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SPA Professor Takes on the Politics of International Climate Change

Eisenstadt’s agenda showcases evidence-based issues and solutions through webinar series, multiple publications, and a textbook.

In recent years, climate change has become an increasingly relevant, though complex, topic, as scientific research, paired with obvious environmental upheaval across the planet, signals eminent danger to human life and the global economy.

SPA Professor of Government Todd Eisenstadt has followed this strain of scientific research with particular vigor, and worked to enhance public awareness by producing multiple publications, two SPA webinar series, and a forthcoming textbook, coauthored with colleague Stephen MacAvoy, titled Climate Change, Science, and the Politics of Shared Sacrifice (Oxford University Press).

Eisenstadt first noticed the connection between environmental damage and political attitudes when working in Southern Mexico in the late 1990s. Citizens had turned against the Zapatista insurgency when the group deforested their lands, scattering vital game animals, eliminating fuel sources, and creating erosion patterns that endangered settlements.

Eisenstadt’s original primary research interest was democratization and comparative development in Latin American countries, but personal connections growing up in New Mexico (his father, an engineer and a lawyer, worked on the legal ramifications of solar energy and his mother was a longtime activist and state legislator) combined with a quest for relevance, led to his more recent research focus on climate issues.

“At the start of my career, I worked as a newspaper reporter on the night police beat in Nashville, Tennessee, where the mantra was, ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’” he said. “What I took away from that was a constant interest in having a little bit of impact and a little bit of adrenaline, a little bit of relevance and a little bit of urgency.”

The consequences of climate change checked those boxes. “The social scientists, the journalists, and the public intellectuals have not done a great job of translating scientific findings into practice, and into concepts that the public could understand readily. I realized that this was a space that I hoped I could help others fill.”

At SPA, that space is being filled by the Center for Environmental Policy (CEP), directed by longtime Environmental Protection Agency official Dan Fiorino. Eisenstadt joined the CEP in 2019 as director of research, planning out multiple webinar series and a research agenda to expand coverage of international environmental policy. With frequent coauthors Matthew Wright (University of British Columbia), Tawfique Haque (North-South University), Ifeoluwa Olawole (American University), and Michael A. Toman (Resources for the Future), Eisenstadt is preparing multiple articles on topics such as how citizens of nations hit by climate events assign blame, how international funding is shifting from mitigation to adaptation, and the politics of climate migration.

“I wanted to gather people and learn from their experiences,” said Eisenstadt, who had spent 2018-19 at The World Bank “learning” the climate change policy area. “During COVID, people have gotten accustomed to speaking at webinars, and it seemed like the way to go. And the students have responded extremely well, especially since the 2020 election, as climate has been put on the U.S. policy front burner like never before by the surprising Biden administration.”

Eisenstadt’s first webinar series, called Climate Change and Communities, focused on the means for addressing climate change adaptation, and discussed strategies and resiliency in Bangladesh and Dominica, sustainable development, and theoretical problems of quantifying and measuring adaptation. Adaptation, which has become mainstreamed as a development strategy only over the last decade, refers to acceptance of climate change and the implementation of policy adjustments. The second series, Pathways to a Decarbonized Economy and a More Livable Planet, is being streamed this spring. Recordings of both series are available at the links above.


Mitigation, which has been part of the public discussion for decades, refers to the active efforts by individuals, corporations, or governments to lower carbon emission levels, such as choosing to carpool or recycle, switching to low-carbon energy sources, or regulating emissions. A careful look at mitigation through an equity lens reveals a severe imbalance between those responsible for emissions, mostly in industrialized nations, and those suffering from its effects, in the developing and climate-vulnerable nations which have suffered disproportionate impacts already.

“Mitigation is what the industrial countries are mostly responsible for, because the industrial countries, for the most part, created the problem,” said Eisenstadt. “The emissions stay in the atmosphere for 150 years: studies now can trace the human cause back a couple of centuries. In fact, we can see exactly which 100 companies have created 70% of the emissions.”

The Paris Agreement, reached in 2015, made steps toward addressing these issues, but allowed partner nations to present voluntary emissions reductions at their own levels of ambition and on their own schedules. “They said, ‘Everyone, bring whatever contributions you want to reduce emissions however much you want,’” said Eisenstadt. “It was like a potluck, or, as one diplomat confided to me; it was like regifting. In other words, governments were counting programs they already had on the books as Paris emissions reductions . . . but not generating new sacrifice.”

He argues that European nations are embracing this sacrifice, while the U.S. response lags, citing fears of a damaged economy. Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic, by changing the way we interact with the world, has had some surprising climate-friendly effects.

“COVID has reduced worldwide greenhouse gas emissions about 8%, from what we know so far” said Eisenstadt. “Because the economies are not churning, the smokestacks are not burning. [Also], we're seeing that there can be a new appreciation for nature, as people go out on more walks, and that we can function economically without as many wasteful emissions. And individuals are using much less gas by working at home and using Zoom rather traveling.”

The pandemic may have permanently changed academia itself, said Eisenstadt, as researchers realized that there are virtual, and thereby greener, solutions to meetings and conferences.

“I was trying to organize a conference with some colleagues in Sweden on climate adaptation, and I realized that we could hold it online. Frankly, it’s been good, and we get hundreds of people registering. I think a lot of the conferences on Zoom are going to stay on Zoom, or at least have a streaming option.”

These realizations could set the stage for education campaigns and policy progress on climate change, its impacts, and mitigation and adaptation efforts, combatting the complacency of the industrialized world and helping vulnerable nations invest in long-term solutions. However, Eisenstadt said, mitigation responsibilities ultimately rest with the fossil fuel industry and the governments of industrialized nations, citing failures to invest in green infrastructure and high-density, high-efficiency, integrated communities. He hopes the Biden administration, and his increasingly aware Gen Z students, can help change that.


“If the mitigating countries are the emissions producers, the adaptation countries are the emissions receivers,” said Eisenstadt. “They're the ones who suffer . . . due to their geographical location, with lots of tropical hurricanes, flooding, and sea level rises.” Examples of adaptations can include human and animal migration, terraforming (embankments and sea walls), permanent changes to local and national economies stripped of vital natural resources, rethinking transportation and supply chains, or even the decision to wear daily sunscreen.

Adaptation means changing our perceptions to climate change and learning to adapt, physically and economically, he continued. “In industrialized countries with a good insurance system, part of the adaptation is learning that, in the U.S., maybe you can't build on a floodplain. Maybe those homes should be uninsurable. Maybe there should be places, even if they're prime real estate right on the beach, that you just don't build anymore.”

Migration is a dramatic adaptation strategy, but can be difficult to measure, especially since there is currently no official recognition of the status of climate refugees. However, he referred to a 2018 report by the World Bank, which pointed towards tens of millions of climate refugees.

One strand of Eisenstadt’s research agenda traces how politicians at different levels set goals and timelines for mitigation and adaptation. International actors set lofty goals for the long term, while local politicians in climate-vulnerable areas prioritize short-term relief and job creation.

“Polycentrism is the idea that all levels of government— the international, the national, the subnational— cooperate in solving very difficult problems like climate change. The problem seems to be that the international community has a very long-term horizon, and officials have a very short one. The question is, how do we find a way to make the interests align?”

While researching the effects of climate change on Bangladesh, which has been especially hard hit, Eisenstadt detected an interesting dynamic.

“We have been working to try to understand how people attribute blame for extreme weather events, and drownings, and relocations, and loss of crops, and loss of economic productivity. Do they see that as an international problem, a national problem, or something that their local authorities need to help them with?” Eisenstadt and his colleagues found that the Bangladeshi survey participants did not tend to differentiate blame, or necessarily know about climate change, but realized that changing weather patterns brought serious consequences that demand action.

Neighboring India is an interesting example of a nation that needs to both mitigate and adapt. “It produces about 7% of worldwide emissions [making it fourth in the world],” he said, “and it also has huge numbers of monsoons that are affected by climate change. It has sea level-rise issues, flooding, a lot of dramatic experiences that emerge from extreme weather events.”

He sees the U.S. moving into this category as well. “Hurricane Sandy penetrated Manhattan as well as New Jersey. There have been hurricanes in Miami, hurricanes in New Orleans, forest fires and wildfires in California and Montana, and drought in the southwestern part of the United States and the northern part of Mexico. We've seen a lot of impacts and adaptation needs. And in the midst of this, in the U.S., we thus far haven't faced the problem.”

To do so, we would need to better plan for climate refugees. “In Bangladesh,” said Eisenstadt, “they build seawalls and embankments, figure out how to resettle people to higher ground, and condemn areas that are flood-prone. We haven't seen condemnation here of parts of the U.S. that are below sea level, because if we did, much of Broward County and Dade County, Florida would be in jeopardy, as would Boston, and low-lying parts of Louisiana, and Texas.”

Adaptation is controversial, he continued, because it signals acceptance of climate change. “Until the last decade or so, everyone wanted to think we could solve this problem rather than just reducing it. About 10 years ago, the United Nations decided that that the best we can do is limit it to 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century worldwide on average. Now they want to target a more ambitious number of about 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

The impacts of climate change can also contribute to international unrest and military conflict. “The security community says that part of the cause of the Arab Spring [in Tunisia in 2009], was drought in parts of the world that produced wheat. The wheat costs went up, and that was the cause of the protest in Tunisia. The Syrian Conflict that was blamed on ethnic causes had a magnifier effect of climate: people migrated because there wasn't enough food in areas where they lived. People read that as ethnic conflict, but part of it was displacement due to drought.”

The same conditions are propelling migration from Central America and Mexico. “In Central America, there's a drought corridor as well as extreme flooding and hurricanes. They have drought and flooding in the same small country, and then they have a layer of urban violence, and gangs, and unemployment.”

The Politics of Shared Sacrifice

Eisenstadt enjoys experiencing the interconnected issues of climate change and politics through students’ eyes. “Students are really enthusiastic this semester. At least a dozen students will stay on after the class ends just to talk. They're galvanized by the subject and by the political moment . . . it is a great time to study and teach about climate change.”

In response to students’ dejection over the 2016 presidential election results, Eisenstadt and co-teacher Stephen MacAvoy, the chair of environmental studies at AU, challenged them to turn their despair into action by protesting and mobilizing. In response, the students asked what Eisenstadt and MacAvoy planned to do.

Though they admitted that their protesting days may be over, the two Gen X professors mulled over a contribution. They decided to author Climate Change, Science, and the Politics of Shared Sacrifice (Oxford University Press), which will be available this summer. “This class didn’t really have a textbook. [We decided to] write a textbook, because if there is an interdisciplinary text, then it will be easier for faculty elsewhere to adopt this kind of course.”

Bearing in mind these students’ willingness to share the sacrifice, Eisenstadt looks to do his part as well. He is making individual contributions (driving less and avoiding emissions-intensive meats) while advancing and promoting research on the topic.

 “The question is learning about all of the nuances of this vast problem and all of its interdisciplinary connections,” he said, “which no one can ever learn in its entirety, and which I'm anxious to spend the next couple of decades studying.”

“I'm hoping to absorb all of this, and then try and write more extensively about how some countries have strong climate change policies and most have very poor ones. How do we explain the difference?”