NAC Climate Webinar Series Recap

It has been quite a year for thinking about climate policy at the Ford School! A global pandemic led to a shift in plans for this year’s North American Colloquium (NAC) on the topic of climate policy, but a silver lining of our efforts to re-imagine the format of this year’s NAC is that we were able to reach and engage with many more people than we would have been able to otherwise.

We held eight webinar events throughout the 2020-2021 academic year. More than 400 people from around the world registered for these events. Registrants included faculty, students and staff from fifty-three universities around the globe, and representatives from at least ten government agencies in North America, fourteen NGOs, and fifteen private sector firms-- mostly in the renewable energy and utility sectors.

The eight webinars themselves featured twenty-five distinguished scholars, policymakers, NGO leaders and students hailing from all three North American countries. A range of important themes were discussed, including federalism and intergovernmental relations, natural resources, Indigenous politics, fossil fuel infrastructure, renewable energy infrastructure, energy siting and transmission, regulatory frameworks, multi-national and continental collaboration and conflict, public opinion and much more.

Douglas Macdonald (University of Toronto) kicked off our series with a book talk on his latest book, Carbon Province, Hydro Province. His talk highlighted the challenges of trying to govern an issue like climate in a federation like Canada, where provincial governments are afforded significant policymaking authority and also have such distinctive political economies.

At a moment when Donald Trump was still a lame duck president, Ford School Professor Barry Rabe (University of Michigan) assessed the damage on the climate and environmental file of Trump’s term in office, and looked forward to what a Biden administration might bring, in a conversation about his latest book, Trump, the Administrative Presidency, and Federalism. I was pleased to participate in this conversation, offering insights from my research on U.S. state-level climate policy engagement. Ford School MPP Student Jaclyn Kahn moderated a stimulating Q+A.

We began the Winter Term with “Perspectives from the Periphery.” Debora Van Nijnatten (Wilfrid Laurier University) and Marcela López-Vallejo (Universidad de Guadalajara) discussed the state of play when it comes to Canada’s and Mexico’s climate policy efforts, and also offered insights on whether and how each country might work with the new U.S. administration to further shared continental objectives. Recent Ford School graduate Dr. Alison Beatty moderated the conversation. POLEA Executive Director Andrés Ávila briefed us on some of the current challenges confronting federal climate policymaking in Mexico, and NGOs’ strategy of pursuing state-level action in the meantime.

A talk by André Lecours (University of Ottawa), presenting work co-authored with Daniel Béland (McGill University), brought issues of federalism and intergovernmental politics to the fore once again. Their paper compared intergovernmental conflict over pipeline expansion in Canada and the United States, seeking to explain why there was so much more of it in the case of the former than in the case of the latter. Amy Janzwood (University of British Columbia, PhD University of Toronto) presented findings from another excellent paper on the topic of pipelines, co-authored with Sarah Martin (Memorial University) and Kate Neville (University of Toronto). Their paper took a deep dive into how pipelines are financed, exploring how and why these projects can persist in “liminal states,” neither built nor cancelled, for long periods of time.

From there, we turned to the topic of energy regulation, which once again raises issues of multi-level governance and questions about cross-border coordination and integration. We were fortunate to be joined by California Public Utilities Commissioner Emeritus Dian Grueneich (Stanford University), who shared a regulator’s perspective on these issues. She recounted her experience considering the Sunrise Transmission Line, which brings electricity from Mexico into California, and the various deliberations surrounding its approval. Monica Gattinger (University of Ottawa) then discussed a range of important topics related to energy regulation, including reliability and transmission issues, best governance practices, and government-stakeholder relations. She highlighted the role of the North American Reliability Corporation (NERC) as an example of effective transnational energy governance. Ford School MPP Student James Van Steel moderated the Q+A.

Our next session considered public opinion in all three countries. Christopher P. Borick (Muhlenberg College) and Erick Lachapelle (University of Montreal) presented brand new data from their twin Surveys on Energy and the Environment in the United States and Canada. Partisan polarization is a feature of the data from both countries, but climate policy support in both countries has also risen markedly overall. Itzkuauhtli Zamora Saenz (Dominguez Belisario Institute) showed us a very different picture, from public opinion in Mexico, where the public is largely uninformed about renewable energy technologies and supportive of the current administration’s push for Mexican “energy sovereignty.”

Our penultimate session zoomed in (no pun intended) on the municipal level of government, but kept a comparative perspective across the three North American countries in mind. Sara Hughes (University of Michigan) presented insights from her research on climate policy efforts in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, discussing how these cities have attempted to overcome the limitations on their authority and capacity and effectuate the policy goals they set forth. Then, Gian Carlo Delgado Ramos (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and Hilda Blanco (University of Southern California) highlighted the challenges Mexico City and Los Angeles each face when it comes to water governance in the context of climate change.

Finally, sticking with the local level, we concluded our webinar series with a session that ripped the Band-Aid off of an issue that many would regard as the “elephant in the room” of the clean energy transition: the politics of siting all of this new renewable energy infrastructure and transmission that the various national and subnational governments are calling for. Here, we saw similar themes across the three countries, but also key local differences. Sarah Mills (University of Michigan) gave a fascinating talk that drilled down to the level of Michigan’s 1,773 local governments (townships, cities and villages) and identified key patterns in how restrictive (or non-restrictive) their zoning laws are to utility-scale wind and solar farms. Heather Millar (University of New Brunswick) and Iñigo Martínez Peniche (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) each gave fascinating presentations, from a Canadian and Mexican perspective, respectively, that highlighted some common political, ethical, and procedural challenges to building new energy infrastructure projects.

And so, across the eight sessions, we covered a wide range of topics and related challenges and opportunities for the North American continent as we enter a new chapter in continental efforts to deal with the “wicked problem” of climate change, with a very different U.S. administration, among other rapidly evolving considerations. We sincerely appreciate the participation of the brilliant panelists from all three countries who enriched these conversations.

Special thanks, as well, to our colleagues at our partner universities – the University of Toronto and the National Autonomous University of Mexico – as well as the Ford School’s International Policy Center for their support and encouragement as we re-envisioned what this year’s NAC would look like. Thanks, as well, to our co-sponsoring units here at the University of Michigan: School of Environment and Sustainability, Program in the Environment, Graham Sustainability Institute, Erb Institute, Environmental Law and Policy Program, the Global CO2 Initiative. Finally, thanks to the Meany Family Foundation for supporting all of these activities.

This year’s NAC project will continue, entering a new phase over the summer. A sub-set of the webinar participants above is currently hard at work on a series of short papers that will deal with topics ranging from methane emissions governance to electricity integration, and much more—building on many of the above themes and written from a comparative, cross-national perspective. We expect to release these papers in the early fall, and we hope they will provide a forum for continued engagement on these critical issues.

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