Climate Change and the Human Experience

15 Apr
Prof. Dinah L. Shelton discusses the human rights implications of the film Climate Refugees.

GW Law Prof. Dinah L. Shelton discusses the human rights implications of the film Climate Refugees. Photo Credit: Jack Karsten

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

On Monday, April 6th PISA screened the film Climate Refugees at the Elliott School of International Affairs.  The 2010 documentary tells the story of individuals around the world who are forced to leave their homes and their countries due to gradual environmental degradation or sudden calamities.  The film crew travelled diverse countries from Bangladesh to Tuvalu to highlight the immediate threats that changing climate patterns pose to residents of low-lying islands and coastal regions.  The documentary also featured interviews with leading scientists and politicians who are grappling with how to best respond to these threats.  By focusing on the human experience, Climate Refugees questions whether the world is prepared to handle mass migrations of people escaping local climate change impacts.

The film also places climate migration in a historical context.  Humans have migrated to seek more comfortable environments for thousands of years, and only the relatively recent establishment of international borders has made that migration much more complex.  In the past, entire civilizations have disappeared from sudden changes in resource availability. Reconciling the idea of a nation state and sovereignty with the historical mobility of human populations could prove difficult moving forward.  Can the resettled residents of an island country still claim a nationality in a land engulfed by rising oceans?  The film raised many probing questions along this line about the future of human civilization, culture and national identity in the face of extreme climate events.

Following the screening, PISA invited GW Law Professor Dinah L. Shelton to offer her perspective on the climate refugee issue in a discussion with the audience.  Professor Shelton is an expert in international human rights law, having authored several prize-winning books on the subject and having served on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  The discussion began with Professor Shelton recounting her own experience with climate-related natural disaster, when she lost her home to a wildfire in drought-prone California.  While the damage was covered by insurance, the story highlighted the wide disparity in vulnerability among wealthy and poorer communities.  While richer countries produce the most carbon emissions, the burden of their effects will be felt most heavily by developing nations that contribute much fewer carbon emissions and cannot afford adequate disaster relief.

Questions of humanitarian law permeated both the film and the following discussion.  According to survey responses collected from participants before the event, giving refugee status to populations displaced by environmental factors is a contentious proposition. If droughts or floods make leaving one’s country a matter of life and death, the decision to leave is not all that different from that of a political asylum seeker.  However, in expanding the definition of refugee status beyond political persecution, it becomes difficult to draw a line for where that protection ends.  Refugees fleeing from armed conflict already stretch neighboring countries’ public services, and giving refugee status to climate migrants would only further strain humanitarian resources.  Balancing ideal legal protections with humanitarian response capability may be the biggest challenge faced by the international community in addressing the plight of climate refugees.

Though the situation described by the film appears bleak, there were some positive developments mentioned in the post-film discussion.  Insurance companies around the world have sponsored research in an effort to better estimate their liabilities for related property damages.  Micro-insurance is also an increasingly popular tool for covering natural disaster damage in developing nations.  In addition, communities affected by climate change have filed lawsuits to assert the idea of environmental protection as a human right.  These combined efforts could raise awareness about climate refugees and spark new lasting solutions from the international community.  While the overall environmental impacts of rising temperatures may seem abstract, its human cost could galvanize much needed action.

The Rising Security Threat of Climate Change

31 Mar

Bangladesh-climate_refugee (1)

Climate Refugees in Bangladesh. Photo Credit: Sabbir, Wikimedia Commons

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

Climate change is not just an environmental threat whose greatest impacts will be felt in the future; it also plays an immediate role in today’s international security issues. For example, a recent study concluded that a sustained drought compounded factors that started the civil war in Syria, a struggle that endures four years later. Rising temperatures will increase competition for scarce water, food, and energy resources with the potential to spark new conflicts and intensify existing ones. Droughts, floods and storms linked to climate change will displace millions of people each year, adding to the humanitarian crisis associated with war and border conflicts. Recognizing the impact of climate change on international security escalates the issue’s urgency.

Climate and security concerns are especially relevant in Asia, where coastal flooding and desertification pose a dual threat. The expanding Gobi Desert has swallowed agricultural land in western China, forcing many rural farmers to migrate to rapidly growing cities on the eastern coast. However, these cities are at risk of flooding both from rising sea levels and stronger tropical storms. Flood damage has also been a perennial problem in Bangladesh, where 46% of the population lives within 10 meters of sea level. In addition to property damage and loss of life, flooding creates a problem of providing adequate housing for displaced populations. A 2010 documentary called “Climate Refugees” does an excellent job of drawing attention to this issue. Large-scale movement driven by climate change jeopardizes the security of migrants, especially if they are forced to cross international borders.

Resource scarcity has long been a cause of conflict, and climate change can further reduce the resources available to vulnerable populations. First, water will become scarcer as glaciers, lakes, and other freshwater sources shrink from a combination of growing demand and higher temperatures. Diminished water resources and drier topsoil will diminish crop yields and jeopardize local food security. In addition, less water will reduce the energy output of hydroelectric power plants, straining energy supplies of countries that depend on hydro as a source of clean energy. Rising temperatures will degrade food, water, and energy security if nothing is done to improve access to these resources.

The multitude of potential impacts from climate change has prompted the Defense Department to designate the phenomenon as a “threat multiplier” in an October 2014 press release.  Strategic planners are now investigating how environmental factors will challenge the readiness of the United States military in both wartime and peacetime. In addition to conflicts driven by resource scarcity, the press release mentioned the spread of infectious disease and coastal flooding as instances where “military personnel will be called on to deliver humanitarian assistance and relief”. Damage to coastal military installations could also interrupt supply chains that soldiers depend on during overseas deployments. The Defense Department’s stance toward climate change is indicative of a broader need for institutions to examine how the issue effects their operations.

The response to these security threats must take short and long term effects into account. In the short term, governments must build the infrastructure to deliver scarce resources to vulnerable populations. A focus on humanitarian needs would reduce the likelihood that displaced populations become absorbed by armed conflict. In the long term, potential security threats add urgency to efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Unfortunately, the political nature of defense spending and climate change in the United States has made this connection controversial.  Nevertheless, policymakers must carefully consider all security threats identified by military planners. Further reading on the intersection of climate and security can be found at Sharing the perspectives of multiple disciplines on climate change ensures that none of its potential effects are ignored.

A Day for Women; A Day for Climate Justice

6 Mar
A woman outside of Myanmar's capital  weaves plant fibers  to create the siding for a traditional-style house. Photo credit: Sandi Moynihan.

A woman outside of Nay Pyi Daw weaves plant fibers to create the siding for a traditional-style house.  Photo credit: Sandi Moynihan.

Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, it is worth pondering the connection between gender equality and another issue of global concern, climate change. Often overlooked in the discussion of climate change is how it exacerbates the problem of gender inequality around the world. In developing countries, women who depend on access to natural resources for survival suffer immensely from environmental degradation. A simple, but pervasive example is that of women forced to flee their homes during extreme weather events, and then left without economic or social support structures. Such cases have ongoing societal impacts, from inadequate child education to the spread of diseases.  Numbering over half the world’s population and bearing major responsibilities for the wellbeing of their households, women also play a significant role in climate change mitigation.

At the local and global levels, women help to improve water and air quality, push for environmental protection, and lead sustainable development programs.  In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, PISA recognizes the link between climate and gender issues and not only the challenges, but also the opportunities they provide for empowering women.

In many traditional societies, women are often tasked with providing food, water, and fuel for their families.  Droughts, floods, and other climate-related natural disasters impair access to these necessities, adding to women’s economic and social marginalization. The combination of climate variability and gender inequality increases the risk of malnutrition and disease for women.  Only by improving their economic power can women be better equipped to cope with climate-related stresses such as drought, excess precipitation, sea-level rise, and heat waves. Increasing a woman’s chance for economic success simultaneously improves her and her family’s resilience in the face of baneful climate impacts.

Extreme weather conditions compel many women to flee their homes and communities, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.  Human traffickers prey on female climate refugees that find temporary and insecure living arrangements, selling them into forced labor and sex slavery.  Women face violence, sexual abuse and a higher incidence of contracting HIV/AIDS. Although human trafficking has many causes, displacement due to climate change presents additional risks to women.  Disaster Reduction and Recovery (DRR) efforts should be gender aware and provide safe access to housing, healthcare, and employment for displaced women.

Women may suffer disproportionately from climate change, but they are also uniquely suited to combat its worst effects.  Female farmers produce between 45-80% of all food in developing countries, making them integral to regional food security.  By adopting sustainable agriculture techniques, female farmers contribute to reducing CO2 emissions while securing their livelihood and access to food.  Women have much to add to the discussion of local responses to climate issues based on their personal experiences and expertise.  It is imperative that they actively participate in policymaking so that their viewpoints and concerns are addressed.

Fortunately, international organizations addressing climate issues are beginning to recognize the impacts on women.  At the 2015 talks of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Geneva, Switzerland, several countries proposed language acknowledging gender equality and human rights as a goal of their climate change mitigation efforts.  Here in Washington DC, the Women’s Climate Collaborative encourages women to take on leadership roles within the climate policy community.  World wide, women are raising their voices about climate change as a gender equality issue.

International Women’s Day serves to recognize that the campaign for gender equality is on-going.  The same is also true for the fight against climate change, and linking the two issues could make progress on both fronts. Women have much to contribute to climate policy discussions, and knowing more about the disproportionate harm that women experience as a result of climate-induced disasters highlight issues important to women’s well-being.  Promoting both gender equality and environmental protection will require involvement from everyone, regardless of gender or economic status.  Overlooking the various connections between complex issues might deprive the world of sorely needed collaborative solutions.

Geoengineering: a Viable Climate Response?

3 Mar
One geoengineering strategy: releasing reflective particulates  Image by Hugh Hunt

One geoengineering strategy: releasing reflective particulates
Image by Hugh Hunt

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

Geoengineering has grabbed headlines recently after a panel of scientists at the National Academy of Sciences called for more research into manmade responses to climate change. Environmental groups have opposed geoengineering as a solution for fear of unknown environmental impacts. However, if the world cannot reduce carbon emissions fast enough to curb rising global temperatures, then geoengineering purports to offer a quick solution. However, little is known about the effectiveness or long term impacts of proposed interventions, prompting the call for additional research. Questions of who would control the technology and who it would benefit also need to be addressed. While geoengineering does not replace current carbon reduction efforts, it could provide an important backstop if those efforts fall short of their objectives.

Carbon emissions are themselves a form of unintentional geoengineering. During the Industrial Revolution, harmful emissions occurred long before the greenhouse effect became a global concern. Increased understanding of the phenomenon has led some countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but other countries are still increasing their emissions as they industrialize. China has used its ample coal reserves to satisfy its growing demand for electricity. Meanwhile, air quality in India’s capital, New Delhi, is the worst in the world due, in part, to the country’s lax emissions standards for coal power plants. Some emissions projections conclude that growing demand for fossil fuels will outpace carbon emissions reductions in the coming decades.

This stark possibility has elevated discussions about alternatives for combatting climate change. Prospective geoengineering projects approach the issue from one of two angles: carbon dioxide removal or limiting solar radiation. Carbon removal involves sucking carbon out of the air through biological processes like photosynthesis or manmade processes like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is already in practice to scrub emissions at coal power plants, but these systems are expensive to install and maintain. Expanded efforts to plant trees and reduce deforestation represent a benign form of carbon capture. Reducing solar radiation is less expensive than carbon removal, but the results will be equally complex. Releasing reflective particles high in the atmosphere would reflect incoming heat away from the earth, counteracting the insulating effect of greenhouse gasses. Given the number of variables, any geoengineering solution is bound to be as complicated as the issue of climate change itself.

While climate scientists and environmentalists debate geoengineering’s merits, psychologists are discovering how it shapes the climate change discussion. Though views on human contributions to rising temperatures tend to fall along partisan lines, views on geoengineering meet closer to the middle. Specifically, climate change skeptics view climate intervention more favorably while climate change advocates view such intervention less favorably. Because individuals on both sides of the climate debate associate their views with their political identity, introducing a third option forces thinking outside of the ideological divide. Even if geoengineering fails to gain popular support, bringing opposed viewpoints closer together could enable a breakthrough in some of the current political gridlock.

In addition to recommending geoengineering research, the National Academy of Sciences report emphasizes that “there is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change”. Investigating alternatives to emissions reductions is not an admission of defeat in the fight against rising temperatures, but an expansion of scientific knowledge. For any research and development problem, pursuing many ideas in tandem enhances the probability of success. Combatting climate change will likely require a portfolio of solutions in which emissions reductions and geoengineering play a part.



Sustainable Development is Everyone’s Business

24 Feb
A photovoltaic sunshade that recharges electric vehicles  Image by Tatmouss

A photovoltaic sunshade that recharges electric vehicles
Image by Tatmouss

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

New sustainable development initiatives show that economic development without damaging the environment is possible. Rather than hindering growth, protecting the local environment often goes hand-in-hand with economic development. Such is the case for the coastal village of Wakatobi, Indonesia, whose fishermen rely on healthy coral reefs for their livelihood. In the Philippines, the electricity’s high cost has sparked a boom in the construction of energy-efficient buildings. A report from the Risky Business Project demonstrates that even a developed country like the United States stands to benefit economically from climate change mitigation. These examples show how countries at all development levels can improve economic outcomes in ways that lessen their detrimental environmental impact.

Developing countries with concerns about climate change’s effects can take proactive steps to avoid dependence on fossil fuels. In centuries past, increased fossil fuel consumption drove the industrialization of many countries before rising global temperatures became a prevalent issue. Industrialized nations built up a massive infrastructure of mines, pipelines, and power plants to support their carbon-based economies. Developing countries that lack this infrastructure should seize the opportunity to leapfrog old technology in favor of more sustainable options. Countries that choose to develop by burning fossil fuels could find themselves falling behind once again as the rest of the world transitions towards alternative energy sources.

Sustainable development places value in the environment as a whole rather than each exploitable resource. In Indonesia, a project that revived coral reefs also increased native fish populations, leading to higher incomes for local fisherman. One former fisherman makes more money with a new ecotourism business that offers diving trips to the reefs, while other villagers sell crafts and other goods to the tourists. None of this extra income would be possible without a conscious effort to protect the reefs.

In addition to raising incomes, sustainable development can save money for consumers. The high price of electricity in the Philippines has pushed homebuyers to look for homes that use less energy for heating and cooling. To support this effort, the Department of Public Works and Highways is preparing to release its National Green Building Code that reduces the energy consumption of new buildings. The proposed guidelines will either not add any additional construction cost or they will pay for themselves in energy savings within five years. Homeowners can then spend the money they save on other quality-of-life improvements.

Industrialized countries like the United States can also protect their development gains from climate change effects. The Risky Business Project, led by prominent business leaders like Michael Bloomberg and Thomas Steyer, details the economic impacts of higher temperatures in the near future. Declining crop yields, damage to coastal properties, and higher energy costs combine to place a high dollar value on inaction. Stronger storms and rising sea levels will imperil coastal cities and infrastructure, and higher average temperatures will increase the cost of air conditioning and expenses associated with deleterious public health problems. These findings echo the conclusions of the Stern Review, commissioned by the British government in 2006, which estimated the costs of rising temperatures at anywhere from 5-20% of global GDP annually without immediate action. Not just a purely environmental concern, climate change will have huge financial costs for developed countries.

Developing and industrialized countries alike must recognize that climate change impacts will be felt everywhere. Armed with better knowledge on the effects of carbon emissions, developing countries have the opportunity to forge a new path towards economic growth using clean energy alternatives. At the same time, developed countries can prevent expensive damage to the infrastructure they have already built. Identifying common interests is critical because the response to global climate change will require contributions from everyone. More individuals would realize their interest in protecting their local and global environment if they knew the economic costs of inaction and development based on fossil fuels.

Climate Challenges and Opportunities in the State of the Union

28 Jan

President Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union Address. Photo Credit: Alex Wong, Getty Images

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

“No challenge poses a greater threat”

In his seventh State of the Union address, President Obama framed his discussion of climate change in terms of challenges and opportunities. In particular, he emphasized the long-term threats presented by climate change and the steps that the United States had already taken to mitigate these threats. This is a source of tension between Democratic and Republican lawmakers, making it more difficult to enact new policies nationwide. The major point of conflict is the impact of human activity. The president referenced findings by scientists at NASA, NOAA, and major universities that link rising global temperatures to human activity. Days after the speech, the Senate voted for the first time to recognize that climate change is real, a sign that lawmakers from both parties have found some common ground on the issue. In spite of political disagreements, developments since the State of Union show opportunities for advancing climate policy.

“America is number one in wind power”

President Obama also touted recent achievements in energy security, including renewable energy development such as wind and solar power: “Every three weeks, we produce as much solar power as we did in all of 2008”. Energy production is another crucial element within the climate change issue. In order to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, renewable energy production will have to expand in scale to the point where renewables can compete on cost and convenience with dirtier fuel sources. To follow up on his carbon reduction commitments, President Obama asked Congress on January 25, 2015 to designate millions of acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as off-limits to oil and natural gas exploration.

“In Beijing, we made a historic announcement”

The president acknowledged climate change’s important role in international diplomacy. The US-China climate agreement, signed in November 2014, set a goal for the United States to double its rate for reducing carbon emissions, and commits China to limiting their greenhouse gas emissions for the first time. This is an important step for the world’s two largest economies and the two largest greenhouse gas emitters. Together, the US and China account for nearly one-third of the world’s carbon emissions, so any concrete steps they take to reduce emissions would have a significant global impact. Just as important, the United States and China can use this agreement as leverage to engage with other countries about climate change issues. For example, during his trip to India last week, President Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed themselves to future cooperative action.

“An agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got”

The President concluded his remarks on climate change by expressing hope for a global agreement later this year. The UN will hold its 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris this December, giving nations another opportunity to create a legally binding framework for reducing carbon emissions. While previous attempts to create such a framework have failed to garner support from some of the world’s biggest polluters, there is a chance that the US-China agreement has broken some of the deadlock. The State of the Union address acknowledged the challenges presented by climate change, but also outlined positive steps that the United States and other countries can take to combat its worst effects.

The Myanmar Advanced Leadership Institute on Climate Change

19 Dec MALICC participants with their hosts from Catoctin Mountain Park, where we learned about the role of National Park Services in combating climate change and Catoctin's efforts to preserve its biodiversity.

By Mary Howard, PISA Program Assistant

In his December 11, 2014 Remarks on Climate Change at COP-20, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted dynamic tensions with the ongoing fight against climate change: successes vs. drawbacks, science vs. politics, long-standing tradition vs. innovative adaptation. Each individual holds responsibility for carbon emissions, impacting national climate change policy, and proactive mitigation. While Kerry warns that the window for effective action is closing quickly, he is “confident we can rise above the debates that have dragged us down. We can find a way to summon the shared resolve that we need to tackle this shared threat. And if we do that, then we will reach an agreement and we will meet this challenge.”

Since 2007, PISA has facilitated capacity-building programs for climate change education and sustainable, green development for some of the most vulnerable countries in Southeast Asia. In total, five successful Leadership Institutes on Climate Change were organized, with a focus on mitigation and resilience. Without our strong and enduring partnerships throughout the region, PISA could not have organized such leadership training programs. MALICC built upon the success of the 2013 Myanmar Climate Change Leadership Institute (MLICC) and valuable partnership with Yangon-based NGO, Advancing Life and Regeneration Motherland (ALARM).

From October 31 to November 14, PISA was honored to welcome 14 leaders of Myanmar for the Myanmar Advanced Leadership Institute on Climate Change (MALICC). During the 2-week program, seven civil society leaders and seven government officials learned about climate change’s far-reaching impact from the many perspectives of Washington’s policymakers, non-governmental representatives, academics, scientists and activists. MALICC’s participants represented diverse organizations. The government participants came from seven distinct Bureaus while the civil society leaders represented six leading organizations with missions devoted to sustainable development, community participation, and knowledge dissemination.  Diversity among the MALICC participants was cross cutting along ethnic, regional, and expertise lines. However, all shared a common interest in global warming. Each participant was passionate, enthusiastic about making a positive impact, and eager to learn as much as they could during their two weeks in Washington.

The MALICC group at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, where they learned about new weather prediction technologies and opportunities for weather forecasting training.

The MALICC group at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, where they learned about new weather prediction technologies and opportunities for weather forecasting training.

While foreign actors have been increasingly active within Myanmar, MALICC enabled rising leaders in Myanmar to form networks abroad. Collaboration and exchange of ideas is one essential element to creating inclusive, sustainable climate change policy. The MALICC program offered Myanmar’s forefront civil society leaders a path-breaking opportunity to directly interact on one on, begin dialogue and establish working relationships with government officials from key Departments. MALICC initiated dialogue and negotiation which will continue beyond the MALICC program. In addition, the delegation openly offered first-hand accounts of Myanmar’s democratization process and development experience to participating experts. PISA’s program not only educated its delegates in substantive knowledge regarding climate change and its effects, but also facilitated training for essential skills for global action such as public speaking, making use of open source data, and multicultural awareness. Each individual was fully aware that the people of Myanmar must take responsibility and guide their country towards the future that they want.

MALICC participants with their hosts from Catoctin Mountain Park, where we learned about the role of National Park Services in combating climate change and Catoctin's efforts to preserve its biodiversity.

MALICC participants with their hosts from Catoctin Mountain Park, where we learned about the role of National Park Services in combating climate change and Catoctin’s efforts to preserve its biodiversity.

By the program’s closing session, crucial bonds were formed—future links for information sharing, collaboration, and increased understanding among a wide range of perspectives. Both PISA and each MALICC participant are grateful for our sponsors’ contributions and information sessions. We are also thankful for the many individuals who shared their expertise throughout the conference. Each day was packed with meetings, engaging discussion, cultural exchange, and innovative brainstorming. We only hope that this program will spur the next Leadership Institute on Climate Change, and strengthen the legacy of PISA’s and our valued partners’ work to help build capacity to deal with climate change.


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