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Biden’s top domestic climate advisor shares personal story, presidential optimism

Ali Zaidi, national climate advisor to President Joe Biden, discussed the federal government’s recent efforts to tackle climate change and how effective policies can help people.

Ali Zaidi, left, and Steven Chu in a fireside chat at NVIDIA Auditorium on March 13. (Photo credit: Sarah Weaver)

The federal government’s momentum to tackle climate change can be maintained only by supporting the working class and young people who enabled bipartisan passage of two huge laws in the past two years, according to Ali Zaidi, national climate advisor to President Joe Biden. The 35-year-old Zaidi, who emigrated with his family from Pakistan to Pennsylvania when he was in kindergarten, also talked about how effective policies can help lower-income people believe in themselves and pursue the American dream. His remarks were part of a fireside chat hosted on campus by the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability on March 13.

After years of debate, addressing climate change in the United States got big investments in infrastructure, development, and research aimed at restraining temperature rise and making society more resilient to climate afflictions already being felt. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 authorized $550 billion in new spending on highways, transit, rail, broadband access, water treatment, and the electricity system, as well as related research.

The legislation led to a moment that “crystalized for me why I do this work,” Zaidi said to an audience of students, staff, and faculty at NVIDIA Auditorium and online. The front page of a Flagstaff, Arizona, newspaper reported that a public school district for the Navajo Nation had received its first shipment of electric vehicles, he recalled.

“For a second, I just thought of the hundreds of times I got on a school bus. Then I thought about the kid who gets on this school bus, and it starts to move. There’s no roar of a diesel engine. There’s no inhaling of that gunk, all those toxic fumes. And I just thought of what that kid feels,” Zaidi said. “That kid feels a sense that in this country we prioritize her well-being.”

The funding of electric school buses comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which invests $10 billion in clean transportation, $7.5 billion in EV charging, and more than $7 billion to develop EV battery components, critical minerals, and materials.

Additionally, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is projected to raise federal revenues by $738 billion over 10 years. The revenue will be used to shrink the federal deficit and address sustainable energy and other climate-related issues. Due partly to the law, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are projected to be 40% below 2005 levels by 2030.

The big challenge for Zaidi, said former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who moderated the fireside chat, is coordinating climate policies among the many federal agencies involved, including the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Chu, who shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997, is a Stanford professor of physics, of molecular and cellular physiology, and of energy science and engineering in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

Working class

Inter-agency coordination is crucial for helping the places across America that have been “looked over, left out, left behind,” Zaidi said, including Rochester, New York, where Chu grew up, and Erie, Pennsylvania, where Zaidi grew up.

The Biden advisor described towns that the two major laws have already helped revive. Moses Lake in Washington state had a mill that made ingots and wafers for solar panels. “But then, like so many clean energy jobs, we waved good-bye to the jobs as they went offshore,” he said. The mill was shuttered; the town, shattered.

That factory in the past year has come back online and has a 10-year contract manufacturing ingots and wafers that are going to Georgia to get stamped into solar panels that are made in the U.S., Zaidi said.

Similarly, a big steel manufacturing plant near Pittsburgh, formerly a Bethlehem Steel facility, was retired and wiped out the whole community with it, but now it’s back to life, Zaidi said. The plant has union workers making metal devices for solar panels to track the sun for maximal electricity production. This is for both domestic use and global exports. The facility is now owned by the company with the biggest new public stock offering by a clean energy company in the past year, he added.

“This is an opportunity not just to put solar panels out, but to make steel in America – and perhaps even more importantly – put steel in the spine of the American middle class, which has been systematically disinvested in over the past several decades,” Zaidi remarked.

Such job creation and re-creation is essential for towns and cities hurt by the curtailing of fossil fuel combustion, he said.

Political economy

Biden, whom Zaidi described as a congenital optimist, insists that climate action must be a story not just about gloom and doom, not just about wildfires and droughts, but also about hope and possibilities.

“As President Biden says, if you walk into any business school and say, ‘We don’t need MBAs anymore, but we have a job for you as a butcher,’ they would say, ‘No, I trained my whole life for this. This is my ambition. These are my hopes and dreams,’” Zaidi said.

Instead, the critical mission is to not only use the skills people have but also create jobs in the communities in which they live, he said. For example, the startup Sparkz, which manufactures cobalt-free, American-made rechargeable batteries, is building a battery factory in West Virginia. The company is training laid-off coal miners to work at that battery facility.

“That’s the kind of thinking we must have if we’re going to stay on this trajectory,” Zaidi said.

Chu and Zaidi encouraged students in the audience to consider jobs in the government and in environmental nonprofit organizations. “You work for peanuts, but you get to slosh around billions of dollars,” Chu said. “If you slosh it around in the right way, then you can change the world.”

The fireside chat was introduced by Arun Majumdar, dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, and professor of mechanical engineering and of energy science and engineering. Majumdar previously directed Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy and was the founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy under Secretary Chu during the first term of President Barack Obama. Zaidi worked for eight years in the Obama administration in several roles, including as an advisor to then Secretary Chu.

The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability co-hosted this event with the Precourt Institute, which included attendees of its weekly Energy Seminar, a Stanford course offered in fall, winter, and spring quarters.

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