“Voices” speaker talks climate change
By Diana Ming, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, August 3, 2012
Climate change — regardless of its polarizing nature — must return to the center of political debate because of its pressing consequences for both the international and national community, Special Envoy for Climate Change at the State Department Todd Stern ’73 said in the fourth talk in this summer’s “Leading Voices in Foreign Policy” lecture series on Thursday.
Despite the “drumbeat of evidence” that the earth is experiencing global warming, public consciousness of the issue of climate change has decreased, Stern said. He cited polls that indicate declining media coverage of environmental issues and climate change’s decreased priority in political agendas to illustrate this trend.
In addition to decreased interest in climate change in the public sphere, those who do discuss the issue tend to be “yelling,” rather than talking, he said. He added that climate change has become a “hot button” for political groups.
“We can join the flat-earth society, we can say that global warming isn’t real, but at the end of the day unless we act to stop it, [the earth’s temperature] will continue to rise,” Stern said.
Although public conversation about climate change has waned, Stern said that the effects of changing natural systems should not be ignored.
“Even if all environmentalists were socialists and secularists, that wouldn’t alter the reality that earth’s temperature has been increasing,” Stern said.
Stern cited several examples of recent “catastrophic” environmental disasters, such as major flooding in Pakistan in 2010 that resulted in $9.5 billion in damages. The current severe drought in the United States has affected over 40 percent of the continental U.S.
“Scientists can’t [attribute] any particular event to global warming because nature doesn’t leave that kind of signal,” Stern said. “But they also say these are exactly the kinds of events we can predict for a warmer world.”
There has been a global temperature increase of 1.3 degrees since 1900, according to Stern.
“While there is certainly more to understand, the level-headed assessment of what we know already should compel us to act with vigor and determination,” he said.
Climate change negotiations are extremely difficult to implement internationally, Stern said. Because climate change policy affects individual economies with competing agendas and priorities, many nations are hesitant to agree on reforms like emission standards, according to Stern.
“Climate change is not a conventional environmental issue,” Stern said. “It implicates virtually every aspect of a state’s economy, so it makes countries nervous about growth and development. This is an economic issue every bit as it is an environmental one.”
Stern also said that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — a multilateral body concerned with climate change — can be an inefficient system for enacting international policy. The framework includes over 190 countries but because negotiations are governed by consensus rule, small groups of countries can often block legislation, Stern said.
“Clearly this is inherently challenging stuff,” he said.
Stern said that the U.S. has tried to improve such challenges to climate change policymaking at the international level.
At the 2009 G20 Summit in Copenhagen, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would only consider climate change agreements if they included China and other emerging countries.
“We thought it was crucial that all major players agree to commit to take real steps,” Stern said. “Every country should be subject to a sense of general transparency.”
While Stern said that the G20 summit may have been remembered as a spectacle due to negotiation difficulties rather than concrete progress, the U.S. still achieved significant accomplishments at this meeting.
“All major countries listed actions and did it with a sense of transparency,” Stern said. “The Copenhagen Accord ushered in a more bottom-up structure to reform and put countries in control of their own pledges.”
Attempting to integrate the concerns of all states in international policy is logical but ignores the reality that states often have national interests that they consider more important than global initiatives, Stern said.
States are often faced with “compelling constraints” on their actions — if they are told to prioritize a global goal at the expense of their “core interests,” it is common for nations to drop out of such collaborative efforts.
“The likelihood of all relevant countries reaching a consensus is low,” Stern said.
In order to combat such competing interests, Stern said that the international community must focus on encouraging agreements that are “inclusive and flexible.”
“Our fundamental mission has to be to produce results on the ground,” Stern said.
Stern also discussed the role of domestic climate change policymaking.
National research and development efforts can “lay the groundwork” for creating more efficient industrial techniques, according to Stern.
He cited successful domestic legislation such as the Energy Information Administration’s standards on carbon dioxide emissions as an example of effective measures taken.
In 2005, the EIA projected that carbon dioxide emissions from buildings would increase 53 percent by 2030.
After regulations were implemented, however, the EIA has projected a 2.4 percent decrease in building energy use for the same time period.
While climate change has experienced “issue fatigue” in recent years, the enactment of climate policy offers immediate benefits to the national economy and global environment, including improvements in air and water quality.
“Climate change by its nature is a tough issue politically,” he said. “There’s a short-term cost for long-term benefits, and the issue can be crowded out by more pressing concerns of the day.”
Despite the serious concerns related to climate change, Stern said he is optimistic about the future of global warming policy.
“We need energy — the human kind — to solve these kinds of problems, and it’s found at places like Dartmouth,” Stern said. “On campuses across the country and among young people, your future is now. We’re paving the way for broad action that won’t be easy, but it can be done and we need to start it.”
The lecture series is paired with the government course “America and the World: Contemporary Issues in U.S. Foreign Policy,” in which students study various aspects of U.S. policy abroad. The course includes readings and supplemental lectures by visiting experts, according to government professor Benjamin Valentino, who is teaching the course.
Kathleen Herring ’14, a student enrolled in the course, said Stern took a pragmatic approach to climate change.
“He is very realistic in handling climate change as policy change and that ideally we should seek to create an international legally-binding treaty,” she said. “While that’s the ultimate goal, he still clearly cares about combating this problem through other interesting ways.”
Alex Tsu ’14 said he appreciated Stern’s discussion of the failure of legal solutions to global climate change.
“I found Stern’s comment that nations often enact change by working in small groups to be extremely insightful,” Tsu, who is also in the corresponding government course, said. “I’d say that I agree with him, as well as his intentions as a whole.”
The lecture was titled “International Cooperation on Climate Change: The Path Forward.”