White House Advisor Discusses U.S. Climate Policy Ahead of UN Climate Conference


Deputy White House National Climate Advisor Ali A. Zaidi ’08 discussed the United States’s approach to combating climate change and detailed how global warming can disproportionately affect low-income groups at a Harvard Kennedy School event Wednesday.

The event, which was held virtually as part of the HKS “Road to Glasgow” series, took place just days ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Scotland starting Sunday. The conference, called COP26, brings together representatives from around 200 countries to discuss global climate policy.

Rand Wentworth, an HKS lecturer who helped organize the series, said in an interview he hoped event attendees could “feel the absolute existential urgency of addressing climate change.”

He added that it is important for young people to see “that there could well be a way forward to avert planetary catastrophe.”


Zaidi began the discussion by explaining how climate change has become one of President Joe Biden’s top priorities. He said that low-income groups are often more adversely affected by rising sea levels and heat waves.

“When we talk about climate change, we’re not just talking about something that proportionally impacts all Americans or all inhabitants of this planet, but really one that disproportionately impacts the weak and the vulnerable — the lower income and the disenfranchised,” he said.

Zaidi, who also served under President Barack Obama, said numerous government agencies — including the Department of Labor, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency — have cooperated to create effective climate policy under the Biden administration.

“This administration has been firing on all cylinders,” he said.

Kennedy School professor Joseph E. Aldy, who formerly served as a climate advisor to Obama, moderated the conversation along with HKS Center for Public Leadership fellow Hana N. Rouse ’14.

Zaidi said decisions made under President Donald Trump were hurtful to the U.S.’s climate efforts, but added that he is optimistic about future policy goals.

“We can acknowledge that President Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement was an incredible setback to the United States’ standing on climate internationally,” he said, referring to Trump’s move to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

“At the same time, it can be true — and it is — that the United States continued to move as a country in the right direction,” he added, citing the Clean Power Plan enacted under Obama.

Zaidi serves under Gina McCarthy, who served as a professor of the practice at the Harvard School of Public Health before being appointed by Biden as the White House National Climate Advisor.

He closed the event by calling for urgent climate action.

“I just would invite and encourage literally everyone to bring whatever talent, whatever time, whatever treasure they have to this task because this is the moment of truth,” he said.