clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Illustrated portrait of Jane Flegal Lauren Tamaki for Vox

Filed under:

Jane Flegal is doing whatever she can to fight climate change

Flegal takes an “all of the above” approach to climate action — and she’s racking up big wins.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Debates about how to beat back climate change often turn into battles between different technologies and policies. Are you a solar person or a nuclear person? Do you care about better grid capacity or more about higher-capacity batteries? Are you more into clean energy standards or carbon prices?

But with the effects of global warming becoming more noticeable and severe with each passing month, the future seems to belong to advocates of an “all of the above” strategy. Few people have had more success promoting this approach than the scholar, funder, and policymaker Jane Flegal.

As a grantmaker at the Spitzer Charitable Trust and the Hewlett Foundation, Flegal helped forge a climate strategy that learned from the failures of the Clinton and Obama administrations’ efforts to put a price on climate emissions. Her strategy was to prioritize policies offering funding for research and development, and the commercialization of new technologies. The groups she funded, like the Clean Air Task Force, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), and ClearPath, were focused on trying to forge unlikely political alliances, including with Republicans, to support approaches like next-gen nuclear power reactors and carbon capture.

This approach notched some huge wins, like the Energy Act of 2020. That’s hardly a famous bill, but it’s a very important one: It mobilized the Energy Department to vastly expand its funding of commercial demonstrations of emissions-reducing tech. And it all happened with considerable Republican support, including then-President Donald Trump’s signature.

More recently, NWF and its leader, Collin O’Mara, were central in pushing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to reopen talks on a climate bill, leading ultimately to the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest piece of climate legislation in US history. Standing behind these efforts was the funding that Flegal and her teams mobilized.

“She’s very professional, very calm, very articulate,” Peter Teague, a philanthropic consultant who worked with Flegal on setting up the climate program at Spitzer, told me. “She didn’t try to dominate the room, but when she spoke, everyone stopped and listened.”

Flegal got her own chance to put this strategy into action as senior director for industrial emissions on the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy in the beginning of the Biden administration. There, she helped formulate the administration’s climate proposals as part of Build Back Better, many of which became law in the Inflation Reduction Act. She is now back in the private sector, working at Frontier, an organization that coordinates funding from large corporations for direct carbon removal efforts — initiatives that take greenhouse emissions directly from the atmosphere and store them, in solid materials or underground. It’s another example of Flegal’s “all of the above” approach, spanning everything from clean energy to carbon removal, and even (as a last resort) geoengineering.

Driving her is a conviction that climate change is a true emergency, and that we cannot afford to take anything off the table — including technologies and allies of whom environmentalists have historically been suspicious.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.