At a time when the importance of global engagement and responsible state action have become crystal clear, the opening panel at the Hamilton Lugar School’s nonpartisan conference on America’s Role in the World® brought together activists and experts to discuss one of the defining issues of our time: the climate crisis. In particular, the panelists discussed how public opinion has changed, how US citizens perceive the issue differently from citizens of other democracies, and what role different actors play in making progress on the issue.
Emily Atkin, who writes HEATED, a daily newsletter about the politics and science of the climate crisis, moderated the discussion and began by prompting the audience to consider what role they want to play on the issue of climate change. “You alone have a unique way that you can approach this problem, a unique audience that you can speak to, and there’s probably a unique part of the climate crisis that you can solve,” she said. “We need everybody to solve the crisis of this magnitude, but we also need everybody to pick their spots.”
Each speaker on the panel represented a different approach to this problem. A youth advocate who works within a global movement of young people on the issue of climate justice, Isabella Fallahi said she was moved by a sense of urgency to act quickly on this issue considering the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC, the gold standard of international climate science recommendations, outlined clearly the escalating levels of damage that will occur at two degrees Celsius of warming instead of 1.5 degrees of warming, and provided a timeline of ten years to reach zero emissions to avoid climate change’s worst effects, including unprecedented food shortages, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, and wildfires.
Fallahi, who co-founded an international climate justice coalition called Polluters Out, which focuses on removing the fossil fuel industry from all spheres of influence, drew attention to her experience attending the UN Climate Change Conference COP 25 in Madrid. There she witnessed and protested the power of the fossil fuel lobby, which puts out misinformation, uses politicians to advance their own interests, and gets privileged access to meetings that shape policy. Fallahi also considered her international network of activists, many of whom face physical harm for speaking out by local industry or government, and she suggested that some of the most important work being done now is by indigenous groups fighting for their rights of sovereignty.
Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, who served for thirty-five years in the US Navy, where his last active duty assignment was Inspector General of the Department of the Navy, said the US military has been taking the issue seriously since at least 2007, when the Military Advisory Board concluded that climate change was a national security issue and “threat multiplier.” Every area of conflict will be affected by climate change, and outcomes such as food or water shortages will worsen or even ignite conflicts.
As someone who regularly speaks to audience that are less receptive to the idea that the climate crisis is a serious danger, Vice Admiral Gunn said that he is better able to reach certain people because audiences view the military as a nonpartisan institution that isn’t driven by politics. “Renewable energy doesn’t blow up or burn” or have leaked pipelines, Gunn said, a threat that many people can understand.
He advocated strongly for American leadership on this issue and said that if the US completes its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, then countries around the world will be less likely to comply with its mandates.
As a former EPA official and current Professor of Practice at the Indiana University McKinney School of Law and Director of the IU Environmental Resilience Institute, Janet McCabe acknowledged the recent backward trajectory of the US, particularly in rolling back regulations designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions. But she also said that, on a local level, many mayors and government officials are understanding what is happening as, for instance, cities are experiencing two 500-year floods in the span of eighteen months. She drew attention to the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment, first requested by Senator Richard Lugar, as evidence that local governments are taking this issue seriously. The fact that equity and social justice are part of the conversation also indicates that the climate crisis can have a wider audience than just environmentalists, she said.
“Dealing with climate change is a team sport,” McCabe said, and it takes “all kinds of people contributing their particular expertise.”
Jessica O’Reilly, an environmental anthropologist at the Hamilton Lugar School who studies the role of scientists in shaping the policy debate surrounding climate change, reiterated the importance of the IPCC’s most recent report, since it escalated scientists’ rhetoric in order to clearly convey a sense of urgency. Drawing upon a global perspective, she said that the US is unique in the power of climate change doubters, who are boosted by a well-funded misinformation lobby. Whereas elsewhere the scientific consensus is accepted, in the US politicians and advocates have to reprove the case for human-caused climate change anytime they want action, which wastes time, energy, and resources at a time when we are running out of time.
Having brought a delegation of Hamilton Lugar School and other IU students to the UN Climate Change Conference, O’Reilly has also seen how international policy is shaped first-hand. She acknowledged the power of the fossil fuel lobby but added that activists hit this lobby back hard over the greenwashing of coal or nuclear power and that a wide variety of stakeholders can participate in the conference.
O’Reilly emphasized the importance of skills that Hamilton Lugar School students gain in the context of international negotiations and advocacy. Knowing another language and having the ability to analyze and communicate complex arguments are crucial to making progress on an issue as wide-ranging as the climate crisis.
The enthusiasm of her students gives her a lot of hope for the future. “Finding ways to move forward to, to innovate, to find new solutions, to find new coalitions is really energizing for me,” she said.
This panel, sponsored by the Hamilton Lugar School’s Randall L. and Deborah F. Tobias Center for Innovation in International Development, concluded with students asking questions about geopolitical flashpoints caused by climate change, how to build a clean-energy country, the threat of food and water insecurity, and the carbon footprint of the US military.