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After 30 Years, Professor Paul Wapner Says Goodbye to SIS

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At the end of 2021, we say farewell to Professor Paul Wapner, who is retiring after 30 years. In a career spent exclusively at SIS, Wapner has been a pioneer in the study of global environmental policy, and his contributions to the school have ranged from the curricular, including founding a master’s program, to the very space the school inhabits—Wapner was a driving force behind the school’s successful attempt to build a LEED-Gold certified building, the first such structure on AU’s campus. He was also a potent advocate for the university’s 2020 divestment from public fossil fuel investments in its endowment. With a career that spans defining decades for the planet for both the environmental activists attempting to safeguard it and governments around the world struggling to come to terms with climate change, Paul Wapner has a unique perspective. So, we grabbed an hour of his time for a farewell conversation. What follows has been shortened and edited for clarity.

Paul, when did you arrive at SIS, and from where were you coming?
I started at SIS in January 1991; I had just completed my PhD in Politics from Princeton University. SIS was my first (and only) academic position. 
What are some early memories of your time here? And what’s the most notable thing(s) that’s changed about SIS?
Being a student of politics, when I moved to DC, I felt that I was going into the belly of the beast. DC was the center of governmental power in the US—and arguably the world—and I was going to try to live amidst it. I was struck by how many people had come to the city to make a difference; I was also struck by how seriously everyone seemed to take themselves and the instrumental quality of relationships—so many interactions felt like an exercise in networking. Those early impressions translated to the classroom. SIS professor Paul Wapner in 1991I remember teaching my first freshman class and having a student approach me after the first session and introduce himself by giving me his professional card (interestingly, he earned one of the lowest grades in the course). So much has changed since those early days. Foremost, I have met amazing people—both friends and colleagues. Within a year of arriving, I met my wife, SPA professor Diane Singerman; moved to Takoma Park; and built a life around dear friends. To be sure, our friends were deeply invested in the DC scene—peddling their brand of do-good effort—but they were also sensitive, fun, caring, and interesting; I feel the same way about SIS colleagues. After realizing that campus was not simply an academic factory, I made deep relationships that continue to be important and meaningful in my life. 
How did the idea for the GEP program come about? Did you have to convince the administration, and if so, how did you do that?
I started the Global Environmental Politics program because, at the time, environmental issues were off SIS’s conceptual map. To the degree that colleagues focused on environmental issues, they treated them as subtopics of international relations (IR)—as cases through which one could study broader issues of international cooperation, transboundary dilemmas, political economy, and so forth. To me, this denied the significance of environmental challenges in their own right and turned an existential problem into a mere academic exercise. Climate change, mass extinction, and the toxification of our lives represent unique expressions of injustice and a species-wide challenge that cannot be captured completely within the discipline of IR. Indeed, one of the longstanding criticisms of IR is its blindness to the more-than-human world and to the way people use nature as a means of deepening injustice. 
I’m happy to say that there was little resistance to the program. Some colleagues were skeptical at first, seeing the initiative as empire building within the school, but most were supportive, and  (then-dean) Lou Goodman was a huge champion who worked hard to conceptualize the program and gracefully steward the effort through administrative channels within both SIS and AU. 
The current SIS building opened in 2010. Designed by renowned “green” architect William McDonough, it was the first LEED Gold-certified building on AU’s campus. As I understand it, you were instrumental in encouraging the administration to construct a building that could achieve LEED status. Tell me how all that happened.
When I found out that SIS was going to design a new building, I started sending memos to Lou Goodman insisting that we make it a model of just, sustainable architecture. Lou was open to the idea and, once the school created a request for proposals—to solicit interest from architects—he gave me the document and said, “put your green stuff in it.” I figured that, if I simply peppered the document with sustainable aspirations, no one would notice. So, I argued that the proposal needed a preface. This allowed me create a front page to the document that said, essentially: SIS has certain values (of which sustainability and justice are central), and the school would be hypocritical to espouse such values globally without modeling them—in the very design of our building—at home. I’d like to think that the preface encouraged green architects to respond to the RFP and that it partly guided architectural choices going forward. 
At the time, I was aware of Bill McDonough’s work. He was, arguably, the most well-known green architect around—indeed, it was his efforts that partly got me to see how architecture must be an essential part of building a sustainable world. Luckily, McDonough did respond to the RFP and eventually we were able to hire his firm. That was a big turning point.
I taught courses about the building as well. Students helped design the solar system on the roof, chose materials that were sustainably and justly produced, and offered a host of suggestions that eventually made it into the design. 
Almost everything in the SIS building—from its solar panels, sustainably-harvested wood, and natural lighting to the roof membrane that collects rainwater—was designed to eliminate the waste stream and demonstrate that humans can live harmoniously and justly on earth.  
How has the environmental policy movement—the people who lobby governments, advocate to corporations, etc.—changed over the past three decades? And has it been a good change?
I have seen at least three major changes in environmentalism since arriving at AU. First is the transformation from a nature-based movement to one infused with a sense of justice. There is no longer a climate movement, but rather a climate justice movement. There is no longer a conservation movement, but instead one focused on poverty alleviation along sustainable land management. The centrality of justice underlines more generally widespread recognition that ‘sustainability’ involves not simply ecological wellbeing but economic viability and social justice as well. 
Second, the movement has, sadly, succumbed to a good dose of greenwashing. Certain environmental groups have learned that they can flourish economically by partnering with the same industries that are fomenting environmental harm. The initial effort may have come from a good place—working within a corporation, for instance, may be more effective than forcing corporate bodies to adhere to environmental regulation. However, many such partnerships have evolved such that some groups provide cover for big polluters. 
A third large change I’ve seen, ironically, is the exact opposite of the kind of corporate environmentalism I just mentioned. Over the past few decades, a more radical wing of the movement has arisen that takes seriously the urgency of global ecological fragility and recognizes the imperative to dismantle longstanding structures to create the possibility of a just and livable future. This wing is made up, especially recently, of youth groups like Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion. This is a hugely important innovation, since such groups demonstrate a willingness to transform—rather than simply reform—global life in the service of a green future. To be sure, these groups are not overtaking mainstream organizations, but they are pushing the boundaries of acceptable political engagement and environmental ethical sensitivity. 
From what I’ve read, the first international gathering that mentioned climate change was the UN Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the First Earth Summit, in 1972; the first to specifically address climate change was the 1979 World Climate Conference. You and I are speaking on what is scheduled to be the final day of the 2021 United Nations Climate Conference, known as COP26, and from the headlines today, it will be a big achievement if the agreement that emerges from this meeting is the first to ever use the words “fossil fuels.” As someone who’s studied global environmental politics for decades, what does it say about the power of the global fossil fuel industry that governments are still hesitant to name the largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in an international agreement nearly 50 years after the world first gathered to discuss this topic?
It is astounding that, until now, the phrase ‘fossil fuels’ never made it into a final treaty document. This speaks, as you suggest, to the power of the fossil fuel industry, but also to the cowardice of countries to take-on the necessary political work needed to address climate intensification. 
Notwithstanding these dynamics, Glasgow promises to produce an ambitious document. The real challenge will come when negotiators go back home and try to translate commitments into legislative and executive action. This will necessarily include making very tough decisions to go up against an industry and associated interests that have long enjoyed tremendous concentrated power. 
Do you believe that governments will act to mitigate climate change in a way and with a speed that avoids the worst possible harms for people and other creatures?
One thing should be clear: technologically, we could move immediately to a clean energy economy. This involves electrifying our energy and sourcing it from renewable, noncarbon sources. We know technically how to do this. The challenge, however, to global electrification is two-fold: political will and the amount of effort it will take to convert homes, transportation systems, and businesses. Given current political polarization around the world, I am doubtful that many leaders will boldly and decisively act in the service of climate protection. They face too much opposition within their home countries. Additionally, even if all countries would miraculously embrace climate policies, there is still the logistical job of converting our economies. This includes everything from retrofitting buildings, upgrading grids to handle additional demand, and transforming vehicles to run on electricity—and doing this in a just manner. We shouldn’t underestimate the time and logistical effort involved in such an endeavor. 
So, to answer your question, I am not confident that governments will turn on a dime and address climate change in the short-term given power constraints and logistical challenges. I am convinced, however, that they can and will do so in the long run. One key reason for this is that economies are shifting—making renewable energy the cheapest option going forward. Moreover, the tide of public opinion is also shifting and will continue to shift as more people learn about and, sadly, experience the horrors of climate change. 
We need to keep in mind that, while governments may be unable to stem immediate climate dangers, this doesn’t preclude them from climate protection in the future. We have an ethical obligation to mitigate climate change for future generations. The world may be unable to avoid warming over 2 degrees Celsius, and this will necessarily usher in unspeakable hardship. But it can do much to avoid warming above this. I want to believe that changes in the economy and civil society will force governments to recognize their obligations and to undertake what is necessary to secure a livable future. 
One final thought on this: civil society actors are essential to creating such pressure. I am incredibly proud of American University for divesting its portfolio out of publicly traded fossil fuel investments. This act, along with the larger divestment movement, has begun to shift the balance of legitimacy around fossil fuels and is thus critical to inspiring governmental action. 
It’s become clear that a single generation of people cannot stop climate change; that window has closed. What’s the best possible outcome you can see at this point for Planet Earth and its inhabitants? I don't mean any specific place; rather, what do you see writ large when you talk about a sustainable future?
Every semester, on the first day of class, I get a version of this question. Just as I’m about to discuss the syllabus or otherwise introduce the course, someone raises their hand and asks, “Professor Wapner, are we going to make it? Will civilization survive climate change and all the rest?” I always appreciate the anxiety behind the question and see the profundity of the query, and I, too, often wonder about the long-term fate of our species. But if we imagine that we are going through a portal of environmental intensification, I’m increasingly less taken about whether we will make it through and what lies on the other side so much as how we will conduct ourselves as we live inside the challenges themselves. To me, the question isn’t “are we going to make it?” but “what kind of people do we want to be as we live inside the portal?” Can we live in ways that enhance human dignity, extend justice, create space for the more-than-human world, and live our highest selves? Answering this question seems intrinsic to fashioning any sustainable future. 
When you look back at 30 years at SIS, what gives you the most personal satisfaction?
That is a hard one since, honestly, I have really loved my time in SIS. I have received tremendous satisfaction working in and on behalf of the school. I've met many fabulous people, I’ve had great students, and I have always felt fortunate to be a professor, since it has allowed me to explore those things I care about most. I am glad to have created the Global Environmental Politics program and to have helped design the SIS building. I enjoyed serving on the committee that helped AU divest out of fossil fuels. I got a lot of satisfaction by being a founding editor of the journal, Global Environmental Politics (now, arguably, the premier publication in the discipline). And I have loved thinking and writing about environmental challenges. I have published six books and dozens of articles on how we can best understand and respond meaningfully to environmental issues. Devoting myself to such scholarship has been extremely meaningful to me.
Perhaps my deepest joy has come from working with students. There is nothing like walking into a classroom and having the opportunity to ponder existential questions revolving around the environment with inquisitive, thoughtful, and capable students. I teach best what I most want to know. It is a sheer joy to go into a classroom with genuine questions and wrestling with them together with students; there is nothing like it.
I will miss so much about SIS. I am retiring not because I am dissatisfied with the school or my job. Truthfully, I love being a member of the SIS community and have always thought I would die in a classroom. Rather, I’m doing so because I want to explore what else life has to offer. SIS has provided me a wonderful, formative experience from which to launch the next chapters of life. I’m extremely grateful to SIS and psyched to see what comes next.