At a Monday seminar, White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi spoke about his journey into public service and discussed the newly-approved Willow Project, clean energy jobs and other climate action plans from the Biden administration. Zaidi shared the stage with Steven Chu — professor of physics and molecular & cellular physiology, Nobel laureate and former U.S. Secretary of Energy — at the event co-sponsored by the Doerr School of Sustainability and the Precourt Institute for Energy in the NVIDIA Auditorium.
After running on a platform of climate action, the Biden administration has since passed large pieces of legislation including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act in order to invest in renewable energy and shift away from polluting industries with a focus on workers and communities.
Zaidi, who is an adjunct professor in sustainability economics at Stanford, emphasized that these accomplishments are only the beginning.
“The important thing is, first of all, to recognize that we didn’t solve the problem,” Zaidi said. “That in many ways what we asked for from the United States Congress was, you know, plywood, nails and hammers — but it’s going to be on us to build the future that we want … the architecture, the design, the delivery, the actual building — has yet to be done.”
Zaidi said he was drawn to work with Biden, whom he described as a “congenital optimist,” because of the administration’s recognition that climate action wasn’t just a “story of gloom and doom, not just the wildfires and droughts” but of “hope and possibilities.”
Recently, however, the Biden administration has been criticized by some climate advocates for its decision to approve the Willow Project, a large drilling project in Alaska which would allow oil producer ConocoPhillips access to 600 million barrels of oil.
The decision on ConocoPhillips Alaska’s Willow project, in a federal oil reserve roughly the size of Indiana, was revealed Monday.
When questioned on the project by Chu, Zaidi said that the administration’s choice was influenced by “constraints of the legacy of decisions” from the 1990s and from previous administrations, and that it was understandable for people “to feel frustrated and upset” by the decision.
“I get when folks feel angry,” Zaidi said. “I feel like we’re taking a step back. I think the answer is not to not feel the emotion. The answer is to translate [those emotions] into, ‘How do we get to work harder?’ For me, that is the charge to go further and faster on the decisions that we have in our control.”
In conjunction with incentivizing private investment in clean energy, Zaidi said one of the administration’s goals was to promote infrastructure, such as sensing technology, from a “regulatory front.” He advised state, city and county government leaders to “become a magnet for investment” by creating a policy mix with economic incentives.
According to Zaidi, the Biden administration is focusing on developing people-centric climate action.
“If you do not have the unwavering prioritization of workers and communities, making sure all Americans in every zip code get lifted up in this transition, that will be the source of drag,” Zaidi said.
Tying climate policies back to American communities has personal roots for Zaidi, who said his dedication to a career in policymaking was sparked when he moved from Pakistan to rural Pennsylvania with his family in the first grade. Once he began to understand how an ESL policy from the Department of Education enabled him to learn English, Zaidi said he felt drawn to “making sure that the ladder up to the middle class was as broad and reached as far as it could” for everyone who wanted to “participate in the American dream.”
Zaidi pointed to several examples of places in America where climate investment and retrofitting projects were generating economic benefits and jobs for workers, including a historic former steel production factory near Bethlehem, Pa., which was turned into a Nextracker factory where union workers build solar trackers.
“This is an opportunity not just to put solar panels out, to make steel in America, [but] perhaps even more importantly, to put steel in the spine of the American middle class, which has been systematically disinvested over the last couple decades,” Zaidi said.
Both Chu and Zaidi encouraged students to consider working in public service or on climate change. Zaidi called climate change an issue concerning “every single facet” of the economy and said the current moment was “an inflection point.”
As a prospective environmental engineering major, Georgia Walker-Keleher ’26 said attending the talk made her feel “very excited about the idea of working within the energy transition field, because it feels like a win-win-win.”
Chu, who has worked under former president Barack Obama, said “the quality of people in the trenches” in the White House in 2013 was so high at the time because of idealism, enthusiasm and passion “for the mission.”
“Our lives were enriched. You see the world from a different perspective,” Chu said. “Yes, you work for peanuts, but you get to slosh around billions — if you slosh it around in the right way you can change the world.”