Special Report from New Orleans: The ISA Conference

26 Feb

Canal Street, New OrleansIf there was still any doubt about the extent to which climate change pervades the public policy discourse, it was dispelled at this year’s International Studies Association convention. Held in New Orleans, a city no stranger to the future—and past—perils of a changing climate, the conference showcased the topic in a wide array of panels and lectures. Climate change is now routinely discussed in workshops on African security, global health, governance, urbanization and international relations.

In the academic world, at least, climate change has moved beyond technical seminars on climatology—it is now a simple fact of life. Leave the ivory tower in the United States, however, and you’re still confronted with large swaths of Congress and the voting public who disbelieve it. In many Asian countries, wider recognition of the problem has not been coupled with serious steps toward mitigation.

The fundamental question, then, is how do we bridge this gap between academics and policymakers? Clearly there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. There were, however, a number of well reasoned analyses and first steps offered at the convention. In a study on what makes reluctant U.S. congressmen vote for pro-climate bills, Tora Skodvin of CICERO found that these “switchers” generally come from states with large fossil fuel reserves. Climate plans that take their needs and constituents into account and use incentives over mandatory measures are far more likely to garner their support. Similarly important is how bills are worded: fence-sitters are better disposed to bills that address “energy security” versus climate change.

A number of papers confirmed what we already learned from Copenhagen: negotiating with large blocs is difficult and rarely productive. Miranda Schreurs, who looked at legislation in the EU, was not alone in concluding that bilateral and regional agreements may have more luck than the “all in” approach of the COP meetings. This is especially true when it comes to China. Inga Buan of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute flatly stated the factors that have little effect on encouraging China to change its climate policy: the U.S., EU, NGOs and the G77. Rather, she said, China is influenced by adverse signs of climate change at home, demonstrated U.S. action, the G20, the World Bank, and its rising international reputation. Similarly, another talk highlighted India’s steadfast commitment to differentiated responsibilities when it comes to mitigation.

We turn the question to our readers: how can we translate the impressively comprehensive knowledge of climate change and its effects into public policy? Many speakers highlighted the need for the U.S. to set a significant example in good faith so that countries like China, India and Russia might follow. Is this a reasonable expectation? If so, we have our work cut out for us.

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