International Security Under Changing Climate Conditions

International Security Under Changing Climate Conditions

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Joshua W. Busby, associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, discusses international security under changing climate conditions.

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Joshua W. Busby

Associate Professor of Public Affairs, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record, and the audio file and transcript will be available on our website at

We are delighted to have Joshua Busby with us today to talk about international security under changing climate conditions. Dr. Busby is an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center, a nonresident fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and a senior research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security. He was one of the lead researchers on a Department of Defense project called Climate Change and African Political Stability and is the principal investigator of another DOD-funded project on complex emergencies and political stability in Asia.

He has published widely on climate change, global health, transitional advocacy movements, and U.S. foreign policy for think tanks and academic journals. His most recent book, co-authored by Ethan Kapstein, AIDS Drugs For All: Social Movements and Market Transformations, was published in 2013 and won the American Political Science Association’s 2014 Don Price Award for the best book on science, technology, and environment politics. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has authored a Council special report for us.

So, Josh, thanks very much for being with us today. I thought you could get us started by talking about how climate change will affect global politics and what are the implications for international security.

BUSBY: Well, thanks so much, and delighted to be with you all today. Last summer, Foreign Affairs asked me to write a piece about the importance of climate change in the international system and upon writing it they gave it the auspicious title, A Warming World: Why Climate Change Matters More Than Anything Else. And while that might be on some level hyperbole, given the abundance of challenges in the international system at the current moment, I think it is arguably true that climate change will increasingly crowd its way onto the agenda of governments whether they like it or not.

Average global temperatures are already more than 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels—that is 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit—and that is the average. Some parts of the world have already experienced larger temperature increases. And scientists have said that the threshold for dangerous climate change would be about a 2-degree Celsius increase above pre-industrial levels, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. So advocates have sought to lower that threshold to 1.5 degrees Celsius and some analysts think we might exceed such a temperature increase by as soon as 2034.

Seventeen of eighteen of the hottest years on record have occurred since 2001, and global concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, are higher than they have been for at least eight hundred thousand years. And, as a consequence, we are experiencing what the Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe calls “global weirding.”

The seasons are changing. Dry spells are occurring when meteorologists would normally expect rain. You know, lack of rain increases the risk of forest fires such as those that occurred in California last year, and when it does rain too often it is all at once, as happened in Houston during Hurricane Harvey. And as sea levels rise and storm surges get stronger, once normal high tide events regularly flood coastal infrastructure in places like Miami that is, ultimately, going to necessitate the installation of storm water pumping systems at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now, in 2015, the international community broke new ground with the negotiation of the Paris Agreement and, unlike its predecessor, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement had commitments for all countries, including fast-growing countries like China, and these commitments were voluntary. They weren’t legally binding, and they were chosen by countries based on what they thought they could do. And the aim was to get started, gain some positive experience, and ratchet up ambition over time with regular review periods, the first of which is formally supposed to happen in 2023.

And the commitments were always known to be a down payment on what would be required to avoid dangerous climate change. But in 2017, President Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which has emboldened other countries like Australia and Brazil to weaken their commitments, even as others have tried to hold the line.

Now, interestingly, under the rules of the agreement, the United States cannot formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement until November 2020, literally the day after the next presidential election. So it is conceivable that even if the United States withdraws from Paris, should President Trump not be reelected, the next president could immediately rejoin the Paris Agreement.

Now, the collective commitments that countries made to reduce emissions under the Paris Agreement are actually only about a third of what is required to avoid dangerous climate change, and even those commitments are not fully being met. Emissions are actually rising across the world. They went up by as much as 1.6 percent in 2017 and were projected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2018, and most of that increase is driven by China, India, and the United States, all three of which experience growing emissions.

So all of this means that emissions are not on track to keep global temperatures exceeding that dangerous 2-degree threshold and that has led to increased preoccupation about the impacts of climate change on water, for agriculture and industrial uses, about extreme weather events including droughts, heat waves, wildfires, floods, coastal storm surge, and intense cyclone events.

And while the connection between climate change and some of these hazards like cyclones is not fully understood, scientists are better able to connect climate change to the increased likelihood and/or severity of some specific events. And these kinds of impacts are happening around the world and the United States is not immune.

California experienced years of drought with—increased the wildfire risk that led to the Camp Fire and tens of billions of dollars of damage in 2018 alone. And the projections for future heat waves and temperatures suggest dramatic changes in extremely hot days in much of the country.

In my neck of the woods in Texas, for example, the number of days with temperatures in excess of 95 degrees are expected to increase over the next two decades from forty-three days a year to seventy-four days a year. Now, that’s under a moderate climate change scenario. It may well be a lot worse than that.

Now, when it does rain, too often the rain is falling all at once, as we saw recently in Nebraska where heavy rains and snow melt combined for unprecedented flooding. Extreme storms have also buffeted coastal communities in recent years with three storms in succession—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—in 2017, hammering Houston, the Gulf Coast, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The damage from those storms exceeded $300 billion and the effects on the island of Puerto Rico were especially severe with much of the island without power for months on end. People had inadequate shelter, and so three thousand Puerto Rican-Americans were estimated to have died during and after the storm.

Now, climate impact in the United States and around the world have also been elevated to national security concerns. The U.S. military has carried out multiple assessments to understand the implications of climate change for its installations, its training, and its missions, and we’ve had recent images of the stakes with the flooding in Nebraska that damaged Offutt Air Base as well as Hurricanes Florence and Michael that caused billions of dollars of damage to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, respectively.

But the national security impacts of climate change go well beyond damage to military bases; the U.S. military’s concern about the effects on countries around the world that are even less well equipped to withstand and recover from climate-related hazards. Those concerns include humanitarian emergencies, competition between groups over water and other resources, the movement of people, state death, increased demands for action, and the potential for political conflicts between countries over responses to climate change.

Let me say a little bit about each one of those. So much as the U.S. response to emergencies at home by mobilizing the National Guard, the U.S. is also well prepared and frequently called upon to respond to international climate-related emergencies like Hurricane Haiyan that blasted the Philippines in 2013 or the deadly floods that affected Pakistan in 2010.

In a world of climate change, we expect to see more of these kinds of intense weather events requiring military mobilization to rescue people. Now, in addition, you will often see news stories warning about water wars between countries or within countries over rivers and other sources of water, and the history of water is actually mostly one of peaceful resolution of conflicts. Since water is essential for life, folks have tried to figure out a way to share water, albeit inequitably.

But the past is no guarantee that future water crises in a world where water supplies are even more constrained will be resolved without violence. That may not be true. And while we don’t fully understand whether and how people will resort to violence in the wake of climate change that affects agricultural output and economic development, we have some understanding that societies heavily reliant on agriculture that have other things that aren’t going well for them like discriminatory political systems that those kinds of countries may be especially prone to climate-related conflicts, and I can talk more about that in the Q&A.

Now, in terms of migration, there are often multiple reasons that push people from their homes and attract them to new places. We have seen more stories like recent ones on Central American migration that highlight the role of climate change as a driver. Where agriculture becomes less possible, we expect to see people move to cities and then, potentially, seek opportunity further afield.

This is a difficult problem to study and it’s much harder to disentangle what role climate factors play in migration, particularly for slower processes like droughts. But that said, we have some evidence to suggest it’ll become increasingly important and we have very few rules in place to think about how to handle these movements, and I think this is especially true for low-lying island nations in the South Pacific like Kiribati and Vanuatu, for whom climate change is likely an existential threat and for which rising seas and saltwater intrusion may make it impossible for people to live on these islands. Where will they go? Who will take them in? Will they become citizens of other nations? Will they become enclave states inside other countries?

As the effects of climate change become clear, there are going to be increased demands for action to address the pollution and the consequences. In the United States, we have seen the aspirational legislative language of the Green New Deal as well as the mobilization of a whole new generation of climate activists around the world with the Friday school strike, the Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion.

We may not be in a good global moment for progress on climate change. But the problem isn’t going anywhere soon, and the political pressure on countries to address climate change will only grow. So how countries handle those calls for action could be as contentious as the physical effects of climate change itself.

Some responses, like biofuels policies that encourage deforestation or international land acquisition to source new supplies of agricultural goods, may lead to political conflict between countries and other efforts like electric vehicles made continue to source increasing amounts of minerals like lithium from politically unstable countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And if there’s shock to agriculture, countries may resort to export bans as Russia did in 2010, which may lead to food price increases around the world and royal food-importing countries as occurred in the lead-up to the Arab Spring. All this is to say that climate change is going to be increasingly important.

One final takeaway is that even if it proves difficult to constrain global temperatures from rising 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, actions to minimize climate change are not an all or nothing affair. Keeping temperatures to 2.5 degrees Celsius increase is better than, say, 3 or 4 degrees Celsius increases. That is just a 5.6, or 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, average temperature increases by the end of the century. Trying to keep it to 2.5 degrees may be the difference between most of the planet remaining habitable for human beings or not, and that is going to require rapid decarbonization of energy systems by the middle of the century and the challenge will be can we get there through collaborative efforts despite massive political differences between countries on a range of other contentious issues including security and economics.

So I’ll stop there and I look forward to your questions.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Josh, very much for that overview. Let’s open it up to the students for their questions and comments.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Justin Delacour with Lewis University. Mr. Delacour?

Q: Thank you. Hi. What kind of event would finally bring world leaders together to try and work out the dilemma of climate change?

BUSBY: Thanks, Justin, for your question. It’s an interesting challenge to think if a single event is going to be sufficient to drive international attention. It may not be a single event but it may be a series of national events in different country contexts. I think what we’re starting to see is as the effect of climate change manifests all around the world that individual leaders in different countries may find this issue more pressing.

So, you know, we’ve seen floods and wildfires across the U.S. and that’s starting to burble up and so it changes the political discussions in vulnerable parts of the country in the U.S. So we’ve seen states like Florida—the political leadership, despite coming from a party that’s normally hostile to action on climate change, I think the Republican governors in Florida have increasingly been willing to think about climate policies as important and I think that will start to transform the national discussion.

One of the interesting things to think about is whether or not other issues might actually push leaders in other countries to embrace actions that could produce benefits on climate change. So air pollution in northern India, if anybody’s been recently, is just terrible and Beijing had similar air quality problems four or five years ago, and that started to change the discussion in those countries about actions that were required to address human health needs now and many of the actions that are required to address air pollution could also produce co-benefits for climate change.

And so I’m not sure if a single event is going to change global minds on this issue but climate-related events around the world are starting to transform the political discussion. But there are other problems like air pollution that may be increasingly salient and can deliver benefits for climate protection if people are smart and strategic about how to mobilize on this question.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Pitzer College.

Q: Thank you very much for your presentation.

Somehow there is some sort of disconnect when you talk about the military being prepared for climate change and what the chief of the military—the commander in chief of the military is doing. Is there a problem for the military that this commander in chief is not on the same page with them?

BUSBY: Thanks very much for that question. I think that the U.S. military has to prepare for a variety of threats and so even if the political discussion decides as a matter of ideology that the problem isn’t worth being concerned about, the military, as a matter of prudence, has to prepare for all eventualities and, you know, as we’ve seen with the damage to military installations that is a pressing concern for them because there isn’t money budgeted for billions of dollars of repair work in the wake of extreme weather events. There isn’t billions of dollars of money set aside for ensuring the functionality of, you know, Norfolk Naval Base against rising sea levels.

And so just as a matter of prudence, the military continues to prepare for this threat and the disconnect is a real one and it’s hard to see a way out of it other than the military continuing to prepare as they have been and we’ll have to see if that has any transformative effect at the top of the political system. But it’s hard to see it in the current moment.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the University of Notre Dame.

Q: Hi. How should we expect climate change to affect stability in South Asia, a place where we’re going to see all of these destabilizing factors at play at the same time, whether it’s water tension, mass migration, famine, or extreme weather? I mean, does the fact that there are multiple nuclear-armed countries there kind of give us a reason to be alarmed?

BUSBY: You know, this is one of the most densely populated regions in the world and much of the climate security analytical work that’s been done by scholars is actually focused on the continent of Africa, and so on some level we don’t have a great appreciation for what the impacts may be.

I think it’s arguably true that given that Pakistan and India are both nuclear weapons states that the tensions between them over, say, issues like—well, political tensions between them are important but there’s always the possibility that political tensions may spill over into other areas that are related to climate change, notably water sharing along the Indus, for which the countries have had extensive water cooperation over the past fifty years despite having fought several wars.

And so the challenge, I think, is going to be whether or not climate change makes water scarcity more of a problem both within those countries but also between them and if the water-sharing agreements get bound up with wider political disagreements. That’s just sort of one set of issues. There are a host of others. You know, both India and Pakistan have had heat wave events that have killed thousands. So this is going to be a major concern. There have been severe flooding events like the ones that happened in Kerala, in India, last year and previously the year before in Chennai in southern India.

The region is also especially prone to cyclones, and countries like Bangladesh that at their founding suffered tremendous losses from cyclone events have done a much better job at becoming resilient to cyclones so that fewer and fewer people have died over the years, and that’s also true in India. But as we saw in 2008 in Myanmar when Cyclone Nargis blasted the country, one hundred and forty thousand people died. And so—and that was a result of a regime that cared little about the fate of its citizens and did little in terms of preparedness or response.

And so the fact that you still have a number of authoritarian regimes within this region suggests that South and Southeast Asia may be prone to large-scale humanitarian emergencies for which they’re ill-equipped, and the fact that you have governments that are sovereignty loving means that they are less inclined to cooperate with each other on issues of mutual concern.

And so all of these things bode ill for the region, though I would say that rising incomes and state capacity may make it possible for states to do more to prepare themselves. But I suspect in a number of cases it won’t be enough to ward off some very terrible consequences.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from New Mexico Junior College.

Q: Hi. I just wanted to ask about the potential for Western—well, not just Western countries but democracies in general. How much potential is there for addressing climate change in a kind of tragedy of the commons type landscape where, you know, countries are competing against one another for resources?

How are—how are we supposed to get democratic systems to react and comprehensively manage climate change when in many cases these systems seem incapable of addressing nearer kind of problems like I’d say—I would say gun violence in the United States, for example? It’s been decades since Columbine and we’re still unable to do really anything about that. So what—how do we—how do democratic systems go about addressing climate change and inaction?

BUSBY: Right. Well, that’s a terrific question and it raises fundamental concerns about the capacity of democratic countries to respond to a variety of issues. European countries have had greater political preoccupation with climate change in part because they have—many of them have parliamentary systems that give green parties an opportunity to be represented in parliament and that has often made them sort of swing groups in countries like Germany that has enabled environmental concerns to actually be more politically salient to the leadership to take on board.

In this country, we have two catch-all parties. Environmental concerns often rank near the bottom of public opinion polls and there’s no sort of equivalent of a Green Party that actually has a chance of being represented in government to have those concerns be actively taken up in the political system and what’s even more concerning is that one political party owns the environment and the other political party has increasingly abandoned competition—both political competition and competition in ideas for, you know, ways to move forward on this issue.

And so I think it really starts at the level of public mobilization. In this country, the sort of squeaky wheel gets the grease and the squeaky wheels in response to the Parkland shooting of massive student violence have changed at least at the state level. But we’ve also seen, like, the bump stock ban has gone through at the federal level.

And so, you know, the fact that we’re starting to see a mass movement for climate action that started with but has extended to, you know, the Sunrise Movement and others, you know, at the end of the day, we are not going to have a responsive political system unless voters in larger numbers are preoccupied and raise this as an issue of concern on the campaign trail.

I think it’s interesting to see the Green New Deal as being kind of front and center in the Democratic Party primary debates. I would hope that Republicans in time both at the presidential level but also at the congressional level start to compete in a contest of ideas over what form the Green New Deal type set of policies should look like. But it’s kind of incumbent upon us at the individual level if we are concerned about this set of issues—climate and other environmental concerns—to let our legislators know that we care.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Fenridge (ph) University.

Q: Oh, I’m sorry. Hello. I wanted to ask a question relating to our energy resources. So there’s been a lot of attention and technological, I guess, development on addressing carbon emissions in transportation, electrical grids, but in a particular lecture we had here on campus one area where there hasn’t been much progress is heat production for winter—I mean, for commercial and residential use.

And so I guess maybe we didn’t get to talking about what are alternatives to heating. But now that, you know, there’s an abundance of LNG resources, especially in the United States, what are solutions that maybe other countries are implementing that can be implemented in the United States and abroad to address heating while, you know, transportation and electrical grids are, largely, transforming or moving in a positive direction, rather? Thank you.

BUSBY: Thanks very much for that question. I guess there’s—you start to read some sentiment in environmental circles about this idea of that kind of electrification of everything and that’s based on this notion that some sectors are maybe hard to decarbonize to reduce their emissions or eliminate them entirely unless they are fully electrified. And so one could imagine that home heating could be fully electric in a number of instances rather than, say, reliant on natural gas and that in time we could imagine that—a wider electrical grid that is increasingly powered by renewables.

Right now, it’s—coal is declining as a share, renewables are rising, and much of the increase of penetration of natural gas has sort of driven coal to the margins and there’s still sort of a remnant nuclear segment.

So, I mean, there are other things that people can do in terms of energy efficiency of homes. But the ultimate power source has got to come from something and I tend to think that there may be more opportunities for electrification in the heating space as well and we’re going to see more pressures for electrification writ large.

But that will ultimately hinge on there being, you know, a wider supply of renewables within the electricity sector and it’s kind of a sliver at the moment. And if natural gas is at least for the next, you know, decade or more going to continue to be a sort of bridge fuel we’ve got to do a lot more to address methane leakage and emissions in that sector. But that’s my general take on heat production.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Howard University.

Q: Hi. My name is Kennedy Boyd (sp). I’m a senior international business major from Howard University.

And so we actually have two questions. Our first question is how do you think that recent large-scale environmental disasters like the wildfire in Greece, for example, affect international views on global climate change, since they are part of an economic union?

Q: Hi. My name is Kayla Dillard. I’m also a senior international business major at Howard University.

My question is, I understand that climate change is a largely political issue. But I was curious what your standpoint was on what changes can be made at a corporate level such as government restrictions on some corporations or for corporate social responsibility for large businesses that create dangerous emissions or exploit natural resources.

BUSBY: Super. Thanks for those questions.

I think the climate-related disasters may ultimately, in countries like Greece and other places, create greater political pressure on—so coming from the public to—for action and it’s going to be action both to address the causes of the fires in the first place but also the consequences. So there’s going to be increased public pressure that flows from these events to say we got to do something and that doing something is reducing emissions in the first place but also preparing for the consequences because at this point some amount of climate change is inevitable. So we have to make our cities and societies more resilient and able to withstand changes in temperature, flooding, wildfires.

We have to sort of climate-proof our infrastructure and ensure that, you know, people aren’t living in harm’s way and that if they are exposed to extreme weather events and other kinds of dislocative effects of climate change that their governments are willing and able to respond effectively.

Now, in terms of corporate social responsibility and what this means for private companies, I think we’re seeing a number of effects: one, that companies themselves may have facilities that are vulnerable to climate hazards and find that they need to take out measures to reduce their physical vulnerability of their factories and supply chains. And so that’s got to be incorporated as a matter of prudence into their business planning in the same way that the military is doing that kind of work.

But it’s also—you know, we’re seeing the mobilization not just of sort of protestors and publics but investors that are worried that companies that invest in, say, energy resources of yesterday like coal are going to ultimately be less profitable in the long run and maybe stick those kinds of companies with stranded assets that are going to become less valuable over time. And so there’s pressure from investors for companies to figure out what their climate policies are and maybe to move increasingly out of fossil-intensive industries, and we’re seeing that some firms may have trouble getting insurance if they are not responsible either on the physical effects and vulnerability of their facility side or in terms of the kinds of industries that they’re involved in.

I think that’s maybe truer in Western democracies. It’s less true in, say, fast-growing countries like Asia and countries in Asia. And so the interesting question will be will Chinese firms in particular get the message that they need to be responsible players as well, many of which have closer ties to the government, to be sure. So we’ll have to watch this space.

FASKIANOS: And, Joshua, are we seeing also pressure from employees, especially at corporate entities?

BUSBY: That’s an interesting question about whether employees are pressing their employers to have more responsible positions. I haven’t seen as much of that in the work that I have read. I imagine that it might be happening. But maybe—I’m not—I haven’t seen any instances of employees sort of talking to their employers in a way that’s led to dramatic change. But that may be just lack of awareness of individual instances of that.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Your line is open.

Q: Yes. Hello. Thank you. I was wondering if you could speak to some of the power asymmetries before—between more powerful and less powerful states and, specifically, I’m thinking about the U.S. and Mexico in regards to water scarcity—the Colorado River and the Rio Grande River. How do you see something like that playing out between powerful and less powerful states? Thank you.

BUSBY: That’s a great question. One of the challenges that you see with these sorts of powers asymmetries is that there isn’t fair distribution of natural resources and so, you know, that’s true, I think, between U.S. and Mexico. Also it’s going to be true between, say, Israel and Palestine over water, and it’s hard to see a way out of that.

You know, the—especially if the weaker party is downstream there are fewer opportunities for redress of grievances and so it requires some farsighted thinking of the upstream more powerful party to think that sharing of essential resources is—on a more equitable basis is necessary to avoid sort of negative externalities in terms of the kinds of things that you might see if Mexico doesn’t do well and there aren’t opportunities for people who are relying on some of those water resources in Mexico—do they decide to pick up and look for opportunities elsewhere.

And so I think that it may be incumbent upon the U.S. to think about the long view, that some measure of cooperation and more equitable water sharing is going to be in the country’s long-run interest because Mexico’s success ultimately is better for U.S.-Mexico’s relations.

I think, you know, these kinds of issues on, say, the Colorado River are going to become increasingly challenging to manage within the U.S. alone, given increased water scarcity in the Southwest, and so I expect to see the dimensions of this—that actually the domestic sort of jockeying for water are going to be especially severe and test the U.S. capacity for—not violent conflict resolution but just, you know, the political ability to make hard choices and to think about, you know, more responsible and efficient use of water all along the river systems and that is going to be increasingly important in areas where river bases are experiencing increased water scarcity. That’ll have a domestic component but also a trans-border component as well.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

FASKIANOS: Josh, can you talk a little bit about the Arctic and how the ice caps that are melting there will alter geopolitics in the region?

BUSBY: Sure. It’s an interesting thing to think about, that the Arctic is now increasingly ice-free for longer periods of time over the course of the year, which has enabled a number of different routes for transit to open up and to be considered increasingly commercially viable and that’s led to some scramble between countries including countries like Russia to assert their legal claims to parts of the Arctic in part because there are underlying hydrocarbon resources that may be increasingly accessible.

So if countries can assert some legal claims based on their continental shelf or other aspects may be able to assert that those resources are theirs for the taking, which would be, on some level, tremendously unfortunate, given that access to those hydrocarbons are just going to make the climate problem worse.

So you have the prospect of increased navigation in the Arctic but also that might mean, you know, increased risks of accidents and so what are the kind of collective coordination and problem-solving measures that are going to be taken to—how will we be prepared to respond to minimize the risk of large-scale accidents, which in turn could—you know, if it’s oil tankers or what have you, could—or other—or just large numbers of people on a tour boat that get stranded in the middle of nowhere how are we going to be prepared to respond.

And so there are instruments like the Arctic Council that are trying to figure out a equitable and prepared policy for this—the changes in the region—and there are other instruments like the Law of the Sea Treaty that the U.S. sort of acts in accordance with but has not found it within its capability to ratify it despite it having been negotiated in the Reagan era in the ’80s and being supported by the U.S. military, business community, and the environmentalists.

So it’s—I think the Arctic and the U.S. ability to kind of assert its interests in this part of the world are somewhat attenuated, not least of which is why its absence from the Law of the Sea Treaty but also because, unlike some other countries, the U.S. has not invested much in icebreakers so that it has less capability than other countries, Russia in particular, of navigating in this part of the world.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Babson College.

Q: Oh, hello. Thank you so much for your talk today. I just wanted to ask about what you may be seeing in your research as—in regards to human trafficking and the link with climate change. It’s something that I don’t think we talk about as much, and I was just curious in your research if you had seen any links with different populations that have been impacted by climate change and have a loss of economic livelihood in a traditional setting and have forced migration and then created a vulnerable population for human trafficking. Thank you so much.

BUSBY: Thanks for that question. I haven’t seen anybody address the human trafficking dimension of that. There may be journalists that are discussing it anecdotally but I haven’t seen any focused study on it by academics. I mean, one of the interesting things that—you know, there have been no shortage of newspaper and magazine accounts of late on the climate component of migration from Central America of late which, you know, might also have some tie-in to human trafficking if people are seeking the assistance of coyotes to help them move from Central America to the U.S. and then fall foul of unscrupulous folks who then, you know, have them conscripted into indentured work of sorts in the sex trade and what have you.

I haven’t seen anybody write about that and I’m a little worried that people are trying to fix a narrative about the climate component of this migration story from Central America with little attention to detail about, you know, like the numbers of migrants that have come from Guatemala and El Salvador have increased.

They’re much lower than the historic highs of Mexican migration in the ’90s and, yet, El Salvador’s migration has declined of late. And, you know, so there’s a sort of dry belt of agriculture that affects Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to some degree, and I can understand that the farmers are leaving, you know, and trying to find their way maybe first to, you know, major cities and then thinking about maybe joining family members in the U.S.

But what accounts for the difference between El Salvador migration patterns and Guatemala and Honduras? And then the political dimensions that we’re seeing of late in Guatemala in terms of increased human rights abuses, those get less traction in these stories in the New Yorker and the New York Times and there’s considerable emphasis on climate.

But the political piece of it that’s creating large-scale violence, not just gang violence but also reprisals by the state against ethnic minorities, that sort of gets dropped and then we sort of place almost all the blame on this sort of climate phenomenon that—and I have a problem with that. I think that’s not responsible—fully responsible journalism.

It’s an incomplete account and we need to—you know, that makes the story messier and less, you know, kind of fitting for a news hook that says, you know, climate driving migration from Central America. But I think it’s all of a piece and we need to not just make climate the cause of all the things that are bad in the world.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you. Our next question will come from NYU Center for Global

Q: Hi. Yes. I have a question. What do you think the role of climate justice or reparations should be in responding to these kinds of existential threats that you were speaking of? Do you think that advanced industrial countries should take on a larger responsibility?

BUSBY: You know, so there have been incredible or increased demands for adaptation assistance as we’ve increasingly come to understand that there’s some amount of climate changes happening inevitable and there are countries in harm’s way that are going to require assistance. I think the—so there have been commitments like those made in Copenhagen and reaffirmed in Paris for the rich countries of the world to mobilize up to a hundred billion dollars a year in public and private finance for developing countries with not much clarity about how much of that is for mitigation, say, reducing emissions, and how much of that is for adaptation, which is preparing for the consequences.

On top of that, there have been new demands for sort of loss and damage—a sort of climate reparations, if you will, for countries that are affected by climate change. The problem, I think, is that we live in an unjust world and that we’re not making good on those commitments on mitigations and adaptation. And so it’s hard for me to see that calls for loss and damage or climate reparations, particularly the word reparations may—I don’t know.

I don’t think that we’re going to have many takers for the call for loss and damage and so the more interesting question is are there countries, say, in the South Pacific that can assert their voices in a way that leads to a response from other countries that helps them and that help maybe financial but it also may be planning for relocation and what that will look like. You know, Kiribati bought land in Fiji as a, you know, means of preparation.

New Zealand has started to think about some new visa programs to allow people’s movement. I think those kinds of discussions on the margins are going to be important. But a larger narrative of loss and damage—I mean, maybe it’ll coalesce into something that’s more political influential.

But I tend to think that if rich countries aren’t making good on those commitments for climate finance for mitigation and adaptation, they’re not going to do it for loss and damage because that just opens up a whole Pandora’s Box, I suppose of, unending calls for large-scale wealth transfer that I don’t think are politically popular. They may be morally and ethically defensible. But I don’t know if they’re going to happen.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the University of Notre Dame.

Q: Hi. So I’m with the Notre Dame International Security Center undergraduate certificate program and I was wondering how do you see climate change altering the security dynamics between the United States and China? Do you think it could really affect the balance of power significantly in what will become a bipolar system in the future?

BUSBY: That’s a great question. So in the Foreign Affairs piece I talked about how, despite tensions between the U.S. and China on, say, the South China Sea, that this is an issue of mutual vulnerability and they need to figure out ways to cooperate since, you know, China is responsible for 27 percent of global emissions and the U.S. is responsible for about 15 percent. Now, that—and China’s emissions have scaled up dramatically and surpassed the U.S. for the first time just in 2006.

And so this is a really critical issue and one of the ways that I’ve been thinking about it is can you make geostrategic competition between the two countries work for climate protection, not against it, right. So in 2009 at the Copenhagen climate negotiations, Hillary Clinton kind of cleaved the developing country consensus and unanimity of support for the G-77 position by coming up with that $100 billion pledge that I talked about a few minutes ago and that, basically, put developing countries and China on different sides of the fence, and China ended up looking like the climate scofflaw at the negotiations of not being a responsible party because they were dragging their feet on greater climate commitments and the U.S. was sort of dangling this prospect of greater climate finance, which was attractive for some of those low-lying island countries and others that I talked about.

And so there is the possibility in the future that countries will increasingly become angry at the parties that are responsible for the larger share of emissions and so the stigma of being the bad climate actor will harm the ability of China or the U.S. to build kind of coalitions of support for things that they care about. So if the U.S. and China aren’t doing anything on climate, they’re going to find it increasingly hard to find support for things that they care about.

So we’ve seen that of late where there are countries in Europe that are unwilling to sign a free trade agreement with the U.S. because of the Trump administration’s climate policy and I think that countries are going to increasingly find it difficult and be less happy with China’s international posture on climate change unless it becomes more of a responsible party, not just because of its emissions at home but also because of its actions abroad.

So China—25 percent of the coal-burning power plants that are being built outside of China and India are being financed by China. And so I think the—trying to have a race to the top between the U.S. and China for—to outdo each other as climate protectors as part of a geostrategic competition could be good for climate protection. But the dynamic that we have in the current moment is a race to the bottom.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Howard University.

Q: Hello. I’m Sabri Harvey (ph), senior international business major at Howard University.

And I wanted to know what the recent icecap melting and as well as with the sea levels rising I wanted to know, using the U.S. as an example, what measures are we taking as far as the coastal regions being improved upon for future natural disasters and relocation of American citizens from those areas just in case of those areas being no longer valuable resources for us to live on in the future. Thank you.

BUSBY: Thanks for that question. So the previous Obama administration had done some important work to analyze what the effects of sea level rise may mean for coastal cities and so they did some modeling work, not just for cities but also looking at the effects on energy systems and energy infrastructure like pipelines and refineries and other kinds of energy assets along coasts. And in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, there were heroic efforts undertaken by the city of New York under Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership to try to think about climate proofing the infrastructure in New York to be less vulnerable in the future to both sea level rise and storm surge.

Since that time, I think we have a government that’s committed to a strategy of—an ostrich strategy of burying its head in the sand and pretending that these risks aren’t there or, at the very least, you know, even if entities within the U.S. federal government like FEMA are still thinking about natural disaster risks, they’re loathe to talk about climate change for fear of eliciting, you know, bad blood from political leaders in the White House. And so that is not a winning strategy of preparedness.

Now, you still have state-level efforts that are happening in parts of the country where you have leadership that’s willing to countenance this threat. But, you know, I think most efforts at the federal government in terms of coastal preparedness seem to be on hold, although there may be some, you know, research efforts that continue to be supported. But I’m not optimistic that this particular administration is going to be especially forward leaning in preparing us for those eventualities.

There have been some isolated cases of, you know, islands off the coast of Louisiana that are being increasingly inundated. I think there’s some efforts to help move people and I think we’ve seen some similar efforts in Maryland. But they’re not farsighted or especially well coordinated, as far as I know.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. We are almost—we have a couple minutes left and, Josh, I wanted to just ask you if there’s anything you wanted to leave us with before we close the call.

BUSBY: Well, I just wanted to come back to that point I made at the end of my remarks that, you know, even if we are unable to restrain global temperature rates from increasing 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, that’s an arbitrary number and efforts that get us to 2.2 or 2.5 or 2.6 are just a hell of a lot better than 3 or 4 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. And so it’s the effort. It’s the struggle. It’s the concerted strategic mobilization by people who care about this issue to make this a successful effort and I think that’s the fight that’s worth having. And, you know, we can’t just give up and throw up our hands because that would consign us and our kids and our grandkids to an unlivable future.

FASKIANOS: And you—what do you tell your students and what would you leave the group with in terms of what they can do in their community?

BUSBY: Vote. Mobilize. You can take individual actions at the household level. You know, you could get an electric vehicle or you can, you know, if resources permit, but and there are other things that people can do to conserve energy. But at the end of the day, this is a collective action problem that requires political leadership and so I think the most important thing that people can do is find change agents who believe that this is a real problem.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Joshua Busby. We really appreciate your being with us. I commend to all of you his Foreign Affairs article. Also, I neglected to mention it but you can follow Dr. Busby on Twitter at @BusbyJ2. So go there and follow his Twitter.

This concludes our winter/spring Academic Conference Call Series. Good luck with your finals, commencements. We hope that you have a wonderful summer and we look forward to reconvening again in the fall in September. We will be sharing the fall lineup in probably the next month or so.

So, again, thank you very much for being with us, Josh. I also encourage you to visit and follow us on Twitter at @CFR_Campus. Thank you again to all of you for your participation and have a great summer.


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