Exclusive Sitdown: Janet Yellen’s former climate chief John Morton
John Morton sits down with NZI to reflect on his time as the U.S. Treasury's first climate counsellor
In 2021, John Morton became the U.S. Treasury's first climate counsellor, advising Janet Yellen on net zero and sustainability policies across her department.
In December, Morton stepped down and returned to the private sector by re-joining his old employer, the advisory and investment firm Pollination Group.
In a 2-part interview series, Net Zero Investor sits down with Morton to reflect on his time in the Biden administration and to look ahead at what is next for climate policies in the U.S. and beyond. Today part I.
You recently re-joined Pollination after serving two years as the US Treasury Department's inaugural climate counsellor. How did you build that bridge between finance and net zero-related issue?
The transition to a global low carbon economy represents the most predictable and consequential economic transformation in human history. For years, climate change was seen predominantly as an environmental issue. But now, as the environmental impacts of climate change have continued to increase dramatically, policy makers around the world have recognized both the threat that climate change poses to the global financial system but also the tremendous economic opportunity that is embedded in the transition to a low-carbon and ultimately net zero economy.
Ultimately, our ability to successfully address climate change by preventing its worse impacts will be a function of how quickly global financial markets reorient toward a net zero posture.
In that role, you managed and coordinated the Treasury’s historically ambitious climate change strategies and policies. What did you achieve during that time?
It was an extremely busy period, during which President Biden oversaw passage of the most comprehensive and far-reaching climate legislation in US history, and Secretary Yellen led a broad and far-reaching set of climate priorities out of the Treasury Department.
At Treasury, we created and I led the Climate Hub, which coordinated and managed the Department’s first-ever climate strategy, consisting of dozens of initiatives and workstreams. We activated the full sweep of the US financial regulatory community and the Financial Stability Oversight Council to focus on climate-related financial risk. We mobilized the Federal Insurance Office to address how climate change is affecting insurance coverage across the country.
And with regards to energy?
We significantly revised our fossil fuel lending policies at the multi-lateral development banks and increased our focus on private capital mobilization to ensure that, as Secretary Yellen said, we were getting “maximum climate bang for our public dollar buck.” We launched the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) model to help high-emitting countries to expedite their energy transitions away from coal. And of course, the Treasury department is responsible for the implementation of $270 billion in tax incentives that flow through the US tax code as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. It was a busy two years.
What would you say was - or is - the biggest challenge you faced?
Inertia is a powerful force. What appear like a slow-moving crises such as climate change, often get sidelined when more immediate crises appear. Sometimes it was difficult to compete for “air time” against a constant set of new issues. But the Biden Administration has worked to prioritize climate action across the Administration and the Inflation Reduction Act further changed the dynamic fundamentally. We now have an historically large and ambitious piece of economic legislation that is laser-focused on driving a full-scale transition of the U.S. economy. It’s been decades since we could have said the same about another policy initiative.7
What would you say is the biggest challenge currently for sustainability stakeholders?
Strategically addressing climate change is clearly a business and investment imperative, and it is in the interest of all stakeholders – regulators, investors, workforce, value chains, communities, and customers – to see businesses and the financial sector thrive in the new climate economy and not collapse for lack of adequate foresight and anticipation.
That is coming to a head in 2023 as climate disclosure regulation, such as the forthcoming SEC rule, and standards are being rolled out globally that will heighten transparency around firms’ planning, or lack thereof, to address climate change.
There are some leading financial and non-financial firms doing excellent work translating their net zero commitments into tangible actions, but many others that need help getting started or simply don’t want to move first, for fear of regulatory enforcement, litigation, or otherwise getting it wrong and being punished by the markets.
There is a clear need to move urgently to coalesce around the answer to the question of what constitutes a credible and high-integrity transition plan, and we need to turbocharge efforts across the public and private sectors to expeditiously resolve this question.
Tomorrow part II in this interview series