In February 2011, University of California-Los Angeles professor Cristina Tirado made an alarming announcement at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C.
“In 2020, the U.N. has projected that we will have 50 million environmental refugees,” she said.
“Already, Africans are going in small droves up to Spain, Germany and wherever from different countries in the Mediterranean region, but we’re going to see many, many more trying to go north when food stress comes in,” she warned.
Just before Tirado spoke at the AAAS conference, food shortages had pushed the people of Tunisia and Egypt “over the top,” sparking the Arab Spring, she said.
Who or what was the chief culprit behind the political upheaval, the mass outflow of migrants from Africa, the food shortages? According to Tirado and other academics on the AAAS panel, it was climate change.
Since the AAAS talk, historical temperature records keep being shattered. The year 2014, for example, was the hottest since recordkeeping began in 1880. The World Meteorological Organization also points out that 14 of the 15 warmest years on record all took place in the 21st century.
Yet there are still politicians in Washington who roll their eyes heavenward (and see no rain if they’re in California) at the scientific consensus that has emerged on climate change. Or they’d point to snow somewhere to refute the idea that the planet is warming (climate change, incidentally, causes changing weather patterns, not just heat waves). To some, the very notion that climate change exists is preposterous. Others insist that it is a naturally occurring phenomenon that cannot be blamed on, or stopped by, human activity. To think that it can change the geopolitical shape of the planet is unlikely, in their minds.
Before the 2010 congressional elections that swept Republicans into the majority in the U.S. House, the Climatesight.org blog compiled a list of statements about climate change by some of the GOP candidates, several of whom have now declared their candidacy for the White House next year, or are expected to.
Here’s what these presidential prospects have said about climate change:
• Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “The climate is always changing. The climate is never static. The question is whether it’s caused by man-made activity and whether it justifies economically destructive government regulation.”
• Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): “[Scientists] are making up their facts to fit their conclusions. They’ve already caught them doing this.”
• Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.): “I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I think it’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity, or something just in the geologic eons of time where we have changes in the climate.”
• Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas): “Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-earthers. It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.”
President Obama had a few thoughts himself about climate deniers that he made at a commencement speech at the University of California-Irvine in July 2014: “It’s pretty rare that you’ll encounter somebody who says the problem you’re trying to solve simply doesn’t exist. When President Kennedy set us on a course for the moon, there were a number of people who made a serious case that it wouldn’t be worth it; it was going to be too expensive, it was going to be too hard, it would take too long. But nobody ignored the science. I don’t remember anybody saying that the moon wasn’t there or that it was made of cheese.”
Four months later, in November, President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, announced a joint strategy to tackle climate change. The United States would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in 2025 by about a quarter below 2005 levels, Obama said. Xi’s announcement that China’s carbon emissions would peak around 2030 and that the country would double its share of zero-carbon energy marked China’s first-ever official climate commitment.
While critics of the deal point out that China’s emissions would’ve probably peaked around 2030 regardless of any formal targets, the landmark agreement nevertheless heralded a turning point in the fundamental divide that has thwarted progress on the issue: Developing countries, led by China, the largest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions, say developed countries should do the heavy lifting to curb climate change because historically they created the problem.
The administration hopes last year’s breakthrough with China will persuade other developing nations to sign onto a global climate pact at a Paris summit at the end of 2015. Any treaty would still have to make it through Congress, a tall order, and would need the backing of whoever captures the White House in 2016.
Hillary Clinton, who announced in April that she’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has signaled she would make climate change a central pillar of her administration.
“As you know so well, power plants account for about 40 percent of the carbon pollution in the United States, and therefore must be addressed,” she said in a speech to the League of Conservation Voters. “From the administration’s announcement last month of a $3 billion commitment to the global green climate fund, to that new joint announcement with China, to new rules under consideration for ozone, we continue to push forward. But that is just the beginning of what is needed.”
Many international leaders agree that the United States, the world’s second-largest carbon emitter, has barely begun to address climate change, and they’ve been weighing in on the subject long before U.S. politicians paid lip service to it. At the United Nations summit on climate change in September last year, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina outlined the many steps that Bangladesh has taken to address climate change, but she warned that the efforts might not be enough to help poorer, low-lying nations such as hers that are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, natural disasters and mass migration.
Bangladesh has introduced 3.2 million Solar Home Systems, developed stress-tolerant crop varieties, has a climate change strategy and action plan, and has allocated $385 million from its own resources for adaptation and mitigation efforts.
And yet, Hasina warned, “Climate change continues to affect the lives and livelihoods of millions in our unique and active delta. Frequency and intensity of flooding, storm surge, salinity intrusion are badly affecting our coastal habitat…. Two to 3 percent of our GDP may be wiped out because of climate change.”
King Felipe VI of Spain called climate change a “shared challenge” that “threatens to upset the basic balance that makes our civilization and life itself possible. This compels us to act decisively.”
And Malawian President Arthur Peter Mutharika bluntly told the U.N. summit that “it is a known fact that climate change affects people’s lives in all parts of the world” before he enumerated the adverse impacts of climate change in Malawi alone — on farming, infrastructure, energy, human health, forestry, water, wildlife and even gender issues, he said.
Despite the dire warnings, poorer countries most affected by climate change have the least say in mitigating it, and a displaced farmer in Malawi isn’t exactly a priority for the average American voter, especially if it means making the kinds of sacrifices scientists say may be necessary to stave off the worst effects of rising temperatures. Still, there are signs the issue is seeping into the American consciousness.
A recent survey conducted by Foreign Policy magazine indicates that a plurality of Americans say climate change is real and happening now. Nearly 41 percent of respondents put global climate change at the top of a list of important foreign policy issues faced by the United States. Climate change beat tough contenders like armed conflict in the Middle East into second place, by 14 percentage points, and got nearly twice as many votes as failed or failing states, which only 22 percent of respondents said was the most critical foreign policy issue for the United States.
A New York Times-Stanford University poll earlier this year found even stronger results, with two-thirds of Americans saying they were more likely to vote for political candidates who campaign on fighting climate change, instead of denying it. That included half of the Republicans surveyed (the other half said climate change policies could damage the economy).
Perhaps most importantly, the urgency of the issue seems to be sinking in among younger generations, a phenomenon that has trickled down to college campuses around the world.
Several universities around the world have recognized the importance of climate change and introduced programs that teach students, usually at a graduate level, about environmental issues. The following incomplete list includes some of the schools that take a global view of climate change and offer programs that combine international affairs and environmental studies:
• The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs offers bachelor’s students studying international affairs an undergraduate concentration in International Environmental Studies. Students examine issues including sustainable development and how it relates to the environment, climate change, energy and natural resources, and environmental security. Those who complete the course are able to “analyze and understand international environmental challenges and their underlying causes, and the ways in which states, nonstate actors and the international community seek to address these challenges.
• The Energy, Resources and Environment (ERE) program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) has been around, in one guise or another, for two decades. Inspired by a series of popular energy courses offered at SAIS in the 1980s, ERE focuses on “developing innovative solutions to urgent global energy and environmental challenges.” That includes “an understanding of the ‘iron triangle’ of energy, water and food security, the threats posed by global climate change and possible solutions to these daunting problems.” Currently, there are 196 students enrolled in the ERE program. Most study at the D.C. campus of SAIS but students pursuing a master’s of arts degree can elect to spend their first year at SAIS in Bologna, Italy.
• Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service offers a Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) major. Courses are designed to give students the tools they need to understand and address “issues related to science and technology (environment, health, energy, security, and development) that are interwoven with the historical, political, economic, social and cultural concerns of international affairs.” Coursework touches on a diverse spectrum of topics, from water resources and medical bioethics to cyber warfare and sustainable energy.
• American University has a Master’s of Arts Global Environmental Policy program in which students look at “the causes of environmental degradation and the social, cultural, economic and political mechanisms that advance environmental protection.” Students take courses in global policy studies, environmental science, economics, international environmental politics and environmental law in the two-year program.
• Students who enroll in Boston University’s Master of Arts in International Relations and Environmental Policy program divide their time between the school’s Department of International Relations and the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. The architects of the three- to four-semester-long program say it is a recognition that the management of natural resources and resolving environmental conflicts have become important areas of international relations.
• Yale University offers a three-year graduate program that allows students to earn a master’s degree in global affairs in conjunction with one of four of Yale’s professional schools, including the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Students gain “a cross-disciplinary understanding of the scientific, political and economic aspects of international resource management and environmental issues.” Prospective students have to apply to both schools at the Connecticut-based Ivy League university.
• Further afield, the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna — the one in Austria, not Virginia — has had a combined, two-year Environmental Technology and International Affairs (ETIA) master’s program since 2007. That year, there were five students enrolled in the program. This year, the maximum number of students, 25, will be admitted out of more than 100 from around the world who applied. Students spend their first year studying international relations at the Diplomatic Academy, and their second and final year studying environmental technology at Vienna’s University of Technology.
• The Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam offers a one-year master’s degree in Global Environmental Governance. The course description on VU’s website says, “Protecting the environment might be the largest challenge of our time. Politicians and policymakers have to cooperate with multinationals, organizations and scientists to confront international environmental problems such as the increase in CO2 emissions and climate change. This creates a growing demand for researchers who are knowledgeable about international environmental politics.” And that is just what VU and the other degree programs hope to fill.
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.