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Shultz’s legacy on energy and cooperation must be remembered and extended, panel agrees

Mar 22, 2021
Precourt Institute

By Kate Gibson

Whenever Arun Majumdar visited California while working in Washington, DC as part of the Obama administration, he would make sure to call on former Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

“I used to just watch him and learn,” said Majumdar, now a Stanford University professor of mechanical engineering. “When he listened to you, it didn't matter whether you were the president of a country or a student at Stanford or anywhere else, he gave full attention to you.”

Shultz, who passed away on Feb. 6 at the age of 100, was a paragon for Majumdar and many others for his ceaseless efforts in fighting climate change and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Shultz’s philosophy can be summed up by his words in 2012: “What you do today is going to have a big impact on the future. I have three and soon to be four great-grandchildren. So, I’m thinking, I’ve got to do what I can to see that they get a decent world.”

Shultz’s work on climate and energy, his impact forging bridges across the political spectrum, and his strength as a role model and teacher must be not only honored, but built upon, said Majumdar, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Tom Stephenson, who co-founded the Hoover Institution’s Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy. They discussed the challenge ahead on climate and the clean energy transition at a recent Stanford Global Energy Dialogues.

Moniz, who is also a professor emeritus of physics and engineering systems at MIT, said that when he asked Shultz to chair the MIT Energy Initiative, he thought he was reaching for the stars.

“Little did we recognize that George would do it, would do it enthusiastically, would do it effectively and would do it right up into his hundredth year,” he said.

The discussion was hosted by Yi Cui, director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, and Sally Benson, professor of energy resources engineering and former co-director of the Precourt Institute with Majumdar. Benson noted that, while many remember Shultz for winding down the cold war between the United States and Soviet Union, he was also a strong supporter of the environment and of sustainable energy policies during his time in Washington and in the three decades afterward. As chairman of the advisory boards of the Precourt Institute and the MIT Energy Initiative, Shultz brought the universities together to work on energy-related research and to defend federal R&D support for innovations needed for climate-friendly energy.

Building bridges

Shultz had an amazing ability to bring people together, the panel agreed.

In 2010, Arnold Schwarzenegger – then California's governor – tapped Shultz, a Republican, and Tom Steyer, a Democrat, to lead the effort to stop proposition 23. The voter referendum would have rolled back California’s ambitious climate legislation. Stephenson recalled Shultz and Steyer as an interesting combination who became good friends through their successful effort to fight the proposition. The two shared the story of their unlikely pairing at a 2010 Stanford Energy Seminar.

“It was just so typical of George,” said Stephenson. “He was a master of creating bridges with people even if they disagreed with him significantly, and finding the common ground.”

Majumdar agreed, calling Shultz “the best convenor of people.” Shultz made people “feel welcome and heard no matter what the position was,” he explained.

Shultz developed and championed a carbon dividends plan to reduce carbon emissions alongside fellow former Secretary of State James Baker. The plan, known as the Shultz-Baker plan, is designed to build coalitions, said Moniz. Parts of the plan, like a market-based price on carbon and decreased environmental regulations, can appeal to political conservatives, according to Moniz. Proceeds from the carbon tax would be returned to the American people as a flat dividend, an idea that can appeal to progressives. The plan also calls for a tariff on the carbon content of imported goods, which is important for industry and labor.

“These elements are really balanced,” said Moniz, “Something we need a lot more of today.”

Shultz worked to foster bipartisan support for his climate plan. Stephenson remembered visiting lawmakers with Shultz as founding members of the Climate Leadership Council.

 "If George said he’d like to come, the red carpet was rolled out, regardless of which side of the aisle you're on,” he said.

The revenue-neutral carbon tax received a strong response from both parties, said Stephenson, who hopes to rekindle momentum for the plan under the Biden administration.

A teacher and role model

From his first teaching job as a student coach of Princeton’s freshman football team to drilling professors on how to effectively convey their work to members of Congress, Shultz loved to teach. He held various teaching positions throughout his career, including at the MIT Department of Economics and the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, where he was dean from 1962 to 1968.

Shultz knew how to bring out the best in people. 

“He learned early on that his role was to create an environment in which everyone was excited, learning and pursuing the same objective,” said David Fedor, research manager at the Shultz-Stephenson Energy Policy Task Force in an interview after the session.

“He would say that at times it may look like a crummy world, but we’re part of it whether we like it or not,” Fedor said. “It’s our responsibility to make it better.”

Two students helped moderate the panel: Nora Hennessy, PhD candidate in energy resources engineering, and Melissa Zhang, joint MBA/MS candidate in energy and resources. Both were inspired by Shultz’s example.

After the panel, Zhang noted that when she graduates she will dedicate at least the next decade of her career to fighting climate change.

Hennessy agreed. “We’re early in our careers. It’s so inspiring to see the whole trajectory of Mr. Shultz's career and how it evolved over time,” she said.

The challenge ahead

Shultz also championed innovation in energy technology, something that the panel agreed will be critical to addressing climate change. The next decade will have to be one of “supercharged innovation” if we want to meet our 2050 net-zero carbon emission goal, said Moniz. Majumdar concurred, calling the next decade the “roaring twenties" for clean energy.

The panelists also discussed the importance of incorporating social equity and environmental justice concerns into climate policy. Moniz thinks that supporting economic development for the least developed countries is our best bet to get to a low-carbon world.

“It’s time for the industrialized world to step forward and start providing the kind of support that we have promised for a long time and have never met,” he said.

All Global Energy Dialogues sessions are free, and most are open to the public. Please visit the Global Energy Dialogues website to register for future virtual sessions and watch past ones.  

The Global Energy Dialogues are funded by the Stanford Global Energy Forum.

Cover image credit:  Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service