USC Climate Forward Conference: Near Tanden

Neera Tanden, domestic policy advisor to President Joe Biden, discussed the White House’s more ambitious goals to address climate change. (USC Photo/Nick Neumann)


Political leaders, scholars and activists discuss challenges ahead at Climate Forward Conference

EARTH MONTH: The fifth annual event packed Town and Gown on Thursday afternoon and featured several discussions and Q&As.

April 08, 2024 By Grayson Schmidt

Professor Amber D. Miller knows the many roadblocks to fighting climate change, including political and economic factors and a general resistance to change. But as dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Miller believes in the role universities can play in addressing the climate crisis.

“Universities are capable of bringing enormous intellectual firepower to the table across almost every discipline that you can imagine,” Miller said.

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On Thursday, Miller helped kick off the fifth annual Climate Forward Conference at USC’s Town and Gown ballroom on the University Park Campus. The event featured a series of conversations advancing climate change issues and was sponsored by the USC Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability and the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, in collaboration with Politico.

“We are not here at this university today in 2024 to debate whether or not climate change is happening. We are not even here to bemoan how bad the climate crisis is becoming,” Miller said. “We are here to bring together great minds from within academia, the public sector and government, business and industry, the nonprofit sector, law and journalism, to hear about new and exciting work being done to develop solutions that will work across the political aisle.”

USC President Carol Folt’s commitment

On a day that saw her hire a new men’s basketball coach, attend the first commemoration of Armenian History Month on campus, celebrate the 100th anniversary of USC’s graduate school, and stop by rapper Travis Scott’s sale of his new clothing line at the University Bookstore, USC President Carol Folt said her time at the Climate Forward Conference was “ending her day on the highest of high notes.”

Folt pointed to the USC Sustainability Hub, the USC Capital Campus in Washington, D.C., and overall student engagement with sustainability issues as proof that the university as a whole is all in on addressing the climate crisis.

“The area of sustainability or sustaining the planet, it’s so meaningful, so purposeful, and I think it’s really wonderful what we’re doing here today,” said Folt, an environmental scientist. “This is a full university effort that’s coming from people in every part of the institution.”

Goals accomplished, goals to come and the 2024 election

Neera Tanden, director of the U.S. Domestic Policy Council and domestic policy advisor to President Joe Biden, kicked off the first segment of the day by focusing on the White House’s more ambitious goals to address climate change.

She spoke about Biden’s Investing in America agenda, the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history. Within that agenda is the Inflation Reduction Act, which Tanden said “has the most significant climate investment ever anywhere in the world.”

“We have a goal to conserve 30% of America’s land and waters by 2030, and to cut America’s carbon emissions in half by the end of the decade,” she said.

Tanden was later joined by Bob Shrum, director of the USC Center for the Political Future, who began their conversation by directly asking: “Do we really have a reasonable chance to meet our climate goals?”

“There is a lot of attention on any particular climate failure, but when you step back, the administration is reaching its goals on its strategy,” Tanden said. “There’s a lot of work to do, and you can get wrapped up in some news here or some news there, but overall, we are making incredible progress.”

USC Climate Forward Conference: Tenzin Seldon, Joanne Witty and Fran Pavley
Tenzin Seldon, Joanne Witty and Fran Pavley, from left, participate in a panel discussion. (USC Photo/Nick Neumann)

Following Tanden and Shrum’s discussion, Debra Kahn, California policy editor for Politico, moderated a three-person panel on the impact of climate change on the 2024 election. The panel included former California State Sen. Fran Pavley; Tenzin Seldon, founder and managing partner of the venture capital fund Pulse Fund; and Joanne Witty, a lawyer and environmentalist.

One topic Kahn posed to the panel was air quality and emissions standards under the Obama, Biden and Trump administrations. As someone who wrote California’s original law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during her time in the state senate, Pavley said this year’s election could have a large impact on emissions over the next four years.

“This election really matters if you care about air pollution or care about climate change — it’s all tied up into this,” Pavley said. “California’s a unique place, and vehicles under the Clean Air Act really have made a difference.”

The big question: Are we prepared?

One of the highlights of the event came from comedian and former Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee, who spoke about her own issues with talking about climate change. During her time as the host of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee from 2016 to 2022, Bee said that her lowest-rated show centered on climate change.

“People had no interest in it whatsoever,” Bee said with a laugh. “We really felt that — especially afterward when the network was like, ‘Never do a climate episode again and do not put climate in the name of anything that you do.’”

Bee was joined by David Livingston, former senior advisor to U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, and Joe Árvai, director of the USC Dornsife Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability. The panel — titled “Climate Change: Are We Prepared?!?” after Bee’s segment from her time at The Daily Show — explored America’s readiness to have real conversations about climate change.

“One of the things you learn when you’re traveling the world trying to do climate diplomacy and trying to do it effectively is that it really doesn’t work to lecture people, and it really doesn’t work to harangue people — actually, it quite often does not work to start even with the science,” Livingston said.

The three went on to discuss the media’s role in climate change coverage, as well as satirical news shows like Bee’s, that could inform or serve as an echo chamber for like-minded people.

Throughout the discussion, Bee erred on the side of optimism, saying that she feels hopeful for the future when she sees younger generations’ willingness to talk about climate issues.

“My daughter, she’s college-age, and she wants to study fashion design,” Bee said. “Her entire raison d’être is sustainability — every one of her generation would never consider creating fashion that was unsustainable. These kinds of conversations, they give me a lot of hope.”