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An emphasis on the Earth, always

By Kaitie Catania

Two hands painted with a map of the world.

After environmental issues took a back seat to immigration and trade in the 2016 election, there have been calls for a renewed voice and a new message from the US environmental movement, to bring climate change and environmental protection to the forefront of domestic and international policy discussions. To that end, the Global Environmental Politics (GEP) program at the School of International Service will host Earth Always: An Evening of Environmental Solidarity on Saturday, January 21, to convene environmentalists and social justice advocates for a rededication to building a more just and sustainable future. The event will include remarks from Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org; Katie Redford from EarthRights International; Mike Tidwell from Chesapeake Climate Action Network; and Ken Berlin from The Climate Reality Project.

Ahead of Earth Always, we asked event organizer and GEP Professor Paul Wapner about some of the challenges the planet and the movement currently face, what can be done to address them, and what he’s optimistic about for the future.

In 2016, global levels of CO2 passed 400 parts per million (PPM). What does this mean, and why does it matter?

Since the Industrial Revolution, the planet has heated up about .8 degrees Celsius. A number of years ago, the international community—which agrees on very little—agreed that 2 degrees Celsius is the threshold after which we’re going to have runaway climate change that will be incredibly hard to adapt to, let alone try to reduce. We only have a certain amount of carbon we can put into the atmosphere and that budget is shrinking very fast.

Crossing that threshold [of 400 PPM] signals that, despite efforts like the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, the world still is unable to restrain its addiction to fossil fuels. While many countries have worked extremely hard to put in place domestic policies and shift economic incentives, crossing the 400 PPM threshold demonstrates the insufficiency of such efforts.

What can be done, in the short or long term, to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere?

We know what to do. We know we need to transition to a clean energy economy, which means shifting our sources of energy away from digging up fossil fuels to wind, solar, hydroelectric, and—some people say—nuclear.

The economics of this shift are becoming increasingly clear. For example, no one can make money in coal anymore. Coal plants are closing largely because of economics, not because of policy. But it’s happening at a slow rate. We need to stop giving incentives to the fossil fuel industry, which we do in numerous ways: handouts to the auto industry, allowing pipelines on public lands, etc. And we also need to create more incentives for people and companies to shift to renewables.

How likely are any of these things to happen as a result of US policy or regulation?

Under a Trump administration, all bets are off. Trump wants to resuscitate the coal industry, which is crazy; it’s not even economically viable. All of the things I mentioned earlier become much more difficult now that we have an administration that says it doesn’t believe in climate change and is anti-regulatory. The few regulations that we have to reduce carbon are, sadly, probably going to be ripped apart.

Officials from 23 states have asked President-elect Trump to declare the Clean Power Plan unlawful. Attorneys general from 15 states and officials from New York City and from counties in Florida and Colorado have asked that the plan be preserved. What are the possible environmental impacts if the plan is halted?

The Clean Power Plan is probably the most important rule that the Obama administration introduced to combat climate change. If it’s scrapped, it takes out a major policy instrument for reducing carbon. It would also have an implication on jobs, since the renewable sector employs more people than coal and oil industries.

As you look toward the incoming administration and the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, what do you fear? About what are you optimistic?

This is a person who has cut his teeth on trying to weaken the EPA, and specifically EPA regulations. What I fear is that this person, who is now in control of the EPA, will spend his time making it less powerful—in fact, rendering it powerless. I also fear that the people and sectors he will consult will be anti-regulatory. America’s environment is going to be open for business rather than for protection.

I’m optimistic that the environmental movement is going to be forced to find its voice in a new way and to find the tools to advance an environmental agenda which includes social justice.

How do you see the environmental movement accomplishing that?

The movement needs to make clear the real costs of environmental degradation. This includes drawing meaningful links between ecological and social wellbeing. Recently, a letter writer to The New York Times drew such a connection when they recommended that before Trump makes any environmental decision, he go and take a deep breath in Beijing. Beijing is almost unbelievable in terms of air quality. Right now, we externalize that cost of air pollution—no one pays for it but the public. By revealing those costs and then explaining ways to internalize them, environmentalism can take a major step forward in finding a more resonant voice. I also must say that having a carbon tax would be a fabulous thing, but the last word that the new administration would ever use is “tax.”

From an international affairs perspective, how is the US bound to the Paris Climate Agreement? How easy or how difficult would it be for the US to abandon some or all of what was agreed to in 2015?

We are bound to the agreement because we are a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which commits us to the Kyoto Protocol and everything that comes after that. As long as we are party to the Convention, we are bound by its rules. The Kyoto Protocol was interesting because it was signed by the US, but never ratified. And then former President George W. Bush literally pulled our signature from it. Interestingly, this didn’t scuttle the agreement, partly because the US never adopted plans completely at odds with Convention. Although we publicly rejected the agreement, in practice we never completely turned policy instruments against it. This may change with the new administration.

My understanding is that this administration could easily renege on the financial commitments that the US has made to help developing countries in its obligation to the Paris Agreement. Certainly we could slow down or halt what we do domestically to come into compliance with our commitment. If it’s clear that the US has no intention to meet its Paris Agreement commitments, then two things could happen: Some countries, particularly in Europe, have said that they’ll go ahead and move forward anyway. However, countries like India, who are expecting money to help them meet their targets, have indicated that they will not be able to keep their commitments if the US reneges on its obligations. If more countries follow India’s lead, curtailing US action could be the unraveling of the Paris Agreement. I think this is highly probable. It becomes even more so if the new administration strikes a dramatic stance and publicly and practically positions itself against the Paris Agreement.

What do you think are some of the major roadblocks the environmental movement faces?

Some important obstacles are the economic and political interests behind casting doubt about environmental issues, especially climate change. ExxonMobil deliberately sowed ignorance for years and tried to cast doubt on climate change. Another obstacle is the conflicting appreciation for environmental goods. Almost everyone says that they care about the environment, but when you ask them to prioritize it on a scale of other things, they rank environmental concern last because it’s an abstraction. The narrow-minded viewpoint—that the economy, terrorism, or national security always trump environmental dilemmas, rather than seeing them as part in parcel with these issues—is an obstacle.

What can be done to dismantle those roadblocks?

Study global environmental politics at American University! Really, I think education is a crucial piece. I also think we need to build a public discourse around scientific understanding. The US government spends billions of dollars supporting scientific research, and yet we have a fairly scientifically illiterate Congress. The information is out there, but we need to build a more informed and literate public that takes scientific understanding seriously.

It seems like climate issues inevitably escalate year after year. What do we have to be optimistic about in terms of victories and progress toward combating climate change and environmental issues recently? What can be done to continue that growth or expand on it?

I think the Dakota Access Pipeline is an example of a great victory. I think what counts for its victory is the expansion of what it means to care about the environment. An important motivator for a lot of people was trying to bring justice to indigenous peoples’ rights and their history of exploitation.

I’m optimistic that there’s an opportunity for us to wake up. There’s an opportunity for us to finally stop living in this clouded delusion that more and more material things are going to make us happy, and that simply growing the economy is an end in itself. There’s a real opportunity for people to question that fundamental tenet of Western civilization, which has been around for more than a century. There are new ways of shaping technologies and rethinking work that will humanize our world and make it a better place.