Tag: Climate Change (page 2 of 3)

A Short History and Critique of Climate Negotiations: All Climate Politics is Local

I gave a guest lecture for undergraduates on the state of global climate negotiations yesterday for a law school colleague here at the University of Texas. In light of the president’s strong but ambiguous comments in the State of the Union last night threatening executive action if the Congress doesn’t act, I thought I’d share my notes here and would welcome comments from others about whether I’ve done justice to the arc of negotiations. My aim was to bring a group of 20 year olds up to speed so that they could understand how we got from the 1992 Framework Convention to last year’s negotiations in Doha.bp1

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Climate Policy After Sandy – What Should be Done? Part III

Huzzah! Barack Obama in his re-election night valedictory speech finally acknowledged that climate change is a problem we may have to attend to:

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.


Source: Huffington Post

I seem to recall that candidate Obama said something audacious calling on the global community to prevent the oceans from rising and to save the planet. After four years of America’s sausage grinders whittling away at hope and change, can the president finally deliver measures to address climate change? Does he still want to?

After Hurricane Sandy, I wrote two posts (here, here) about whether climate change had anything to do with the storm. As I noted, whatever the causal connections, the hurricane has brought renewed attention to the problem, an opening that advocates have to take advantage of while the policy window is open. With climate change back on the domestic agenda and global climate negotiations beginning this week in Doha at the moment, what should be done?

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Thinking the Unthinkable?

Yesterday, climate activist and environmental writer Bill McKibben tweeted a link to this eye-opening graphic:

In many ways, this chart is merely another disturbing bit of information about weather in a year of shocking weather news. Continue reading


Sandy and Climate Change: Part II

In my last post, I noted that Hurricane Sandy has finally triggered a vigorous discussion about climate change, prompting much speculation about whether climate change had some role in causing the storm.

I expressed some doubt whether this is the right question to ask, as it frequently has triggered feuds among climate analysts about the science of climate change and diverted limited attention from mobilizing people to act. But, let us suppose it would be politically useful to have some greater certainty that extreme weather events like Sandy are related in some fashion to climate change.

But what do we really want to know?

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Are Sandy and Climate Change Related? Part I

Source: The Atlantic

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, there is much discussion about whether climate change was responsible for the storm. I’m not sure this is the right question we need to be asking, unless we think that whether we respond to climate change hinges on an affirmative answer.

Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and say that it does. We need to believe events like Sandy were caused or made more likely by climate change in some way for us to feel compelled to act.

If so, is that connection real? I think we have to separate what we know about the science of climate change and extreme weather events from our political objectives. In terms of what we know, I think the scientific community has mixed responses about the connections, but in terms of the politics, it absolutely makes sense to connect the spate of recent extreme weather events and climate change. The presidential candidates have been silent about climate change, and because of Sandy, everyone is talking about climate change again. So, in terms of the narrative of what climate change means, connecting the dots in this way is important political communication. Let me start to unpack those ideas below in the first of a series of posts.

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An Analysis of the Foreign-Policy Content of Romney’s Convention Speech

Here is a word cloud of the speech’s foreign-policy content:

In this case, the cloud adds virtually nothing to our understanding, as the entire section is only 202 words long.

Below is the section itself. It appears that the speechwriters pulled random posts off of PJ Media, stuck them in a blender, and were satisfied with the results.

I will begin my presidency with a jobs tour. President Obama began with an apology tour. America, he said, had dictated to other nations. No Mr. President, America has freed other nations from dictators. 

Every American was relieved the day President Obama gave the order, and Seal Team Six took out Osama bin Laden. But on another front, every American is less secure today because he has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat. 

In his first TV interview as president, he said we should talk to Iran. We’re still talking, and Iran’s centrifuges are still spinning. 

President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus, even as he has relaxed sanctions on Castro’s Cuba. He abandoned our friends in Poland by walking away from our missile defense commitments, but is eager to give Russia’s President Putin the flexibility he desires, after the election. Under my administration, our friends will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone. 

We will honor America’s democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world. This is the bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan. And under my presidency we will return to it once again.

As some have noted, the section is particularly notable for the absence of Afghanistan. That’s correct. The US is currently fighting a war and it rated not a single mention in the speech of the GOP nominee for President. We are through the looking glass, people.

Despite my snide comments, I think there’s an important debate to be had over how the Washington calibrates its relationship with Moscow. But what worries me about Romney is that the only setting seems to be ‘major geo-political threat,‘ which overestimates both Russian strength and US weakness while foreclosing opportunities for cooperation based on mutual interest. Such an approach won’t lead Russia to change any of the policies that nettle US policymakers, and may make Moscow even more difficult to deal with. We’ve been there and done that in the second Bush term, and it didn’t work out well for anyone.

The Romney team also have a point about Poland. The administration botched the rollout of PHAAD and the cancellation of the “third site” BMD program. Warsaw was, in fact, pretty upset. But that was three years ago; I’m not sure why “No-Apologies Mitt” feels compelled to keep on apologizing for it. Still, I am not entirely clear on why the administration continues to negotiate with Moscow on BMD beyond the theory that it is better to keep them talking even as the program goes forward.

Romney’s inadequate genuflections toward foreign-policy issues reflect their marginal place in this campaign. What little we’ve learned suggests a factually-challenged view of the Obama Administration’s foreign-policy rhetoric. It also appears to signal a commitment to the views that captured Bush foreign policy after September 11, 2001.

Neither of these are good things, but they don’t necessarily tell us much about how Romney will lead the United States in the world. As PTJ and I recently discussed, this is more about value articulation and commitment than substantive policy… which pretty much sums up not only Romney’s speech but also the general idiom of a campaign loathe to focus on programatic details.

In some ways, the most momentous foreign-policy line was Romney’s applause-line on climate change.

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans. And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.

At one level, this was a pretty good dig at Obama: it nicely crystalized the idea that Obama promised the moon but delivered a eight-percent unemployment rate. But it also signposts one of the most consequential ways that we’ve failed our children — and the important role played by the modern Republican party in that failure. Perhaps, if elected, Romney will be able to move his party to where he stood but a few years ago. If so, that will outweigh a great deal.


How the Sausage is Made

Two years ago, Der Spiegel published an audio recording of secret negotiations involving many of the world’s most important leaders meeting together on Friday, December 18, 2009, during the Copenhagen climate summit:

The world’s most powerful politicians were gathered in the “Arne Jacobsen” conference room in Copenhagen’s Bella Center, negotiating ways to protect the world’s climate. US President Barack Obama was perched on the edge of a wooden chair with blue upholstery, talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The blue turban of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was bobbing over the tops of a few hastily assembled potted plants. The meeting was soon dubbed the “mini-summit of the 25.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was there, representing the African continent, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon was standing nearby. Only one important world leader was missing, an absence that came to symbolize the failure of the climate summit: Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao…

Now, for the first time, SPIEGEL is in a position to reconstruct the decisive hour-and-a-half meeting on that fateful Friday. Audio recordings of historical significance, in the form of two sound files that total 1.2 gigabytes in size and that were created by accident, serve as the basis for the analysis. The Copenhagen protocol shows how the meeting Gordon Brown called “the most important conference since the Second World War” ended in a diplomatic zero.

The video posted above includes many of the most important sound snippets, accompanied by photos of the speakers and some important contextual information.

Der Spiegel‘s online version of the article includes key quotations from the meeting. Essentially, European leaders like Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown were urging their colleagues to come to an agreement about both near-term and long-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Asian negotiators, including top Chinese diplomat He Yafei, argued against the sizable emissions reductions target under discussion (50%), even though “Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that it was the Indians who had proposed the inclusion of concrete emissions reductions for the industrialized nations in the treaty.”

European leaders and China’s negotiator Yafei had a surprisingly tense back-and-forth exchange that nicely summarizes some of the most important international politics undergirding the climate change debate. The western leaders accused the Chinese of seeking double standards, wanting to free ride on environmental commitments made by the affluent states:

The words suddenly burst out of French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “I say this with all due respect and in all friendship.” Everyone in the room, which included two dozen heads of state, knew that he meant precisely the opposite of what he was saying. “With all due respect to China,” the French president continued, speaking in French.

The West, Sarkozy said, had pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent. “And in return, China, which will soon be the biggest economic power in the world, says to the world: Commitments apply to you, but not to us.”

Sarkozy, gaining momentum, then said: “This is utterly unacceptable!” And then the French president stoked the diplomatic conflict even further when he said: “This is about the essentials, and one has to react to this hypocrisy!”

Angela Merkel also joined the fray, by referencing the scientific evidence necessitating that China join a binding agreement for significant emissions reductions:

Merkel took one last stab. The reduction of greenhouse gases by 50 percent, that is, limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, was a reference to what is written in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. Then she directed a dramatic appeal at the countries seeking to block the treaty: “Let us suppose 100 percent reduction, that is, no CO2 in the developed countries anymore. Even then, with the (target of) two degrees, you have to reduce carbon emissions in the developing countries. That is the truth.”

China’s negotiator, He Yafei was unmoved, and placed the blame for climate change — as well as the responsibility to act — squarely on the shoulders of affluent states:

The Chinese negotiator… took on the French president’s gaffe, and said: “I heard President Sarkozy talk about hypocrisy. I think I’m trying to avoid such words myself. I am trying to go into the arguments and debate about historical responsibility.”

He Yafei decided to give the group a lesson in history: “People tend to forget where it is from. In the past 200 years of industrialization developed countries contributed more than 80 percent of emissions. Whoever created this problem is responsible for the catastrophe we are facing.”

Seeking to break the impasse, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke pragmatically about the need for action from both the advanced economies and the large developing states (India and China).

“From the perspective of the developed countries, in order for us to be able to mobilize the political will within each of our countries to not only engage in substantial mitigation efforts ourselves, which are very difficult, but to also then channel some of the resources from our countries into developing countries, is a very heavy lift,” Obama said. Then, speaking directly to China, he added: “If there is no sense of mutuality in this process, it is going to be difficult for us to ever move forward in a significant way.”

However, Obama also suggested in his remarks that the problem need not be addressed in the current meeting since “We will try to give some opportunities for its resolution outside of this multilateral setting.”

Indeed, not long after this meeting, the US, China, India and other players cut a deal involving near-term (2020) emissions reduction targets that countries would set for themselves. This was described by climate activist Bryony Worthington as a “voluntary ‘pledge and review later’ type agreement with minimum enforcement.” Worthington and many other observers thus considered the summit “a spectacular failure on many levels.”

The final deal was made, as Der Spiegel notes, without direct input from the Europeans. In other words, the key decisions were not made at the meeting documented in the audio recording. In fact, the high-level mini-summit adjourned at the request of the Chinese negotiator, and the major developing states met separately:

The Indians had reserved a room one floor down, where Prime Minister Singh met with his counterparts, Brazilian President Lula da Silva and South Africa President Jacob Zuma. Wen Jiabao was also there.

Shortly before 7 p.m., US President Obama burst into the cozy little meeting of rising economic powers.

At that meeting, everything that was important to the Europeans was removed from the draft agreement, particularly the concrete emissions reduction targets. Later on, the Europeans — like the other diplomats from all the other powerless countries, who had been left to wait in the plenary chamber — had no choice but to rubberstamp the meager result.

IR scholars rarely have access to this kind of (nearly) real-time “insider” data, though it is telling that virtually all of the world leaders make claims that we would have expected. In that way, this audio recording is like the Wikileaks documents. The evidence reveals what we think we already know about how the sausage is made.

Note: Thanks to Miranda Schreurs (posting on a mailing list) for pointing me to the audio recording.


Climate Change and Godwin’s Law

The Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank well-known for its skepticism about climate change, placed the above digital billboard for 24 hours along the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago this past week. For $200, they bought a lot of publicity.

Apparently, though now cancelled, the planned ad campaign was going to place similar billboards with the same message bearing photos of Osama bin laden, Charles Manson, and Fidel Castro.

Subtle, eh?

Indeed, it reminded me immediately of the occasional efforts by like-minded political operatives to link Adolph Hitler and anti-smoking crusaders. A U.S. politician recently ignored Hitler’s views towards tobacco and just linked the Fuehrer directly to modern anti-smoking efforts. West Virginia Senate candidate John Raese said this a few weeks ago:

“I don’t want government telling me what I can do and what I can’t do because I’m an American.  But in Monongalia County you can’t smoke a cigarette, you can’t smoke a cigar, you can’t do anything.  And I oppose that because I believe in everybody’s individual freedoms and everybody’s individual rights to do what they want to do and I’m a conservative and that’s the way that goes.

But in Monongalia County now, I have to put a huge sticker on my buildings to say this is a smoke free environment.  This is brought to you by the government of Monongalia County.  Ok?

Remember Hitler used to put Star of David on everybody’s lapel, remember that?  Same thing.”

Right, it’s the same thing.

Actually, there’s no need to draw an analogy comparing Hitler and anti-tobacco views to terrorists and concern for global warming. The climate skeptics have sometimes gone straight for the jugular:

When Christopher Monckton, the hereditary third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, attended an Americans for Prosperity meeting in Copenhagen on Wednesday night that was interrupted by chanting youth [climate] delegates, he was reportedly furious. But no one expected him to go back and berate them.

Yesterday he ambushed a small group of students from the non-profit SustainUS inside the Bella centre. One of them texted her friends for help. Several arrived, including Ben Wessel, a 20-year-old activist from Middlebury College, Vermont.

Monckton then repeatedly called them “Nazis” and “Hitler Youth”.

Other climate skeptics have positioned themselves in the role of Einstein vis-à-vis Hitler. 

[Aside: Would this be a good time to point out that some of the professional climate skeptics were tobacco skeptics once upon a time? And I mean literally the same people, such as Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, Richard Lindzen. ]

Of course, two can play (and have played) this game. For some concerned about global warming, climate change denial is like Holocaust denial:

Index on Censorship hosted an event at the Free Word Centre in the hope of teasing out the various strands of this conflict. The title – “Is climate change scepticism the new Holocaust denial?” – may have seemed provocative, but it picked up on phrases used by panellist George Monbiot, who in the past has described the two stances as equally immoral and stupid. When asked if he thought climate sceptics’ evidence for their claims was as flakey as that of Holocaust deniers for theirs, Monbiot concurred. Questioned on the use of the term “deniers” to describe his opponents, Monbiot said he simply could not think of a better way of describing them, though he recognised the implications the term could carry for some.

CBS TV journalist Scott Pelley went that route back in 2006: “If I do an interview with Elie Wiesel,” he asks, “am I required as a journalist to find a Holocaust denier?”

At least some politicians worried about global warming have compared climate skeptics to the Europeans who appeased Hitler, or the Americans who dismissed his significance.

And so it goes.

As a political scientist interested in political communication and the prospect of deliberative democracy, these examples are fairly disheartening.

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote here at the Duck about Godwin’s law: “if you mention Adolf Hitler or Nazis within a discussion thread, you’ve automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in.” Or, as one US News political columnist wrote, there is “an unwritten rule in public speaking: comparisons to Hitler and Nazi Germany never work.” One oft-mentioned corollary to Godwin’s law suggests that “whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress.”

In this case, I fear that “if both sides do it,” then we are all doomed.


What to Do? The Climate Security Policy Conundrum

This is re-posted from e-IR. I hesitated to write anything about climate and security until I had read all (or damn near all 17 articles) of the recent special issue of the Journal of Peace Research.

My initial mandate for this post was to talk about the significance of climate and security for militaries, and as part of a project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, I obviously should have something to say about that. My reaction, however, was that to conceive of climate and security as purely or primarily a military problem would reinforce a narrow understanding of the issue and potential solutions.[1]
Is Climate Security the Military’s Problem?
If climate security becomes a military problem, then a whole host of other interventions, mostly by civilian agencies involved in development, adaptation, and disaster preparedness, have failed. Thinking about climate and security in terms of the military runs the risk of framing the issue in terms of how to get the Pentagon interested in this problem (here I’m echoing Dan Deudney’s concerns from the 1990s on securitizing the environment). This tends to reinforce the emphasis on conflict or terrorism when other potential security outcomes may be as, if not more significant and proximate threats (here I’m thinking of complex emergencies wrought by climate-related disasters).

When militaries are interested in this issue with the hope of doing something, they have to recognize their limitations and core competencies. The extension of militaries in to the international development sphere is problematic, as the challenging experience of reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan attest. International development supported by foreign donors is fraught in any case, and militaries are recent entries in to this arena.

They don’t have more than a half century of experience making mistakes in development so may think about these issues in primarily technocratic terms, drilling a well here or building a dam there when these are but a piece of an overall problem that includes challenges of country ownership and cultural sensitivities. Obviously, some militaries have more experience than others, and the U.S. government surely learned a lot in Afghanistan and Iraq. That said, just because some militaries, particularly the Department of Defense, are better resourced than their civilian counterparts doesn’t necessarily mean that they are (or even can be) well-suited to doing the development piece of the climate security agenda.

So What Next?
There are some things that militaries can and should do. First and foremost, militaries have to prepare for potential existential threats to the nation and its way of life. As I’ve written before (see here, here), there are some albeit limited ways that climate change poses a direct threat to the United States (to military bases, critical infrastructure, coastal populations, and possibly the Arctic). There are also indirect threats to a country’s overseas interests. Here, one has to have a clear sense of its strategic interests and where the vulnerable areas are. For the latter, militaries are reliant on intelligence assessments like those provided by the National Intelligence Council (including their 2008 report and their 2012 report on water security) and need to consider climate security impacts in their operations as the U.S. Department of Defense 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review does.

(As an aside, our work on climate and security in Africa has sought to inform the Pentagon’s understanding of potential trouble spots by identifying the vulnerable places and the overlap with U.S. strategic interests. And, in an upcoming workshop, our project is seeking to help the combatant command for Africa think through these issues.)

Beyond intelligence gathering and strategic assessments, militaries have ample experience with disaster response and military-to-military disaster response training. This is all well and good. The challenge becomes when the military would like to be proactive and think about conflict and disaster prevention and preparedness and de-escalation of tensions.

Many of these tasks may involve diplomacy and development, specialties of other agencies like the State Department and USAID. The combatant command for Africa (AFRICOM) was initially designed to try to bring the diverse expertise of the U.S. military together with the State Department and other elements of U.S. national power. Indeed, one of its two principal deputies was to be a State Department career diplomat. The experience thus far suggests that the venture to integrate diplomacy and development into a strategic military command is extremely challenging.

What’s an answer, if not the answer?

In light of these concerns, what is to be done? Here, I would say two things (1) “Answers” to the extent we have them must be context-specific and (2) Look before you leap.

Let’s say you think that issues related to river basins are likely to be a problem in a world of climate change with decreased water flows and increased demand. What is to be done? Well, the answers may vary greatly. The Nile River Basin has a very different set of issues than the Zambezi. For example, Zimbabwe and Zambia share a river border along the Zambezi, giving them roughly equal leverage. The Nile which snakes from Uganda to Egypt has upstream/downstream issues associated with geography and history. Upstream countries like Ethiopia ostensibly possess more bargaining leverage by virtue of their ability to divert water and cut off downstream access. In practice, however, Egypt and Sudan have rights to 80% of the Nile’s water dating back to a 1929 colonial era treaty. Upstream countries like Ethiopia with rising ambitions and needs are seeking to challenge this imbalance, which has triggered some bellicose rhetoric on the part of Egypt at a moment of political turmoil and transition.

Would insertion of the U.S. military, let alone the broader U.S. policy establishment, be helpful to ensure that this process ends amicably? Probably not. Even if U.S. engagement were useful, context matters a lot, and the policy community would be wise to take the time to assess the full picture before trying to wade in.

Look Before You Leap
To the extent that there are generalizable lessons about climate and security, the policy community, including but not limited to the military establishment, would benefit from a richer understanding of the academic literature on the topic.

One of the biggest potential errors is to blithely accept the simple premise that “climate change will cause conflict” and then move on to think about what to do about it. In fact, the literature on the topic is much more mixed and nuanced. While the policy community frequently notes that climate on its own won’t cause conflict (see the QDR statement for example), that it is a threat multiplier, the operating assumption is often that climate change will exacerbate water scarcity and that will trigger conflicts.

In fact, much of the quantitative academic literature disputes the notion that water scarcity causes conflict. While I think he goes too far, Nils Petter Gleditsch in the introduction to a recent special issue of the Journal of Peace Research concludes from this body of evidence, “On the whole, however, it seems fair to say that so far there is not yet much evidence for climate change as an important driver of conflict.”

Far stronger evidence suggests that conflict onset is more likely triggered by periods of higher rainfall not lower rainfall (see my CCAPS colleagues Hendrix and Salehyan’s piece in the same issue of JPR as well as my other CCAPS colleague Clionadh Raleigh’s piece with Dominic Kniveton, as well as Adano et. al’s piece and Thiesen’s paper in that same issue). Moreover, no longer are we talking about civil wars and organized rebellions but when we talk about conflicts associated with heavy rainfall, we’re really talking about violent events that require less organization like protests, riots, strikes, and cattle raids like those captured in the new Social Conflict in Africa Database (SCAD) and the Armed Conflict and Location Event Database (ACLED).

As I said, I think Gleditsch goes too far in dismissing the connections between climate and conflict. Even a reading of the pieces in the special issue does not seem to warrant the strength of the claims he makes. I agree with Solomon Hsiang who wrote on his blog, “My first reaction was a second wave of surprise at his conclusions, since most of the empirical papers in the issue seem to actually find a link between climatological parameters and conflict, although I haven’t carefully kept score yet.”

Coming back to the topic of river basins, if one were to uncritically accept the scarcity-conflict nexus, then one might be inclined to think that we were on the verge of series of water wars. However, as Aaron Wolf’s work suggests, most issues of international rivers have historically been resolved peacefully. Indeed, as the Tir and Stinnett piece in the JPR issue finds, one of the reasons river basin water issues have not generally degenerated into conflict is because of transboundary river agreements.

Explaining the Disconnect between Policymakers and Academia
So, if the policy community is starting to accept the connection between climate and conflict, but the academic commnunity hasn’t found much thus far, how can we explain the disconnect? The field of climate and security is relatively new and is especially difficult to study since we’re trying to understand the effects of a problem that has for the most part yet to occur. Most studies (the Devitt and Tol JPR piece is a notable exception) look to the past as a historical analogue, drawing on a period in the world’s climate that may be unlike what we’re ultimately going to see in the next century.

In terms of past patterns of climate indicators, we’re reliant on patchy data and problematic definitions of core concepts like drought. The rainfall data that many of us use relied on rain gauge measures until the launching of satellites in the late 1990s. As Brad Lyon has noted, coverage of rain gauges over parts of the world like the Democratic Republic of Congo declined dramatically throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Data sources for the same region often show widely divergent rainfall trends.

In terms of future projections of climate change, existing climate models still leave a lot to be desired. Most of them lack adequate spatial resolution to get at regional and national effects (see Biasutti and Paeth). These are the challenges just in terms of past and future physical exposure.

Trying to trace these through to the social and political realm is as if not more difficult. Most of the articles that have emerged in this field have appeared in the last five years. The mechanisms and causal chains between climate effects in the physical realm to security outcomes are only hazily understood. The scholars in the JPR special issue are pushing the frontier of knowledge forward.

Take, for example, the disputed connection between disasters and conflict. Two important studies by Brancati and Nel and Righarts found an association between certain kinds of disasters (earthquakes and rapid-onset disasters respectively) and conflict. The JPR special issue has two articles on disasters and conflict by Slettebak and Bergholt/Lujala that dispute these findings with respect to climate-related disasters. Both conclude that there is no direct correlation between climate-related disasters and the onset of conflict. Slettebak notes that the Brancati paper looked at conflict incidence rather than onset. If we are interested in how new conflicts start, onset is a better indicator. From his analysis of climate-related disasters, Slettebak concludes that they actually make civil wars less likely on the basis that desperate people tend to cooperate more.

Bergholt/Lujala find similar results of no direct relationship between swift-onset climate-related disasters (thus excluding drought) and conflict. They then seek to ascertain whether there might be an indirect effect on conflict through economic growth, the logic being that disasters might negatively effect economic growth, which could, in turn, contribute to a greater likelihood of conflict. While they find that disasters do have a negative effect on economic growth, they do not find an effect on conflict through growth. They also challenge the conventional wisdom from Fearon and Laitin among other heavyweights in the field that declining economic conditions contribute to conflict.

As my colleague Todd Smith has noted, the indicator of disasters they use — the population affected by a disaster — is not a physical measure exogenous to social conditions and governance but actually reflects an outcome measure of vulnerability in its own right. While flawed, this move to examine the indirect effects of climate-related indicators on conflict outcomes is a step in the right direction.

This is exactly the approach taked by the Koubi et al. paper in the JPR special issue that looks at rainfall variability and the indirect effect on conflict onset via economic growth. Here, they find weak support for the links between climate variables and civil conflict in non-democratic countries, but a finding nonetheless. Because these are the first studies of this kind in a field that has focused on the direct effects on climate indicators and conflict, I expect that the evidence will get better as we have improved data sources, more refined methods, and new channels of influence on security outcomes via migration and food prices. 

Conclusions: Policies Matter
In sum, we still have a lot to learn about how climate change will manifest as security problems. Government actors, including militaries, are approaching this issue increasingly with a desire to do something to address the problem. While it is always easy for an academic to recommend further study, understanding the nature of the challenges we face is an essential first step to effective and efficient expenditure of scarce resources. Preparing for a threat that may not materialize or may manifest in a different manner than was thought could lead to the careless diversion of funds for unproductive purposes.

Outside interventions themselves may make the problem worse rather than better. Policies intended to anticipate future scarcities rather than the scarcities themselves may exacerbate tensions and lead to conflict as Asian investors’ efforts to lease agriculture land in Africa have shown. The Benjaminsen piece in the JPR special issue provides a cautionary tale. A Canadian funded dam rehabilitation project intended to deal with the resource constraints of pastoralists and semi-pastoralist communities in the Sahel ended up becoming the focal point for conflict between two communities. As we think about how to address the complex problems of climate and security, outside actors, militaries in particular, need to ensure that their interventions, based on good intentions or hastily put together policy prescriptions, don’t make things worse.

This is not a recipe to do nothing. Far from it. One of the dominant themes of this entire literature is that physical exposure is not destiny. Governance and political dynamics are as, if not more, important in explaining whether or not environmental shocks, scarcity, and abundance lead to conflict. Moreover, as the literature on river basins shows (including De Stefano et. al’s masterful study in the JPRspecial issue), institutions can also mitigate and diminish threats posed by scarcity. As practitioners move forward in plans to address this looming threat, they can profit from an openness to new information and humility about what we do know. That shouldn’t paralyze us from taking steps that shore up resilience to diverse threats, whether or not they manifest in violence, but to tread carefully.
[1] I am entirely ignoring the issue of climate mitigation by militaries which are major users of energy. Sharon Burke’s office of Operational Energy in the U.S. Department of Defense has done admirable work to try to lessen the energy footprint of the U.S. military, in part driven by climate concerns but more importantly to leaven the battlefield costs both financial and human in trying to get fuel to troops in dangerous circumstances.


Climate Change and the Axis of Fear

A few years back, when global warming was near the top of the national and global agendas, a surprising new activist suddenly took the field: the  Pentagon.  In 2009, it called climate change a “threat” to national security.  In 2010, it lauded the climate with its ultimate recognition, inclusion in the Quadrennial Defense Review.  All of this was uncritically conveyed by journalists on the Pentagon and environmental beats.

Recently, the first effort to test whether climate change in fact has security implications was published by the Journal of Peace Research.  Its bottom line:  

“Only limited support for viewing climate change as an important influence on armed conflict. However, framing the climate issue as a security problem could possibly influence the perceptions of the actors and contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Of course, the climate changesecurity nexus was always speculative  Yet that did not stop the military from jumping on the warming wagon as yet another way of justifying its bloated budgets. More interestingly, at the time, environmentalists widely saluted the Pentagon’s entry into the climate wars.  Here is Sierra Club President Carl Pope in a 2010 press release, complete with hyperlink to the Quadrennial Defense Review:

“In another reminder of the national security and international implications of climate change, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review highlights the risks posed by climate change for the first time ever.  While the Pentagon’s report considers the longer-term risks of climate change, we can’t escape the fact that each and every day we continue to send $1 billion a day overseas to buy oil–much of it from hostile nations.  It’s time we started spending that money to create jobs here at home.”

Who can blame the Sierra Club?  With a heavy-weight institution taking a stand on global warming, environmental fears could be stoked and perhaps even legitimated.  After all, if even the military is taking part, who could deny the pressing need for action?  With the Pentagon on board, new research dollars would also flow, making this move a boon for academics and government contractors as well.  

I don’t claim that global warming is invented.  But I do worry about the threat inflation being used to justify actions against climate change and about the strategic alliances, tacit or otherwise, environmentalists strike to achieve their goals.  The Pentagon is no friend of the environment, as anyone who’s watched the grindingly slow clean-ups of numerous, highly-polluted military bases well knows.  Lending activist legitimation to the defense establishment is likely to be a net-negative for environmental quality.  

Of course, for better or worse, real action on climate change is no longer imminent in the US or most other countries.  A broader lesson remains, however:  The axis of fear is endemic to our politics.  It is the strategy of choice for true believers on all sides of all issues as they seek to sell their causes to the public.  In the incessant competition to draw attention and support, the temptation to inflate threats is ever-present and difficult to resist.  

Alliances of convenience are the order of the day, and the Pentagon, with its oversize booty, is consort of preference even for those who should know better.  So we have environmentalists bedding down with the big boys with their big guns over global warming.  And now we have human rights activists lusting after the big boys with their little drones, notwithstanding the weapons’ mounting toll in lives and liberties at home and abroad.  The Pentagon, always eager for new conquests, similarly keeps its insatiable eye out for anyone hustling the cutting edge of terror, literally and figuratively.  

In all this, the new climate change research offers a breath of rationality.  Now, if only we could fight the axes of fear that pervade any number of other issues:  cyber warfare, hot zone diseases, and most of all terrorism.  All are similarly ripe for careful analysis of actual “threat” levels and concerted efforts to question the politicians, journalists, bureaucrats, and activists who hype them.


Isn’t there a global climate conference in Durban?

Durban Skyline

Why aren’t you there? You love South Africa. New baby. ‘Nuff said.

What, there is more? Low expectations. Hard to justify traveling all that way (let alone burn all those hydrocarbons) for a meeting that is likely to be unproductive.*

I take it you are not a big fan of big global conferences? Not really. Hard to see how thousands of delegates and NGOs can converge in a single place and actually produce meaningful results.

Jealous much? A little.

Ok, low expectations aside, what would constitute a “success” and what would be a failure?

Here are some headlines coming out of Durban that would signal “success.”

  • New York Times – Durban meeting ends with agreement on the Green Climate Fund
  • Washington Post – Climate negotiations reach agreement on transparency
  • ClimateWire – Global warming negotiations avoid blowup over Kyoto Protocol
  • The Economist – Boring climate negotiations make incremental progress
  • The Onion – Durban meeting ends

Here are some headlines that would be bad news for future action on climate change.
  • Climate Progress – Climate negotiations end in impasse over future of the Kyoto Protocol
  • Global and Mail – Canada leads walk out of Durban climate meeting
  • ECO – Durban climate talks a bust: No legally binding treaty!
  • OneClimate – U.S.-China Finger-pointing over Durban Climate Talks Failure 

Somewhat humorous, but what does this all mean?
Ever since the United States Congress failed to act on domestic climate legislation in 2010, it has become clear that the Obama Administration is not in a strong position to do much at home to address its greenhouse gas emissions or provide its fair share of funding for global climate finance. This has cast something of a pall over the ambitions that can be achieved globally because at the heart of the agreements reached at Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010 are non-binding political pledges by countries, including emerging economies like China, to take action at home. With the U.S. hard-pressed to do much, this could take the steam out of other countries’ efforts. That said, there has been some good news as Australia recently passed a carbon tax, and China has actually embraced more robust action. 
Advanced industrialized countries, what we used to call “rich” countries, also pledged billions in climate finance to developing countries, up to $30 billion in the short-run. They are expected to mobilize $100 billion per year in public and private sources by 2020. Unfortunately, without a price on carbon in the United States, it’s hard to see where money from the U.S. will come from. With Europe on the brink of financial catastrophe, it’s also increasingly unclear whether Europe will be in a position to keep its commitments.
Moreover, though the global recession has helped U.S. and European emissions decline, global emissions are soaring. Meanwhile, the politics in the U.S. are unfavorable for another legislative effort. The Obama Administration is nominally committed to its commitments to reduce emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 but unless it unrolls a regulatory approach to carbon and President Obama wins in 2012, it’s hard to see how those all come to pass (though its actions on automobile fuel efficiency, appliances and other measures have all been quite positive).
So that’s old news, what’s happening in Durban?
In the midst of all this comes Durban where there is plenty of unfinished business. Copenhagen and Cancun created the Green Climate Fund but left the details on its structure, who administers, who receives, and what it will fund for subsequent negotiation (details were discussed by a 40 person Transitional Committee). Assuming some of that climate finance materializes and is directed multilaterally through the Fund, there have to be some clearer rules on how it will operate. Incremental plodding progress on this issue would make for a low-key but successful meeting.
The danger is a big dust-up over the future of the Kyoto Protocol. Its first commitment period ends in 2012 and Europe, China, and developing countries would like to see it extended for different reasons and with slightly different implications. Developing countries want to see a second commitment period of binding emissions reductions for developed countries (Ed. – ain’t gonna happen). Europe might accept a political commitment of a second commitment period but wants countries to set 2015 as the date for a new legally binding treaty that would take effect in 2020 so long as countries like China and India sign up (Ed. – ain’t gonna happen), but it may settle for Kyoto’s first commitment period to be extended for a few years. 
China likes Kyoto, not least because it enshrines legal asymmetry for developing countries, binding emissions for advanced industrialized countries but none for itself. China also likes Kyoto because it has been the main beneficiary of the Clean Development Mechanism, which allows rich countries to meet their obligations at lower cost by paying for projects in developing countries.
For their part, countries like the U.S., Canada, and Japan have ruled out a second commitment period under Kyoto. As U.S. negotiator Jonathan Pershing said: “A structure of a legal agreement where we are bound and major emerging economies are not is untenable.” All three of these countries have had difficulty meeting their Kyoto Commitments and support the new processes created under Copenhagen and Cancun. Rather than a divisive fight over new binding commitments or a new treaty, these countries want to spend the time at Durban fleshing out the rules and procedures related to transparency, technology transfer, and finance agreed to last year in Mexico. 
As Robert Stavins from Harvard noted, there are actually three negotiation tracks on-going: (1) a Kyoto track, (2) a track based on Long-Term Cooperative Action (LCA) emanating from the first 1992 framework treaty, and a third Copenhagen/Cancun track. The U.S. and company want to combine (2) and (3) and focus on the technical details of those (for discussions on these dynamics, see here and here in Bloomberg. Read CFR Michael Levi’s blog and FT column for a more extended discussion here. NRDC’s Jake Schmidt has a three part series on Switchboard here).

If it wasn’t clear, I’m sympathetic to the U.S. point of view. I don’t see belabored negotiations about treaties that aren’t going to happen to be at all useful.

So, how is it all going to end?
Your guess is as good as mine. My most hopeful faux headline from above is the one from The Onion or maybe the first one on the Green Climate Fund. If there is drama at this meeting, that would likely be bad. I don’t see how the U.S. can be shamed into action internationally without a domestic consensus at home. That brings us back to domestic politics and the need for smarter climate strategies here at home, getting angry, going right, or something altogether different. 
* Actually, members of our research team from the Climate Change and African Political Stability Program are presenting our work at some side events

Get Angry or Go Right: What’s the Best Strategy on Global Warming?

Supporters of action on climate change are under siege in Washington. House Republicans are attempting to cut appropriations on all things related to climate change. Even Democrats appear to want to downplay talk of the issue. The “green jobs” agenda, in light of Solyndra solar’s woes, is now mired in controversy. Despite Al Gore’s recent effort to refocus attention on the problem with his new Climate Reality campaign, an economy wide legislative effort like cap-and-trade appears dead in the United States for the foreseeable future (That didn’t stop Australia’s House of Representatives from bravely passing a carbon tax last week).

Perhaps with gallows humor?
 Source: Artist as Citizen via Realclimate.org

With the Durban negotiations approaching in December, the Obama Administration is trying to put a brave face forward, downplay expectations, and get out of South Africa without the rest of the world heaping opprobrium on the United States for its failure to lead.

Meanwhile, Europe’s economy is teetering on the edge of an abyss with unknown consequences for the United States, itself poised to enter an election year with paralyzing partisan rancor and potentially a double dip recession.

In light of these difficult circumstances, what should advocates for action on global warming do? In this blog post, I outline two potential strategies, one I call “Get Angry,” a strategy akin to a “Green” Tea Party mobilization of the base, and another called “Go Right,” a strategy designed to widen the number of supporters by bringing in moderate Democrats and Republicans.

Get Angry? The “Green” Tea Party – Occupy Wall Street Strategy

Occupy Wall Street protests
Source: Daily Dish

In late August, anticipating the Occupy Wall Street protests, writer and activist Bill McKibben initiated a series of protests outside the White House to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil from Canada’s tar sands to the United States. This direct action led to the arrest of more than 1,000 people.

Dave Roberts at Grist.org would make this a more general strategy to elevate the political pressure on politicians through aggressive action.

Rather than try to coax and cajole reluctant Republicans and wavering Democrats to support action on climate change, Roberts thinks that a Tea Party insurgency on climate change is what is needed. Passionate advocates should instill fear in the political class by making themselves a nuisance. It’s not enough to have passive majority opinion on your side, what you need is a minority with intense preferences to make their feelings known.

Drawing on John Sides, Roberts recently wrote on Grist.org that there “There is no vast middle full of reasonable people.” He argued:

It is not the opinions of the reasonable nonpartisan masses but intensity and money that win in politics. That’s why a relatively small group of hardcore anti-clean energy climate skeptics in the right-wing base has exercised effective veto power over American climate policy: they have the intensity and they’re backed by money.

From this perspective, what is needed is a countervailing movement of climate change activists. A more finely calibrated message (i.e. “framing”) to appeal to moderates won’t do it:

Politics is not a grad school seminar and this notion of explaining things in a more grown-up way to a mythical middle is a wonk’s fantasy.

I think the implication of this strategy is more in your face type actions like the Keystone XL protests, which will make it much harder for new investments in carbon-based fuels to go forward. These have been pretty successful over the last few years. Here in Texas, activists helped prod the utility TXU to cancel 8 of 11 proposed new coal plants in 2007 (though this strategy was hardly one of traditional rabble-rousing. Environmental Defense had a lawsuit in federal court and in exchange for giving up the lawsuit guided TXU’s new owners to support a change in direction).

In another post on the finding of climate denialism among conservative white men, Roberts wrote: “It may be that the simplest, least clever strategy — kick their asses — is still the way to go.” This still begs the question of how to carry that out. Elsewhere, Roberts wrote approvingly of civil disobedience and encouraged people to support the tar sands movement:

Therein lies the (potential) value of civil disobedience: It is a social signaling device. It says, “We are taking this seriously. We are willing to risk our comfort and safety, willing to get arrested, just to get you to pay attention to this.” If done well, in the right circumstances, that kind of behavior sends a stronger message than any compendium of scientific results ever could.

However, to get noticed, it has to have an element of surprise and novelty: 

The problem with so much of what passes for environmental direct action is that it’s become rote and predictable. The kids chaining themselves together and getting arrested. The activists scaling something tall and unfurling a big banner. The protestors sitting in trees to stop loggers. All those things are brave and well-intentioned, don’t get me wrong, but they are not surprising. At this point, everyone’s seen it before and everyone knows exactly how to process it.

From this perspective, the tar sands actions were in a sense the same old familiar direct action of old. Indeed, Roberts initially panned the Occupy Wall Street protests for the same reason (though he later embraced the cause):

Hippies gather w/ puppets & drums; jerky cops abuse them & shut them down. It’s a script every American knows. Causes no one to think anew.

On the Keystone activism, I’m not convinced that this negative strategy of trying to stop new pipelines and plants is all that productive. I’m not a fan of the pipeline, not least because of the likely impact on Canada’s boreal forest. That said, I’m not sure it’s the best use of community time and energy to try to kill this particular pipeline. Yes, this will represent sunk costs that perpetuates an economy reliant on carbon-based fuels, but that is likely going to continue for some time anyway. What we need is some price on carbon that not only helps make future investments like this one more costly (which protests do) but also rewards clean energy innovation (which protests don’t do).

As Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations noted, even if the pipeline is built, that doesn’t mean all the oil will eventually come out of the ground. If we put a price on carbon, it may become uneconomic for that pipeline to carry the oil:

Slash oil demand and oil sands development goes away; keep oil demand on its current trajectory and we’ve got huge climate problems regardless of whether Keystone XL is approved.

One advantage of having a “Green” Tea Party equivalent is that it might make the moderate pragmatists in Congress pushing a climate agenda appear even more moderate. This is known in the social movements literature as the “radical flank effect.”

The question becomes whether or not the Keystone XL protests will serve as a focal point for further climate mobilization or a one-off effort to kill that particular project. As Andrew Revkin argued on his Dot Earth blog on The New York Times:

While it’s a potent symbol and convenient rallying point for campaigners, it’s a distraction from core issues and opportunities on energy and largely insignificant if your concern is averting a disruptive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In this view, stopping a single pipeline today is not nearly as important as the policies to create an energy transition tomorrow. For his part, Bill McKibben takes issue with the notion that a new policy environment is possible. Instead, we will have a series of decisions like this one to bless or kill:

It’s empty to insist that the right thing would be some huge energy plan to make some great transition. Sure, but that’s no going to happen in Washington as presently constructed. If we’re going to get anywhere, it will be fight by fight and battle by battle—and this once, the president can actually do it by himself.

To me, defeat of this particular proposal seems like a Pyrrhic victory. In the absence of a price on carbon, decisions like this one will still tend to support carbon-based fuels. Environmentalists might win this particular battle but continue to lose the war.

It’s not clear that environmentalists are numerous enough to stop this project, let alone to carry this forward to generate a broader movement to put climate change back on the legislative agenda. McKibben is trying to attach the Keystone protests to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. We’ll see if that goes anywhere.

Even if this movement were successful, it might get attached to policies that ultimately prove unworkable. The Tea Party’s influence on the debt ceiling debate may be instructive. Moreover, the downside of such mobilization may be even further polarization of domestic politics, exactly the opposite kind of strategy that initially brought President Obama into office. That “One Nation” strategy had crossover appeal and may be exhausted, but a strategy based on direct action may further drive a wedge between Democrats and Republicans on the issue. Maybe that is the price of progress, but something about that strategy just doesn’t strike me as nationally sustainable.

Go Right: Find a Way to Appeal to Republicans Strategy
If you think, as I tend to, that you have to have some Republicans on board for any climate policy to be successful, then how can advocates generate more GOP support?

To that end, Roberts and I had an interesting Twitter exchange about a month ago about the best strategy. Again, for him, his theory of change is one of brute political power and an energized grassroots. It’s not clear to me if that represents an effort to try to turf people out for anti-environmental positions or merely registering a pro-climate perspective so vigorously that politicians, even Republicans, feel like they have to respond.

This may sound a little far-fetched but it was not too long ago that moderate Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tim Pawlenty supported regional cap-and-trade schemes. I think this happened in large part because of the larger environmental constituencies in those states and the mobilization of Al Gore’s climate change slide show army. While not an especially radical challenge, Gore’s presentationistas were at least able to generate some political impetus for doing something.

Pro-climate policy folks were almost there in the first years of the Obama Administration with the passage of the House cap-and-trade bill, but the lingering economic crisis and health care made that moment almost but not quite perfect. Unfortunately, we may not get a better chance for some time. For that reason, I tend to think overtures to elicit Republican support are warranted.

In those days, Democrats sought to enlist broader support for climate policy, particularly from Republicans, by re-framing the issue in two ways: (1) first, as an economic opportunity that would create “green jobs” and (2) second, as a security challenge.

The green jobs agenda was taken up vigorously by the Obama Administration which likely oversold the benefits that could come from investments in that sector. Maybe if the policies had been perfectly implemented…There is a longer backstory on why this “economic opportunities” frame was adopted that I’ll explore in my next post, but I think this focus made it seem like the climate problem was easier to solve than it actually is.

On the security front, the issue is not just about climate change but also dependence on foreign oil. Unfortunately, the climate security angle on its own has not yet worked to draw in (many) Republicans. It’s easy to see the attraction of a security frame, but the attention it generates may further reinforce fossil fuels. In these discussions, the melting summer sea ice in the Arctic comes up a lot and how the U.S. needs to be prepared to defend access to the hydrocarbons that are becoming available. The energy independence argument can also buttress bad policy choices, like diverting much of the U.S. corn crop for biofuels and opening up environmentally sensitive areas to oil drilling.

Aside from messaging, how else might advocates appeal to Republicans? In the lead up to the failed Senate vote on cap-and-trade, President Obama also made two key concessions to moderate the legislation, both of which may be politically unavailable in the future.  First, he expressed a willingness to allow more domestic offshore oil drilling in less ecologically critical areas like the Gulf of Mexico (deeply problematic after Deep Water Horizon). Second, he also extended greater support for nuclear power through loan guarantees (perhaps equally difficult after Fukushima).

Beyond messaging and tactical concessions, advocates face other challenges going forward. Cap-and-trade was initially based on Republican ideas but has been rebranded by right wing ideologues as cap-and-tax and no longer enjoys an image as market-based environmentalism. Advocates will need to identify a new solution, perhaps coupling a carbon tax with a cut in the payroll tax, that doesn’t suffer from the same problem.

At the same time, as I’ve noted before, the issue has become so tightly identified with the Democratic Party and leaders like Al Gore that have little appeal and credibility with Republican voters or elites. Can advocates enlist Republican champions of this issue (or at least those trusted by Republicans)? Teddy Roosevelt IV? Former Virginia Senator John Warner? Former Secretary of State George Schultz? Rick Warren?

In my next post, I’ll make the case that a mix of Republican-trusted interlocutors coupled with messages that emphasize the local effects of climate change on America may be a productive way forward.

Obviously, both the “Get Angry” and the “Go Right” approaches to climate change at this point leave a lot to be desired. Perhaps a hybrid approach, where the radicals try to stop the Keystones and the moderates try to build broader support can ultimately be successful. In the meantime, both camps have their work cut out for them.


The World Is Waiting: U.S. Public Opinion and Climate Change

So, we’re almost in October, and it’s still 100 hundred degrees here in Texas.  We have just endured the hottest summer on record for any state in the United States.  Just last month, thousands of acres burned in a series of wildfires just outside Austin.

September 2011 Texas Fires

Our governor Rick Perry is running for the Republican nomination for president, and though climate change is not high on the agenda, he took time out of his busy schedule to deny that climate change was real and to claim his perspective was akin to being a modern day Galileo. These remarks prompted President Obama this week to quip: “You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change.”

Now, as I’ll say more in my next post, there are reasons from a scientific perspective to be skeptical that the drought and fires in Texas are attributable to climate change, but I think it may be smart politics.

Some months ago I posted about Republican elites’ allergies to all things climate change and how this issue had become a partisan signifier like abortion. This was before Perry threw his hat into the ring and before his rival Jon Huntsman took him to task for his climate change denialism via Twitter:”To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

At the time, I promised to come back to U.S. public opinion on the topic. So here goes. This isn’t just about U.S. domestic politics because unlocking U.S. climate policy remains the most important step towards addressing the problem globally.

What Do Americans Think About Climate Change?
There has been considerable flux in what Americans think about climate change in recent years in terms of how worried they are about the problem and whether or not they think it is real. While we know what the numbers are doing, I don’t think we have a really good handle on what is driving these changes. That said, we can make some pretty reasonable suppositions.

Between 2008 and 2011, Gallup came out with several polls suggesting that Americans were less worried about climate change and more likely to say the problem was exaggerated (2008, 2010, 2011). Gallup attributed this to the financial crisis based on previous dips in support for environmental protection during economic downturns.

Gallup also suggested the declining poll numbers might be the result of a series of so-called scandals that climate denialists have glommed on to try to make their case that climate change is a fraud perpetrated by scientists eager to get research grants (as if the self-serving motives of people who make their money from carbon-based fuels are somehow less powerful an incentive to deny the science).

So, if you followed this stuff attentively like I do, you read about trumped up controversies over the hockey stick graph (did temperatures increase in the 20th century after centuries of relative stability?). There was also flak over leaked emails by climate scientists from my alma mater the University of East Anglia, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got some grief for typos and sourcing errors in a several thousand page document. Small beer, as they say, but perhaps enough to move the dial for some people.

Other polls suggest that the most important differences really are between Democrats and Republicans, with as much a 30 to 40 percentage point gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether they worry about climate change and whether it is happening. A 2011 Yale-based poll also found that self-identified Tea Party types are the least likely to believe climate change is real, while they consider themselves knowledgeable about the problem. They are less trusting of mainstream news sources, scientists, and the EPA.  Tea Party supporters were much more likely (45%) than other groups, including Republicans (20%), to be aware of the controversial UEA hacked emails, most likely from their trusted news sources like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and various other conservative websites.

The Economist
 recently ran a story on this poll with the graphic below:

McRight and Dunlap (2011) draw some similar conclusions from their assessment of a number of polls: they conclude conservative white men are less likely to believe that climate change is real, which they attributed to a particularly risk acceptant attitude among that group.

The good news from the Yale poll and other polls is that a majority of Republicans think the problem is real. Indeed, a 2011 Reuters poll found that the percentage who believe the Earth has been warming increased from 75% to 83% between 2010 and September 2011, including 72% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats.

This could be a result of the way the poll was worded. Other studies by Schuldt, Konrath and Schwarz (2011) and Villar and Krosnick  (2010) have found that Americans, particularly Republicans, are far more likely to believe in the problem when framed as “climate change” rather than “global warming.”

It should be noted that even though a majority of Americans worry about climate change, environmental issues almost always rank low on the list of priorities for Americans, though they tend to identify environmental problems as being among the most important future problems (see these two Gallup polls here and here).

Where does this leave us? I think what this means is that the public is only intermittently attentive to the issue, and while most people are taking their cues from what the scientists are saying, other people are listening to climate denialists and hardening their attitudes to believe that the issue is a hoax.

Just a few years ago, when public concern was at its maximum, moderate Republican governors around the country were jumping on the climate bandwagon to support cap-and-trade initiatives and the like. If we think public opinion matters, then advocates have to do a better job, particularly among the Republican public in convincing them that the problem is real and worth caring about. The recent Reuters poll that showed an increase in concern suggests a possible reason why Americans are becoming worried again: the weather. My next post will discuss how, the science aside, focusing on the local consequences of weird weather (Hurricane Irene, floods in the Midwest, and drought in the Southwest) might concentrate the minds again. 


Famine, Climate Change, and the Horn of Africa – part I

So, I will ultimately come back to climate change and public opinion in this country, but when I haven’t been handwringing over the debt ceiling, I’ve been preoccupied by the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Somalia and East Africa more broadly. I’m going to tackle this topic in a couple of parts since this post is already quite long. The United Nations estimates that as many as 11 million people are being affected by the current crisis, seen as the worst drought in the region in 60 years (see the FEWS NET map of the extent of the crisis below).

Why is this crisis emerging now, and why are the numbers of people affected as large as they are? Drought and famine of course are nothing new to East Africa and the Horn. We all remember Bob Geldof’s Live Aid concert from 1985 which was organized as a response to Ethiopia’s famine. Of course, the United States sent in more than 20,000 soldiers to Somalia in 1992 in response to the then famine, a mission that went disastrously awry when the Clinton Administration broadened the effort to go after warlord Mohamed Aideed.

Aside from the obvious and important humanitarian issues at stake, the current crisis raises a number of interesting issues about vulnerability to extreme weather events. How much is this famine a function of physical exposure? In other words, is this a really bad drought? Relatedly, does this current drought have anything to do with climate change?

 A number of observers think so. Jeff Sachs makes the case that:

The west has contributed to the region’s crisis through global climate change that victimises the lives and livelihoods of the people of the region.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah made a similar statement:

There’s no question that hotter and drier growing conditions in sub-Saharan Africa have reduced the resiliency of these communities. Absolutely the change in climate has contributed to this problem, without question.

 More credible arguments come from David Orr of the UN World Food Programme:

It is extremely alarming that the incidents of drought seem to be occurring more and more regularly. There was a gap. The general view was that extreme weather events were occurring every 11 years. Then it came down to five or six years. But the last drought in this region occurred in 2007 and 2009. So they do seem to be happening with increasing regularity, undoubtedly as a result of climate change.

Such views were reiterated by Valerie Amos, UN Under-secretary of Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator:

We have to take the impact of climate change more seriously. Everything I’ve heard has said that we used to have drought every ten years, then it became every five years and now it’s every two years.

There is a tendency in the environmental and wider policy community to link almost any extreme weather-related event with climate change, even though other processes like El Niño or La Niña may be more to blame. At the same time, even if climate change is a possible culprit for increasing severity and number of droughts in the region, the science of attribution of particular climate-related events is in its infancy and highly contentious. 

Neither Sachs nor Orr are natural scientists so what is the scientific community saying about the role played by climate change in the region? Some scientists have begun to argue/speculate that climate change may have a role to play in the current drought and going forward.

Chris Funk from the U.S. Geologic Survey (who also advises FEWSNET) has put forward a provocative argument, suggesting that climate change has intensified the effects of La Niña. He has a recent paper in Climate Dynamics that suggests drier conditions in East Africa will continue because of climate change. He attributed the lack of rain to warming over the east Indian Ocean and the extension of the Tropical Warm Pool, which originates in Indonesia:

It really seems as if the warming of the central and southern Indian Ocean is contributing to more frequent droughts and intensification of the impacts of things like la Niña.

It’s warmed about a degree over the last 30 or 40 years and maybe about half a degree over the last 20. But the reason that it’s important is that it’s already really, really warm. And so, as far as we can tell, that warming has triggered more rainfall over the central Indian Ocean. And that rainfall basically pulls in moisture from the surrounding area and prevents it from going onshore into Africa.

The sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean are really well correlated with global temperatures. So, the past 150 years, as far as we can tell, the Indian Ocean has gone up and down very closely with global temperatures. I’m not sure that we fully understand why that is, but it seems to be an area that as we’re experiencing global warming the Indian Ocean is warming up right in step with that.

His views are a bit more nuanced as he noted that other areas in East Africa may get greener.

In central and eastern Kenya, it looks like the rainfall is decreasing. But as you go towards Lake Victoria, the rain there has remained steady. And so there’s a lot of opportunity for developing agricultural resources in the west that won’t be affected by climate change. And a similar situation exists in Ethiopia, comparing the north versus the south.

Funk is a geographer by training (does this matter that he’s not a climate scientist? Not sure). What’s more, most of the projections for East Africa suggest that the region is likely to get wetter with climate change not drier. I asked a colleague of mine from UT who does climate projections about this and here is what they said:

You are right that the IPCC AR3 models projected wetter conditions over the GHA – farther south than Somalia in general – with confidence derived from a certain level of agreement among the models. Also, when the Indian Ocean is anomalously warm, for example as often happens during an El Nino event, East Africa is often wet. But attributing a cause for the current drought in East Africa would take some considerable study – including model simulations – that no one has yet done.

Some of that modeling work may have been done by Funk and some of his collaborators. I tracked down another paper in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences from Chris Funk along with colleagues from NASA and the USGS. That project looked at 11 climate models and tried to simulate rainfall changes in the future. 10 of the 11 models suggested that through 2050, rainfall over the Indian Ocean would increase, suggesting less rainfall on land. Funk argued that:

We can be quite certain that the decline in rainfall [over East Africa] has been substantial and will continue to be. This 15 percent decrease every 20-25 years is likely to continue.

However, based on its review of multiple studies, the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment concluded:

There is likely to be an increase in annual mean rainfall in East Africa.

The 2007 IPCC report summary of model projections of projected rainfall shows nearly 20 models projecting higher rainfall over East Africa in most months. Look at the bottom left two frames for annual rainfall totals and December to February projections.

Figure 11.2. Temperature and precipitation changes over Africa from the MMD-A1B simulations. Top row: Annual mean, DJF and JJA temperature change between 1980 to 1999 and 2080 to 2099, averaged over 21 models. Middle row: same as top, but for fractional change in precipitation. Bottom row: number of models out of 21 that project increases in precipitation.

So, what do we make of this disparate evidence? I can’t say I fully grasp the reason why these models are showing such discrepant findings, and I’ll post an update should I get some clarity. In the meantime, I think the jury is out on the science, that it is too soon and too uncertain to make a strong case that there is a clear climate signal behind the on-going drought in East Africa. I’d like to see if the fifth IPCC assessment report revisits or revises the anticipated rainfall dynamics for East Africa. The Working Group I report should be out in September 2013, but we will likely have some reports of drafts well before then.

In my next post, I’ll talk more about how we get from drought to famine, and the relative causal weight of physical factors compared to political and economic factors in the current crisis.


Climate Change: The Elephant in the Room

This is my inaugural post on this site, and I thought I would start with a topic I’ve been puzzling over for a while. It may take me a couple of posts to get it all out, but here goes: What happened to Republican elites on climate change?

Republicans have long been more reluctant than Democrats to address the problem. However, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore’s slide show and mov(i)ement, moderate Republican governors – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee – lined up to support schemes to cap and trade emissions of greenhouse gases. In the Senate, John McCain throughout several Congresses, as recently as 2008, sponsored cap-and-trade legislation which was seen as a market-oriented (read: Republican) alternative to more command and control regulatory approaches. In 2008, Newt Gingrich eagerly appeared in one of Gore’s post-partisan promo shots alongside Nancy Pelosi in support of the We Can Solve It campaign.

Flash forward to 2011. In post financial crisis America, climate change, if it is possible, has become even more politicized. As they seek the Republican party nomination for president, Pawlenty and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman have had to apologize and backtrack for their prior support for cap-and-trade. It has become almost an article of faith among Republican activists that presumptive candidates not only have to disavow former support for cap-and-trade but they have to deny the science itself and reject climate change as a problem (Though he has assailed cap-and-trade, Mitt Romney admirably stuck to his guns and said the problem is real). Pawlenty, by contrast, just this week told Fox News, “So there is climate change, but the reality is the science of it indicates that most of it, if not all of it, is caused by natural causes.” What gives?

Al Gore, in a recently released broadside in Rolling Stone, would have us believe that this is nothing more than business as usual efforts by “Polluters” and “Ideologues,” with a handful of climate change deniers, bankrolled by dirty industries, able to twist public opinion and challenge the credibility of climate scientists (Ross Gelbspan made a similar argument in his 1997 book The Heat Is On – my have times changed!).

A slightly different view sees opposition rooted in the regional politics of the United States. David Wheeler of the Center for Global Development suggests the reluctance to address climate change is a function of the relatively high adjustment costs that some Red States particularly in the South, the Ohio Valley, and Mountain West face compared to other states. This dynamic too has long been used to explain why some Democrats like Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia oppose more vigorous action on climate change (see my 2008 piece along these lines for the Center for a New American Security).

Something different and more profound seems to be going on here than just run of the mill special interest politics. Climate change has joined the list of symbolic partisan signifiers like abortion that party activists and aligned biased media (like Rush Limbaugh) are using to identify members of their team.

This is unfortunate and more than an American problem. As the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (next to China), the U.S. is a necessary part of the solution. In the lead up to this year’s climate negotiations in Durban, the fraying of purpose internationally is partially a consequence of dismay at the lack of U.S. action.

While the Obama Administration still is seeking to push through some of its climate agenda through regulation, many of its international commitments, particularly on climate finance, ultimately hinge on having a national carbon cap that generates public but more importantly private sector resources to support climate mitigation efforts around the world.

Where does that leave us? For all of his righteous fury, I fear that Al Gore is now part of the problem. Democrats own the environment and climate change as an issue. As Glen Sussman has documented, during the Carter era, the gap between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House on the League of Conservation Voters environmental scorecard was 27 points. During the Reagan era, the gap in both chambers increased to 32 points and then 35 under George H.W. Bush. By the Clinton era, the gap extended to 52 points and in the first year of the George W. Bush administration stood at 65 points.

By 2010, the gap between Democrats and Republicans was a chasm. Among the leadership of the top five environmental committees, the partisan gap was 60 points in the Senate (with Democrats receiving an average score of 60 and Republicans 0) and 76 points in the House (with Democratic committee leaders receiving an average score of 88). As I’ll write about more in my next post on public and elite opinion, these dynamics are as if not more pronounced on climate change, which has come to dominate the environmental agenda.

For supporters of action on environmental causes in general and climate change in particular, this degree of partisanship is poisonous. Gore is surely right that there has been a deliberate effort to mislead the public and discredit climate scientists, but that may not matter. In this din of information, I don’t know if anybody is listening to him any more other than people who already agree with him. While advocates have been struggling with the right message (is climate change a security problem?) to get Republicans on board, it may need a new messenger too.

It is unclear when the country will again have another shot at passing national climate legislation. In the last Congress, the Democrats possessed sufficient voting strength and discipline to get a cap-and-trade bill through the House. President Obama inherited an economy in distress and two ongoing wars, and he had to choose what single ambitious agenda item – health care or energy – he could get through the Senate and as we know he chose health care.

The Democrats do not and likely never will possess the votes or party discipline to get national climate legislation without some support by Republicans in one chamber. The Obama Administration conducted some efforts to enlist South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham to identify potential Republican Senate support in the last Congress. They probably needed 8-12 votes, and the usual suspects were senators like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine. (As an aside, while Ryan Lizza documented how ham-handed these efforts were in the New Yorker, I have trouble believing that better political gamesmanship would have delivered the necessary votes).

Going forward, there has to be a renewed effort to enlist Republicans and those trusted by Republicans to make the case that this is a problem worth caring about. Gore’s ad campaign of 2008, which featured both Gingrich and Pat Robertson, recognized this, but as long as Gore is the main face of the climate change movement rather than governors, CEOs, military leaders, and pastors, I fear Republican defenders of vigorous action on climate change like Michael Stafford and D.R. Tucker will be few and far between.


Multiple meltdowns?

Most of the members of the Duck are at the ISA conference in Montreal this week.

Meanwhile, Japan is trying to deal with a horrific series of nuclear accidents, triggered by natural disaster — the 9.0 earthquake and resultant tsunami.

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on nuclear engineering or physics. However, I can recommend some writing by specialists who are closely following the situation and describing the events in understandable terms.

First, I always turn to the Arms Control Wonk for nuclear-related issues. Jeffrey Lewis was in Japan when the earthquake hit and he’s been following the situation closely. Likewise, All Things Nuclear, a blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists, is a very valuable read. Finally, Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies and former deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment (1993 to 1999) has been writing useful pieces for the Huffington Post.

As for the politics — I think it is safe to say that nuclear power is taking a serious hit as a potential future energy source, which many have been touting lately because it does not produce greenhouse gases. Germany, which was considering the life extension of 17 nuclear plants, has delayed that decision and turned off 7 nuclear plants while safety issues are reconsidered.


Too many bodies? Communicating the population question

The question of human over-population of our planet seems to resurface every few decades, driven by fears that there are too many people to feed, clothe and shelter, or that the sheer volume of human beings working, travelling and polluting is causing environmental damage. But the persuasiveness of such claims is weakened empirically and normatively. In terms of facts, it does not help the over-population claimants that every time the population question is raised, humanity seems to deal with the problem. People do find food, clothing and shelter. And in terms of values, the notion of limiting or reducing the number of human beings appears a slippery slope to calls for coercion and perhaps eugenics in the name of ‘the greater good’. But in 2010 the question is being asked again.

At Royal Holloway last night, Professor Diana Coole presented early analyses from her new three year project, Too many bodies? The politics and ethics of the world population question. She is interested in why the question is re-emerging now and why it is in developed countries that calls are loudest for something to be done, according to her analysis of media and policy documents. Size of world population seems to have causal links to the development of climate change, water and food security, managing waste, and preserving diversity. The Royal Society’s working group People on the Planet raises this explicitly, as did the Stern Report – though neither recommended any proposals to intervene in human population numbers. As Coole argued, the tools we have for managing demography – fertility, mortality and migration – are all political minefields. Governments quietly manage birthrates through tax and welfare regimes and campaigns on family planning, but few policymakers in liberal democracies would explicitly institute a one-child or two-child policy for families.
It is interesting that Coole, a critical theorist in the continental tradition, should be asking why the population question remains a taboo. Materiality, vital matter, the non-human and post-human futures have all been on the critical theory agenda recently, in IR and more broadly. People are not the only things that matter. This scholarly focus parallels public-political claims for ‘sustainability’ in which the maintenance of ecosystems are considered more pressing than the continuation of humanity and certainly more pressing than economic growth. Might it be that a new strategic narrative will be formed and brought to bear on policy, a ‘smaller, better humanity’ narrative? Population projection statistics are ambiguous and can easily be used to support Malthusian stories. And Coole’s project may unpick the factual and normative discourses that silence talk of the population question, so that the better-smaller narrative — if that is what is being formulated — can be heard.

(Cross-posted from https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/)


It’s hot out there…

Actually, it’s a beautiful day up here in Massachusetts. A nice, cool morning which, according to a meteorologist on a local AM radio station, could only mean one thing — that global warming is a hoax. Just before I changed stations, however, I caught this little claim — something to the effect “there’s no consensus on global warming. There are a huge number of leading climate scientists who dispute it….”

Hmmm? Of course, such a claim would require something called EVIDENCE. So, what does the evidence show about the current state of thinking/consensus within the climate science community? This paper in PNAS in June is a start on this research question and the early findings are that “97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” In other words, only 2% to 3% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field are skeptics? Wow, that is a lot….

And, by the way, here is some of the latest data reported in NOAA’s most recent “State of the Climate Global Analysis” in June 2010:
The text of the Executive Summary seems to state the obvious:

June 2010 was the fourth consecutive month with reported warmest averaged global land and ocean temperature on record (March, April, and May 2010 were also the warmest on record). When averaging the last three months, the combined global land and ocean surface temperature during April–June 2010 (three-month period) ranked as the warmest April–June on record, with an anomaly of 0.70°C (1.26°F) above the 20th century average. The previous April–June record was set in 1998, which had an anomaly of 0.66°C (1.19°F) above the 20th century average.

During this three-month period, warmer-than-average temperatures enveloped much of world’s land surface, with the most notable warm anomalies in Canada, the eastern half of the contiguous U.S., northern Africa, and western Asia. The worldwide land surface temperature during April–June 2010 was 1.12°C (2.02°F) above the 20th century average—the warmest on record.

Oh, and for the record, the local meteorologist predicted afternoon thunderstorms. There weren’t any.


The Real Climate Negotiations

Bill McKibben has a long interview on the public radio show Speaking of Faith, which you can listen to here. An insightful quote from the transcript:

The negotiation that’s underway, we think is between China and the U.S. and the EU. It’s really not; the real negotiation underway is between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on the other. We’re going to have no choice but to adapt, whether it’s gracefully or in violent and ugly fashion to that demand of basic bottom line of the planet.

Food for thought as news of the devastation in Haiti from yesterday’s earthquake trickles out of Port-au-Prince this morning. For an easy way to help, see here.


Obama’s Oslo Speech and Climate Change

Dan Drezner encourages us to analyze what he said for references to policy prescriptions from IR theories. Steve Walt tells us let’s focus not on what he said but on what he does. I’m with those who would focus on what he didn’t say as an indicator of what he might or might not do. (Not to be contrarian, but hey.)

Namely, with the Copenhagen summit at hand, I’d have liked to see more than just a passing reference to the relationship between the environment and war, and the fact that mitigating the impacts of climate change will be one of our most urgent security problems in the next century. How do readers interpret the relative marginalization of climate issues in the speech?

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