nature help us. Because nature-based solutions help with transportation too. When we look at flood reduction, when we look at protecting our coastal infrastructure, when we look at providing shade for people, and improving air quality, and protecting our infrastructure, nature is with us. Nature wants to help us. 

So, when you green urban areas, it improves air quality, it improves flood control, it improves people's physical and mental health. Oh, and it takes up carbon to. When you restore coastal wetlands, it filters water and provides habitat, it reduces storm Surge, it protects the infrastructure, and it takes up carbon too. There are so many benefits to these nature-based solutions. The only question is, why aren't we doing more of them? And that's really what some of these policies are about, aren't they? 

Secretary Buttigieg: Exactly.

Moderator: Katherine, could you talk a little bit more about what it means to green an urban infrastructure?

Katherine Hayhoe: I absolutely can. So, many urban areas, as you know, have a lot of concrete. And in the United States, thanks to historic redlining—which was racist practices of banks, mortgages, and insurance companies—a lot of low-income neighborhoods are very, very gray, not green. There's not a lot of parks. There's not a lot of lawns. There's definitely not trees. As a result, during a heat wave, that area can be up to 15 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than a wealthier neighborhood in the same city. And heat waves carry a tremendous toll on our health: on the air we breathe, on people with asthma and respiratory disease, on people who are very young or very old. 

And so, when we plant more trees, parks, green spaces, first of all, it filters the air that we breathe. Second of all, it reduces the urban heat island effect and protects us during heat waves. It provides pervious surfaces that take up the water when it falls. Oh, and again it takes up carbon too. But that's almost like a plus one at the end; we have all these benefits that these types of green solutions do, and they are fair because they address the people who are most vulnerable to climate impacts. Climate change affects us all, but it affects people who are already marginalized more than anyone else. And these solutions help [marginalized] people more than anyone else. 

Moderator: I wonder if I could also ask you each: I know that your faith plays a very important role in your connection to the climate change issue. And I wondered if you would be willing to share a little bit about that from a personal perspective? Katherine?

Katherine Hayhoe: So, I'm a climate scientist because of my faith. I was actually planning to be an astrophysicist—and that is what my undergraduate degree is in—because I thought of climate change as an important issue, that was an environmental issue that environmentalists cared about, and the rest of us wished them well. What I learned is that climate change is not only an environmental issue—which of course it is—but what I learned is that it is an issue of hunger and poverty. It's an issue that affects women and children more than men. It affects people who are marginalized and dispossessed more than those who have ample resources. It affects indigenous peoples who have already lost so much. It disproportionately affects the most marginalized and vulnerable people on the planet. The very ones that we, as Christians, are told that we are to care for, to love, to supply their needs. It's profoundly unfair and profoundly unjust. And that is why I felt like I had to do everything I could to help fix this problem before it's too late. 

Secretary Buttigieg:  You know, that’s so beautifully said. And not that you have to belong to any particular tradition, but certainly the Christian tradition is full of teachings, again, not only about our stewardship of the earth, which is a very real thing in every tradition I've ever been exposed to—but even more importantly, our obligation to other people. We’re saving people, and we're responsible for mitigating the suffering that is created—especially by the sinful choices of humankind, right? I mean, I remember trying to speak to a politician (who will remain nameless) in my home state about my concern of the escalating floods and the extreme weather that was affecting our community. And as so often happens, it was low-income people—especially on the west side of our city, which is a historically Black low-income area—who seem to be hardest hit by some of these floods. I was talking about my concern, and I remember this politician saying, “well, you know, God just works in so many mysterious ways.” He kept involving God, and at a certain point, I thought, “what greater sin could there be than to blame God for the selfishness of people?” 

There's the anecdote—it’s not in scripture, but I think it's fitting—of the person who sees rising flood waters and expects that God will save him, and turns away rescuers one by one, saying, “don't worry, God's got me.” He doesn't make it, finds himself at the Pearly Gates, and says, “how was I not saved?” And God says, “well, I sent you a helicopter, a rescue crew, and a speedboat. Why didn't you get into one of those?” 

So, whatever tradition you belong to, I think anyone that calls on us to take moral responsibility for the well-being of other people—people, not just the planet—calls on us to make choices that are compatible with that. To press ourselves, and one another, to make those choices. And to see that there is a kind of Salvation in the rescue of the trajectory that is now going in such a tough place. You can go all the way back to, you know, the Epic of Gilgamesh. I mean, rising waters and extreme weather events have been part of human means of connecting with their universe—and human fears—for our entire history. And there’s always somebody—always a prophet or a voice of some kind—warning about what's coming next. Now I don't think any of those epic or scriptural traditions envisioned the IPCC. But we have been given our warnings, and it's time to do something about it.

Katherine Hayhoe: One of the most interesting books I read over the pandemic was a book about scientists as prophets, basically sounding the alarm and saying we must change our ways. And you're so right: Every major religious tradition has something about stewardship, or caring for nature, for other living things, and caring for our sisters and brothers who are less fortunate than us. And really, I think that's a human characteristic. No matter who we are, no matter what we would or wouldn't call ourselves, when we see someone suffering, when we see someone in pain, we know that we want to do everything we can to help. And so, putting that human face on climate change and helping people see, again, that it isn't about saving the planet itself: It is about saving us, and many of the other living things that share the planet with us. That's when it becomes real. 

Moderator: We just have a couple of minutes left. These are such beautiful words and such inspiring words. I wonder if there's anything further that you would like to say to the young people who are flooding the hallways here, who are flooding the streets outside and demonstrations, who are demanding that adults take climate action. What would you say to them from the perspectives that you've just described? 

Secretary Buttigieg:  So, first of all, we hear you. We're there with you. And—especially to those who are skeptical to the point of pessimism about whether our political and economic systems are even capable of solving this challenge in time to make their lives secure—we recognize the obligation that comes with that. 

One of the things that I really have noticed about some of the folks on the outside, is them expressing their perplexity at the fact that it falls to protesting teenagers to call the establishment to account. The secret about the establishment is that most people who are in it don’t think of themselves as the establishment. I don't think of myself as the establishment, and I'm sitting, here in a suit, as a minister of a large government, commanding a bureaucracy in the service of the things that a very established system is legislated that we ought to go. I guess my point is that anybody who's concerned about the legitimacy of any of our institutions has a lot to prove right now, and that obligation is one that nobody can meet alone. And the reality is that political systems, economic systems, establishments are shaped—especially in democracies—according to the demands of the people who we serve. And that is why there is an important, if sometimes offstage, role to be played by the very activists who are most skeptical of the things that are happening on stage. And the job of anybody who's in here is to do right by those who are displaying low expectations on one level, but actually very, very high expectations on another level. That we solve this problem before it's too late. 

Katherine Hayhoe: So, the first most important thing that every single one of us can do to catalyze climate action is to use the most powerful force we have, which is our voice. In the UK, less than 50% of people talk about climate change regularly. In the U.S., less than a third of people talk about climate change regularly. And if we don't talk about it, why would we care? And if we don't care, why would we ever do anything about it? The young people are using their voices. They are being an example to the rest of us as to how to use your voice. If they can use their voices, why can't each one of us use our voices too? 

And again, I recognize many of us are, but we still can do more. When we use our voice, it's not about the doom and the guilt. It's not about piling on the fear and it's not about, you know, telling people that they really did it so poorly that there's nothing we can do. It's about talking, first of all, about why it matters, here and now, in ways that are relevant to us. Not the future, not Antarctica, here and now! South Bend, Texas, wherever you live, in ways that are relevant to you: Your children, your basement flooding, your favorite sport, your job. 

But then the other half of the coin is this: talking about positive, constructive solutions. And so, when we raise our voices, we need to hear why it matters, and the youth are doing that in spades. But we also need to take the time to learn what real solutions look like, and elevate the things that are already happening. Most people—I travel around to many cities—and most people are shocked to learn what's happening in their own city. Most people do not even know what is happening in their own city, or what's happening in the place where they work, or what's happening with schools or universities or churches. People don't know this. And so that's why we feel like we can't fix this problem. So, when we use our voice, talk about why it matters. But also do your research and find a really amazing, inspiring example—and there are hundreds of them, thousands of them—about a difference that has been made at the local scale and share that, because that is what gives us hope. 

Moderator: Thank you both so much, Secretary Buttigieg, Dr. Hayhoe. Please join me in thanking Secretary Buttigieg and Dr. Hayhoe.