Alice C. Hill, senior fellow for climate change policy at CFR, discusses how communities can reduce, absorb, and recover from climate change impacts and recommend policies to build greater climate resilience.
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FASKIANOS: Good afternoon and welcome to the CFR Winter/Spring 2020 Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day we are delighted to have Alice Hill with us to talk about how communities can reduce, absorb, and recover from climate change impacts, and to give us policy recommendations to build greater climate resilience. Judge Alice Hill is senior fellow for climate change policy at CFR, where her work focuses on the risks, consequences, and responses associated with climate change. She most recently served as a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and previously Judge Hill was special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council staff, where she led the development of national policy to build greater climate resilience. In the fall of 2019, she and Leonardo Martinez-Diaz co-authored a book entitled, Building a Resilient Tomorrow. And in 2020, Judge Hill was named a recipient of the Yale Public Voices Fellowship on the Climate Crisis.
Alice Hill, thanks very much for being with us today. It would be great if you could start us off with an overview of what resilience means in the context of climate change and share with us your policy recommendations for how the United States can build resilience.
HILL: Well, thank you so much, Irina. And I’m just delighted to have a chance to speak with all of you today, particularly on this very special day, with fifty years ago the first Earth Day. And fifty years ago, this wasn’t a partisan issue. So we did have more coming together on the need for clean air and for clean water. My hope is that through this COVID-19 crisis we can move back to that so that we can make important progress on climate change.
Climate change used to be thought of as a threat in the distant future. It has, particularly in the last two decades, very much revealed itself as a threat for today. Just this year is almost certain to rate as one of the hottest ever. We have seen the hottest on record years occurring after the year 2000 in almost year after year. We predict this June—NOAA predicts—the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration—predicts that we’ll have a bigger than normal hurricane season and, unfortunately, once the wildfires become larger in the late summer and fall, probably also a more serious wildfire season.
It used to be that we couldn’t point to any of these particular events and say, oh, climate contributed to that. We could only look at the trends of worsening events. But in recent years the forensic science has allowed us to assign estimations of how events are worsened by the fact that warming temperatures—rising temperatures are now occurring, and rising more dramatically, very quickly. In fact, they are rising the most dramatically we have seen pretty much in the last, at least, eight hundred thousand years. One of the things that it’s introducing is a climate that is no longer stable. And because of carbon emissions, greenhouse emissions since the 1850s, we’ve seen these remarkable changes beginning to occur.
We enjoyed a stable—that is, human civilization—enjoyed a stable climate for eight thousand to ten thousand years. And that has allowed civilization as we know it to flourish, allowed us to urbanize, allowed us to advance agriculture, build all sorts of systems that very much support the way people live today. But all of those systems are based on the fundamental assumption that our climate will remain stable. And that assumption is simply no longer true. It used to be that if you looked to what the historical extremes had been in your area or region you could be confident that if you chose to build to withstand those extremes, you would be safe. But with climate change, the extreme of today will, in all likelihood, be exceeded by the extreme of tomorrow. And those extremes may be larger than any that we have witnessed in recorded history.
Because all of these systems, the built environment, our building codes, our land use decisions are based on the assumption of a stable environment, finance, our markets, our real estate markets, and other markets have not yet fully incorporated climate risk. There have been attempts to have that occur, but we still see that even in areas where we know flooding will occur on a frequent basis, we haven’t seen the kind of reduction in real estate prices yet in those areas. We also know that our legal system—I’m a former judge and a prosecutor. I did not start my career as a climate expert. But I did spend many years in the legal system. And that system is struggling to address the kinds of issues that are emerging simply as a result of changing conditions.
And then, of course, agriculture, our water storage, our wastewater treatment plants, our electric grids—things are just not built yet to withstand what we’re seeing. So you see, for example, in California with the wildfires, our response is a pretty blunt one from a major utility, is simply to cut off power. And that’s cutting off power in the fifth-largest economy in the world simply to avoid wildfires. We need better solutions, because power and energy is underlying everything that we have built in recent years.
So we are still not prepared for this. Both the international panel on climate change and a recently convened global commission on adaptation chaired by Ban Ki-moon, former head of the U.N., and Bill Gates, they have all concluded that adaptation, although it’s talked about, or resilience, has not been implemented in any systematic way yet. Also, the nation’s fourth national climate assessment released in 2017 and 2018 with over three hundred experts contributing to a 1,500-page document, it also concluded that we really aren’t prepared in the United States yet for the kinds of extremes that are ahead.
So I wanted to share briefly with you some of the ideas that have emerged over the time that I’ve worked on this issue. And for those of you who are students, I do like to explain how I got into this because a piece of advice that I like to share—as I said, I had a prior legal career and then in 2009 I was asked to join the Obama administration, first as senior counselor to the secretary of Homeland Security and then in the White House as senior director for the resilience policy. And a lot of people ask me, well, how did you go from being a state court judge to being at the Department of Homeland Security?
And my advice is, be nice to those you sit next to in school. I sat next to Janet Napolitano in law school, and we formed a friendship, and I was honored when she asked for me to join her in Washington. And exactly at that time President Obama was embarking on his work—initial work—to figure out how we could better prepare for climate change impact. At that time, and maybe still now, it was not viewed as an area that many people were interested of getting into because of the politics around it and the deep division in our country over even whether it was occurring or not.
So I was given the assignment. And for me, as a former judge and a prosecutor, I just had to learn what was happening. And what I learned was what I shared with you. And I also came away, as the others in the department with whom I worked, with a deep conviction that this will affect everything, and we need to be preparing now.
So there are approximately a thousand different ideas out there, but the most salient for me are the first—we should start with our infrastructure. We need to make sure that all of our infrastructure is built to be resilient to climate change. That’s not happening yet. I’ll share with you a story that I heard recently. It’s about an atoll in the Pacific. This island is very important to the United States. It houses antiballistic missiles, equipment. It also recently constructed a billion-dollar radar system to track space junk. That’s kind of the satellites that die in space, and then if they collide with an active satellite there could be—that active satellite could be damaged. So we want to make sure that we’re steering clear. Very important as we are collecting more and more data about the globe.
When the project was undertaken the initial vulnerability assessment determined that there was no risk of inundation based on historical records. Now, if you could see a picture of this island it’s only maybe at maximum six feet above sea level rise. It’s clear that if you had a storm with added sea level rise—visually it’s clear there would be inundation. About halfway through the project they decided to do an additional vulnerability assessment, this time looking at future protections for sea level rise. And of course, the conclusion was that island would be inundated, that the salt water could destroy the freshwater supplies available, making it uninhabitable for the personnel that need to be there. And actually, in fact, that might occur before our lease is up. We leased this after World War II. That kind of mistake is happening with our military. It’s happening all over the country. There are exceptions, of course, but it is not the rule that we are considering infrastructure resilience yet.
A second area that’s very important is our public health. If anything, the COVID has taught us that our public health is core to the health of the economy. And in addition to having the supplies to fight a pandemic, we also need to harden our health care systems. When Sandy hit New York in 2012, we had put our generators in the basements. We had put our fuel in the basement. Those got flooded out. So the city ended up evacuating 6,500 people, some down darkened stairwells with hand-held flashlights because we’d put the ICU units in the top floors, and they simply were not up to the job. That is also occurring in areas with wildfire risk, flooding risk elsewhere in the nation. We need to focus deeply on public health.
We also need to incorporate climate risk into any kind of business decisions. It needs to be front and center in board rooms across the nation. And there needs to be full disclosure. Efforts are underway to have this occur. They are voluntary at this moment. And I would say that it’s still very much a work in progress. We have found that some companies do not want to disclose their risk, simply because they don’t want to be the first ones to say that they have a problem.
We need also to improve our prediction capability. We can only predict the weather out about two weeks. We need to get far better at that so that we can have stronger early warning systems, as well as be able to stockpile supplies in advance. We may need to make data acceptable so that people who have to make the decisions about how best to prepare their communities—the mayors, the city council—understand what their risks are, understand the data, and can make the investments that are necessary.
And finally, I would say that we very much need to improve our education on this point. One of the things that I frequently see when I’m in meetings is that people who are in their forties, fifties, sixties, who are educated much earlier, didn’t have the opportunity that I’ve had later in my career to learn about climate change. Because climate change is a nuanced, complex area I think there’s a tendency to discount it because they didn’t have the chance to learn about it. And that discounting by leaders means that we are less prepared than we otherwise would be. If there were widespread recognition of the risks ahead, I am confident that better choices would be made.
But still in universities and colleges around the county we do not find as part of the core curricular consideration a climate change risk in our engineering schools, and our public health schools, and our architecture schools, and our law schools. It’s still very much ad hoc, up to people as to what they have learned. And I think that that has held back our ability to discuss these issues intelligently and really come up with the solutions that we need. There are choices ahead, and there are important ways we can have much better outcomes. We need everyone engaged. And I think if everyone were better educated it would be easier to have that happen.
So I’m really delighted to have a chance to share with you today, and I very much welcome hearing your questions. So thank you very much.
FASKIANOS: Alice, thanks very much for that. Let’s go now to the questions from the students.
OPERATOR: At this time we’ll open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take our first question in queue. Caller, please announce yourself my affiliation only and proceed with your question.
Q: Hi. This is Michael, or Mahesh, Raisinghani from TWU.
Thank you, again, for your insightful comments appreciate your sharing the direction with us of our students to follow from, you know, career and legal to the current position.
The question I have is about monitoring and control. Many countries might say, well, if we do everything that’s recommended, how do we if others are doing it? And hence, we won’t do it. Not that that’s the correct stance, but the question is monitoring and control with respect to all the countries—because we are all in this today on Earth Day, on this planet Earth. And how do we make sure that, one, others are doing it and also following the same recommendations? Thank you for your response to that.
HILL: Sure. Thank you for the question, a very important one, relating to how do we monitor emissions across the globe, something that hasn’t been resolved yet. I’d say one of the most important things is for the United States to rejoin the Paris agreement and become a player on the international government structure to address climate change. We do need to understand what is occurring. And if there’s voluntary reporting, of course, there’s a risk that there might be underreporting as to what’s occurring.
I think there are some private groups that are attempting to step into this space of increasing monitoring. I serve on the board of the Environmental Defense Fund. They have, in the works, satellites to monitor emissions of methane. Methane, of course, is one of the byproducts of some of our oil extraction. And if the dense—if you don’t stop the venting of methane, it’s a very damaging greenhouse gas emissions. It’s shorter lived, but it causes more heating. So that’s a private attempt to increase monitoring to make companies aware, if they’re not aware, of both gases that may be escaping but also eventually, I think, if we had monitoring systems in place we could collectively shame or, you know, in a more positive light, encourage more closely checking on what the levels are.
But most of all, we need public commitments, in my opinion, from all nations to do a better job. And I think the United States, with its historical record of emissions as well as being the second-largest emitter in the world, needs to be a part of that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question. Caller with Denison University, please go ahead.
Q: Hi. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the education piece. I know at my school, like you said, there’s no required course about climate change and the effects of these environmental changes. So I was just wondering how we would—that would be implemented. You know, based on each university how that could happen.
HILL: Well, I have spent some time in universities. And they—I appreciate this question. They still to a surprising degree reflect what the original model was from feudal times. So you have disciplines that are very stove piped, and then you have a reward system for the professors within that reward research in their own academic area. The challenge with climate change it’s probably the most interdisciplinary problem you can imagine. It requires scientists. It requires—to do the climate science. It requires modelers, data folks, to understand what’s occurring. It requires behavioral scientists to understand how the human brain assesses risk. And then it requires all these other people who work in these systems of infrastructure, the law, finance, and other things to understand what all this data and information is telling them.
But I think the core thing is that we need to make sure we have a cadre of people who are well educated in this. And it seems that if anything COVID-19 tells us how vulnerable the entire globe is to catastrophic risk. We think it won’t happen, we’re optimists by nature. The behavioral scientists will tell us that. And now that it has occurred, if there’s a silver lining here hopefully it will alert everyone that we need to plan in a different way. Just as we’ve—universities have assumed there’s a stable system. There is not a stable system. We are facing risks at a level that we haven’t previously experienced, particularly when it comes to climate and nuclear. And we need to change how we think.
Unfortunately with climate, it will occur whether anyone pushes the button or not. And it will continue to get worse unless we act. So we need to make sure that we have young people who are well-educated. I would say, as young people, you can go to your administration and ask the questions: Why aren’t you educating us? It’s an important value. And I know that there will be many, many jobs in this area because now the impacts are becoming more frequent and more damaging.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question. Caller with Eastern Michigan University, go ahead, please.
Q: Hi. I just wanted to ask, what are some of the initiatives that you are aware of taken by other countries, in addition—you know, like, working with the United States to combat this issue?
HILL: Well, there are numerous efforts afoot, but one of the real challenges with resilience is that there’s no place to go to learn about best practices. And the solutions for cutting emissions—there are two sides to the climate change problem. There’s the cutting emissions, which would reduce the growth in temperatures which carry these impacts we discussed. And there’s also preparing for the impacts. In terms of reducing emissions, the best policies are top-down. They’re government-driven to really make sure that we are reducing the number—amount of greenhouse gas emissions.
For resilience, it’s a really localized problem, because you may be at risk for flooding but not at risk for wildfires. The choices that you make depend on your geographic region, your level of development, how much infrastructure you have in place—many, many factors. And the decisions need to be made on a local basis because they understand their own geography best, as well as their own cultural considerations, and also how to better protect the most vulnerable population.
But the problem is that we are right now expecting each community on their own to essentially invent the wheel. There is little opportunity for sharing globally lessons learned, even though some lessons learned in less-developed countries about how to address flooding, for example, might be very applicable to more developed countries, or vice versa. But there is a tremendous lack of sharing right now, which is in my opinion delaying progress. And that includes just sharing within communities in the United States. There’s no place to go right now where you can truly understand what the solution steps are, and in one-stop shopping understand what the federal government would fund or not fund. This is a very serious deficit in our planning efforts so far.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question in queue. Caller, please identify yourself and proceed with your question.
Q: Gara Medez (ph), University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley.
Ma’am, I really appreciate the information. My question has to do with the implications for instituting policy to address climate change in the context—or in response to the current COVID-19 crisis that nations are experiencing. What are the implications that the crisis may have for nations instituting viable policies for—in addressing climate change, ma’am? I’d really appreciate your thoughts.
HILL: Well, we are in the midst of a very, very serious crisis. And of course, this is giving us a glimpse as to the economic consequences that we may suffer as climate impacts accumulate. It happens simultaneously or in clusters around the world. It’s a difficult time right now to insist on focus on climate change because we have so many people in need. I think that as we get further along in this work I hope that, for example, the federal government continues to provide backup and economic support to citizens. It starts trying to drive policy to efforts that would address climate change. And that would include clean energy efforts, bringing back some of the incentives that we previously had for those industries to make sure that they can continue to flourish even through this crisis. But it’s a very difficult conversation right now because there are so many people in need. And I think it may take a little time before we get to it.
One of the big concerns I have is we are seeing a dip in our emissions, which was something I used to predict when people would ask me, what would it take to stop our emissions, I did say a pandemic. I didn’t want to say that publicly. And now, of course, I realize that that probably wasn’t absolutely correct answer. We’re seeing a temporary dip in our emissions. My big fear is that as all of the economies across the globe need to start up, we may see choices that put us on an even graver path in terms of the need to jumpstart these economies. So I think we need focus on that as well, because there’ll be tremendous pressure to get up to speed quickly. And that might mean there would be greater investments in energies that—and other types of investments that increase emissions.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question in queue. Caller, please identify yourself and proceed with your question. Thank you.
Q: Hi. I just was wondering what your thoughts were on how, in the aftermath of this global pandemic, global interactions will see a change? And how that will have an impact on climate change policy, as we generally push for more green and sustainable ways to—green and sustainable ways to proceed forward economically, and what those impacts—what those impacts would be on the global economy. So just your thoughts on that.
HILL: Yes, thank you. Well, one of the risks is that we could be in a fork in the road here with—we have a global problem, but that could cause each of us to turn inward. Each country, as they can, to their populations, and try to deal with what’s occurring. Of course, we’ve seen borders shut down. That’s turning inward. And certainly in just the climate change scenario itself, that is something that my coauthor and I discuss in our book, is that there is a grave risk that that’s what will happen. We will turn away from international governance systems and really become more nationalistic and more concerned with taking care of our own population.
The challenge with that approach, of course, is that these are global problems. They don’t stop at the border. COVID-19 and climate change very much are threats that cross borders, and they do not care what kind of historic jurisdictional lines we’ve drawn. They cross into different systems freely, and they can cause great damage on a regional and on a global basis. So in my opinion, we need to take the COVID-19 experience and redouble our efforts to seek global governance solutions to our problems. We got very far, in my opinion, with the Paris agreement. It would never get us to a true solution for climate change. It was the initial, important first step. But now we have moved away from that. And it’s urgent that we get back to working on that.
The same thing is true for health threats. When I was at the White House and when I was at DHS I was in charge of preparing for biological threats, including pandemics and other threats. And I had teams working with me. One of the things that was clear with that as well is that it had to be—you need to be prepared locally with, for example, the pandemic test kits, and other—ventilators, other things. But you also need very much the global overview of what is occurring, global surveillance of disease, and cooperation across the globe so that we can contain these in areas as quickly as possible, so that not everyone is infected.
Similar work need to be done with climate change. Huge challenge. And it will be an even bigger challenge, perhaps, as the economic devastating from COVID-19 becomes clear. But I think for everyone, and I would say unfortunately this is falling on the shoulders of the young people because my generation has not recognized how serious a threat climate change is, we’re going to have to demand that we have better solutions going forward, or there will be—the heating that could occur will simply make some areas of the world uninhabitable, which will have long-term consequences for anyone living anywhere else in the world.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question in queue. It comes from a caller with the University of Alberta. Please go ahead.
Q: Thanks for taking my question. I have two or three, but the one I want to ask right away is regarding accounting for carbon emissions. One of the issues around this, of course, is the issue of carbon credits. And when we’re talking about global accounting for all countries reporting their carbon emissions, what are your thoughts about how we manage the tendency to subtract carbon credits from the accounting? So there’s another way you don’t get it through a true accounting.
HILL: Right. Absolutely. I think this is similar to the earlier question. There is a tendency—there may be a tendency to overstate and double-count what a particular country is doing or understate in terms of how they should be credited or understate their emissions. And of course, this will be a difficult problem for monitoring. We do not have a—any kind of global police force to enforce these kinds of things.
I think that one of the ways we could begin to think about this is using tariffs or other means for people or, excuse me, nations that we determine are not playing according to the rules. And that would take a strong global governance system, but hopefully that could nudge and push better behavior so that we are getting to actually the goal of truly reducing the emissions, and less focus on the accounting and trying to get credit for something that maybe isn’t working as well. Very difficult, complex problem. I really hope that the globe can engage on that problem, because it’s an important one and will help—once we figure that out, it will help advance efforts very quickly, in my opinion.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question in the queue. It comes from caller with Prairie View A&M University. Please go ahead.
Q: Well, my question was: If we take action today to reduce the effects of climate change, will we be able to truly do enough to forestall the direct impact of climate change? Or would it more so be to aid future generations in not having to deal with the effects of it?
HILL: Well, thank you for question. There is this difficulty or nuance with climate change. The emissions occur today, but the heating effects can be delayed. So even if we cut our emissions to zero today—and we’ve had dramatic reductions as a result of COVID-19, that will not stop the heating. The heating will continue for a period of time. If we got to zero, probably several decades. And that additional—those rising temperatures would bring further impacts, more intense droughts, wildfires, these rain bombs where so much rain falls at once. So that is the conundrum. It was Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, who has now joined the U.N., who turned the phrase, “the tragedy of the horizon.” And that’s one of the challenges with climate change, is that at least in cutting our emissions it’s perceived as benefitting future generations.
I think that one of the ways that that argument becomes less persuasive is that we are already experiencing the impact of climate change. Those impacts will worsen. And so as the community is dealing with finding how to lessen their impacts, it’s very important they also are including in that calculation how they can lessen their emissions as well. We need that resilient and mitigation efforts are joined together, and we are finding the best ways that we can accomplish both goals. One of the challenges with resilience is we don’t know how bad it will get.
And so with any resilience measure you need to build in flexibility so that it can be adjusted over time. What you don’t want is to do what happened at Kwajalein, or what happened in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, and the Army Corps of Engineers decided not to build the levees higher, because it was more expensive, to protect against future climate change. And now that climate change is appearing. So we need to find more flexible ways to incorporate future risk in our decision making, and also make sure that cutting emissions is part of that calculation as well.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question in queue, with a caller from Harvard University. Please go ahead.
Q: Thank you so much for your insights today. I actually just ordered your book, and I look forward to enjoying it when it arrives.
HILL: Thank you.
Q: My question, with the inconsistently in bipartisan support on these issues, what are some of the things you are hearing and seeing from business leaders in small and large organizations with regard to spearheading new business initiatives around improving things like weather prediction capabilities, or data capture on climate change?
HILL: We are seeing just an explosion in data, and also an explosion in private efforts to harness that data and make it accessible. So you see lots of startups looking at better flood predictions, infrastructure resilience predictions, early warning systems. And you’re seeing private insurance to some extent also operating reductions in premiums for certain measures taken to protect. So we’re seeing a lot of private efforts. And part of this is the government has—the federal government is still producing a lot of climate science, but under the Trump administration it’s not as accessible. So you have, I think, efforts to fill that gap.
The challenge with that is that it’s for pay. And so some communities can’t afford it, and some individuals can’t afford it. And it could result in a patchwork of outcomes. So one of the things we recommend in our book is that at a base level the federal government needs to be supplying some information. And then, of course, private vendors can tailor that information and charge whatever they want to companies that want to have a more sophisticated response. But at a base level, everyone needs to be aware of what their risks are, so that they can make the appropriate decisions. I do think this will be a tremendous growth area, including in improvements in modeling.
But just to show you how difficult it is, in many states in the United States insurers cannot use modeling of future risk to set their insurance rates. A lot of reasons for that, but that is holding back the incorporation of future risk, and the communication of risk, to policyholders. They sometimes may not fully understand what’s ahead.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from a caller with the University of Toronto. Please go ahead.
Q: Hi. I wanted to ask about your stance on migration as a result of climate change. I feel that when we’re talking about resilience and areas that we need to focus on when responding to climate change, the production of climate refugees might be a point of consideration. So I wanted to ask if you see this as an important responsibility, possibly, of the United States in providing a haven for climate refugees, or if it’s something that you deem as relevant in this discussion.
HILL: Migration will be one of the most immediate effects of climate change. The U.N. has indicated that by 2050 forty million people will be on the move. We are already seeing significant migrations. I think we’re probably going to see with COVID-19 some hint of how challenging this will be. The U.N. just said that there was a crisis unfolding. We have these locusts in parts of Africa that are large and eating a lot of crops. And there’s a climate nexus there. But also just the disruptions in the supply chains right now as a result of COVID-19. Great risk of famine in Africa and other areas.
And of course, when we have human security threatened that means you’re—you don’t have security in where you live, access to fresh water, access to food—those that can, will move. And we saw just with Syria a 1,200-year drought, many other factors in play. Misuse—or, mismanagement of water. But we saw five million heading to Europe. We saw how difficult a situation that was for Europe to handle. This is probably the largest consequence we’ll see. We do not have international agreement that can yet adjust to this. I think there’s only one case in the world that has actually so far taken on the issue of climate refugee, out of New Zealand. It was concerning a man, I think, coming from Tuvalu who wanted to resettle in New Zealand. And a New Zealand court said, well, you can still—it’s there, so you have to go back.
But what happens to these nations that disappear in the Pacific Ocean? Where do those people go? And we do not have the agreements in place. Very important. I think the United States needs to play a role here. We are the largest historic contributor to these emissions. These small countries and others have had little to do with this problem. So very much this is a responsibility that all Americans should take on. How are we going to help the others in the world that are suffering even more than we are as a result of carbon emissions? And that’s not to say anyone really understood this until about forty years ago, and maybe even less than that. But it’s important that we address it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from a caller with Washington University in St. Louis. Please go ahead.
Q: Hi. So my question has to do with other countries in the world being such large contributors to climate change and not just the U.S.—such as China, the European Union, India—and the U.S. not, obviously, having full or much control over these regions, we can’t really control fully their effect of climate change, even if we have the Paris agreement. So what do you think the U.S.’s strategy ought to look like in order to work with these countries and make a difference?
HILL: Well, we need to resume our place on the world stage. One of the things—I was in Paris for the Paris agreement. And when I was at the White House I had the opportunity to work with a lot of different nations. One of the things that I learned from that experience is that most of the world, as much as they may complain about American leadership, very much appreciate it because they knew that we would step up and, in many instances with climate, lead the rest of the world to better solutions. That obviously is not happening now.
In terms of our ability to police, if the U.S. were to rejoin the Paris agreement, which is the only agreement we have, and therefore the best agreement we have, I think then we can, as I said to the earlier caller, look to other means to police this through tariffs and other means, to make sure that those who are—those who are going to contribute more are policed, at least have some repercussions. I think we also have to address, for a country like India, where they do not have power, we need to help monetarily those countries convert and get to clean energy. And that will take some financial commitment to Americans, because if they duplicated what we did, that’s a disaster for the globe. We cannot have those kinds of emissions worldwide and have a planet that will sustain the populations we have.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question. It comes from a caller with Rutgers University. Please go ahead.
Q: Hi. My question has to do with something that I would say people are reluctant to talk about when it comes to climate change. And so there are numerous climate change scientists who have tremendous problems with animal agriculture. Just beef, for example, is a major source of greenhouse gases. And we also complain about droughts and our water footprint, but stats show that just globally agriculture production accounts for 92 percent of our water footprint. And lastly, I want to bring up the fires in the Amazon that occurred in Brazil. People around the world were outraged by this but failed to realize that that was purposefully done for cattle ranching. So my question is, how do you feel about the statement many climate change scientists make that, quote, “you cannot be an environmentalist and still eat meat,” as it’s been proven that meat production is a major cause of global warming?
HILL: Well, I do believe that agriculture is an important contributor to global emissions. I can tell you that personally over time, because of my work—I started here with really no knowledge—I have—I wouldn’t call myself a vegetarian, but I’m almost—if I’m served meat I will eat meat, because I don’t believe in throwing it away, but I don’t ever order it anymore or cook it myself. But that’s a personal choice. I think that we can—if the markets were working, I think, to price this, and price the carbon, we could have that affect without having to have a frontal attack on saying you can’t eat meat or not eat meat. I think the question is we need to encourage and monetize the external cost of doing so, so that if you want to do that you pay that and it’s offset in some way.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from a called with Sewanee: The University of the South. Please go ahead.
Q: Hi. Thank you very much. I am pleased to be able to hear your perspective on these issues.
I wanted to come back to the question about viewing this moment as a crisis. And clearly we are in a deep crisis both in terms of health and in terms of the economic consequences. But I have also heard some people talking about this as an opportunity for a major shift towards renewable energy, and along the lines of sort of a transition to a New Green Deal, the digital industrial revolution. So have you heard about movements in the states that are advocating this kind of shift, and taking this opportunity to push job seekers toward—or, encourage job seekers to move toward new industries that will sort of jumpstart the movement towards renewable energy? And then if you think this is viable, what do you encourage us to do? What can we do to play a part in that?
HILL: So I think that would be a terrific outcome. Of course, it’s difficult. Everyone’s at home. It’s difficult to organize. It’s difficult to be visible as protesters. But I think it would be a very important outcome of what we’re providing for this crisis in terms of federal stimulus. As I said earlier, I think it’s a very difficult thing to accomplish. I think the most important thing is that everyone starts speaking up. I don’t think this is an issue that we can just hope somebody else will speak for us. And that means speaking to everyone.
One of the amazing polls is—polling results is how few Americans speak to anyone else about climate change. And I’ll just have to put an exception for me. I’m put on a timer by my family because I’m so passionate about this. So they tell me I can only have so much time to talk about it. But for most people, it’s just not raised. And I think that is getting back to the fact that there is a generational divide here. And I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam War. It was the young people who brought it to the attention of the older generation and had a significant input. And I think that we’re seeing that with Greta and others. And it’s time to speak up. And so—and it’s time to say: We want clean energy as a part of this stimulus package. And we want clean energy going forward.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: The next question in queue comes from a caller with the University of Toronto. Please go ahead.
Q: Hi. Thanks very much. I’m Theresa Kermic (sp) from the University of Toronto.
And I wanted to ask you to perhaps speak a little bit more about vulnerabilities—about preexisting vulnerabilities among populations who have to—when we think about resilience, think about exogenous shocks or stressors and endogenous capacities to respond or to adapt. So can you say a little more about the underlying conditions that make already vulnerable populations the least able to resist climate change events, and be resilient? And maybe let me put to you a provocative proposition. Perhaps it’s not that people are vulnerable to climate change events because they lack adaptive capacity, but because they’re overwhelmed by poverty. And so I just wanted to ask you to speak a little bit about preexisting conditions.
HILL: So I think that vulnerabilities come in all sorts of ways. You know, climate change isn’t going to occur equally across the globe. There are going to be some areas that are going to be hit harder. So those people are going to be more vulnerable. If you’re talking about—and also it depends on the type of impact. If you’re talking about heat, economics plays a role. Certainly, air conditioning can alleviate that, but even in a city like Montreal they haven’t had—needed to have air conditioning. So when you had your heat wave, I think it was in 2018, and you had a number of excess deaths, the determination was it was isolated men who didn’t have the social network. That story’s been played out as well in the United States, maybe even equally—two communities that are equally impoverished, not wealthy communities, saw very different outcomes depending on social networks.
So there’s a lot of things at play that can reduce vulnerability. Economics is one very important one. But geography as well. One issue that I think is very important in terms of talking about solutions is that we adjust our cost-benefit analysis. The World Bank is doing some very exciting work to look at what is the welfare gain, or the wellness factor gained by a particular measure, not merely looking at whether there is an economic gain. Because on those—and also looking at the laws. Because using those scales you can better identify how much a marginal loss hurts those that are economically deprived much more than people who are already affluent, and vice versa that an investment might help improve the lives of those who are economically challenged far more than it would those who are already enjoying a certain level of wealth.
We need to rethink how we assess the benefits. And this very much has to be part of that assessment, in my opinion, going forward. Otherwise, we’re going to leave behind swaths of the community in deep suffering. And that is unacceptable to me. So we need to rethink how we approach this.
FASKIANOS: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question, caller from the University of Alberta. Please go ahead.
Q: Thank you very much. My question has perhaps been asked in some other ways, and I wonder if I could just raise it again. That’s the question of transitioning from oil. And what do you see as the possibilities for actually achieving any move towards that, right now at this critical moment in time when, as you said, we need to change the way we think?
HILL: Well, I can speak from the U.S. perspective. Immediately we need to reinstate incentives for people to use different kinds of energy—the incentives for electric cars, the incentives for solar panels. Whatever we can do to drive demand. We know that that helps, and that certainly prices are going down quickly in the clean energy sector. So the more support we can give to that. I think we also need to look at withdrawing our support for the fossil fuel industry, and certainly our support for building greater infrastructure to support the fossil fuel industry. We had an important decision here in the U.S. on the Keystone pipeline. A lower court judge, as I understand it, said that the pipe couldn’t—the piping couldn’t go under certain waterways, which will greatly change how we think about it.
We need to approach this from not thinking about what is lost but thinking about what is gained. And several have alluded to this. There will be jobs in clean energy. There could be tremendous growth with that path. But by concentrating on what is lost, we tend to overvalue that. That’s what the behavioral scientists say is loss avoidance. So we hold tighter. If we got the tickets to the play, and we don’t feel like going to the play, we go to the play anyway because we don’t want to have the loss of the ticket, even if we may be sick. And that would be terrible in the case of a pandemic. So we need to rethink. And I’m hopeful that we can start driving this.
One silver lining is—from the COVID—is that it’s certainly giving us a way to easily imagine how bad things can get. And we didn’t have that truly before. None of us have lived through anything like this. It’s a very different kind of event. But at least when there are people like myself who are trying to warn what’s occurring, it’s not viewed as alarmist. It’s viewed as: This could happen. And we need to do something to stop it. And with climate change and pandemics it’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when. So we have an opportunity now to have a better outcome if we take it seriously.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Alice. I’m sorry that we couldn’t get to all the questions, but we are at the end of our time. So we appreciate you all being with us. We know many of you are working remotely, with all the campuses closed and whatnot. I commend to you again Alice Hill’s book, Building a Resilient Tomorrow. I think that this call is evidence of the clear facts and policy recommendations she can bring to bear. And you will find that in her book. And you can also follow Alice on Twitter at @Alice_C_Hill. So, again, thank you very much. You can view Alice Hill’s teaching notes for her book, Building a Resilient Tomorrow, on CFR.org.
If you’re searching for additional climate materials to use in your courses or in your papers, you can follow @CFR_Academic on Twitter. And visit ThinkGlobalHealth.org, and ForeignAffairs.com for information there, as well as the latest developments and analysis on the COVID-19 pandemic that we are in the midst of, as well as other global issues.
This will be our last call for the winter/spring academic year. We are putting together the fall schedule. We’ll be sharing that out in the coming weeks. So, again, hope you all are staying safe and well during this challenging time. As Alice said, we are going to have to rethink many things, and how we—how we do things. So thank you all. And thank you, Alice Hill.
HILL: Thank you.