Academic Webinar: Climate Justice

Wednesday, September 21, 2022
Eloisa Lopez

Professor and Dean Emeritus, Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University


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

Adil Najam, professor and dean emeritus of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, leads the conversation on climate justice.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to today’s session of the Fall 2022 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR.

Today’s discussion is on the record, and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Adil Najam with us to talk about climate justice. Dr. Najam is professor of international relations and Earth and environment and dean emeritus of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Previously he served as vice chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan, and as a director of the Boston University Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future. He has also taught at MIT and Tufts University and served on the UN Committee on Development and on Pakistan’s Advisory Council on Foreign Affairs. Dr. Najam was a coauthor for the Third and Fourth Assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, and has served on various boards and written over a hundred scholarly papers and book chapters.

So, Dr. Najam, thank you for being with us today to talk about this very important topic. Can you talk a little bit about what climate justice is, and why it is so important for international relations?

NAJAM: Thank you. Thank you, Irina. It’s wonderful to be here. It’s wonderful to see a lot of participants here. So I’m looking forward to this conversation. I want to just maybe sort of frame a few ideas in the next ten, fifteen minutes on global climate justice. And I purposely added the “global” to it. I am very happy, and I hope we will have a discussion also and questions on domestic climate justice, because climate justice is not simply a global issue. It is a live issue in many countries—all countries, actually, including in the United States.

I want to focus on the global aspect partly because I think we in recent years don’t focus enough on it, and because I think it’s about to hit the ceiling. I think we will hear a lot about it in the coming months in this year and going forward, including because of Pakistan, which is where I’m from and where I was literally sort of two days ago. And this background you see behind me is Lahore University of Management Sciences. And I say that because of the massive floods that you and your viewers have been reading about. In many ways, that has brought not only for Pakistan but for the world this issue of global climate justice back into focus, as the UN secretary-general came to Pakistan, and all that.

If you allow me to just share a few slides to say a bit about what climate justice is, I’m hoping you see a black screen now, and you see my name sort of coming up. If people are seeing that and they are seeing my slides. I won’t go into the details of sort of who I am. You have done that. But I wanted to use this to contextualize a couple of questions around this. And the first one of this is about what I was just saying, which is we are beginning to sort to think again about what the climate is telling us. Not want we want from the climate, but we are now at a point in climate change reality where the climate is giving us signals, and it is giving us signals about justice.

The second is, just to raise a few questions and thoughts about what I call the age of adaptation, which essentially—I’m assuming all your viewers know the difference between mitigation and adaptation. We have been fixated, as we should have been, about mitigation, which is what can we do to keep climate change from happening. The fact is, we have failed. The fact is, we are now in what I call the age of adaptation where, at least by my calculation, about 2.5 billion—2 ½ billion people—are now having to adapt to global climate change, including, for example, the thirty million Pakistanis who were displaced in these recent floods.

And what that means for climate justice is that in the age of climate adaptation, justice becomes much more of an issue. Because let’s just put it up there to think about what that means as individual countries, beginning developing countries now, the impacts are happening on the people who have very little and sometimes nothing to do with causing the problem. And then the argument becomes, well, you have a fingerprint. You live in Boston. You have been emitting many times more than, for example, your brother living in Pakistan. And yet, the impacts there are happening to people who have got nothing to do with it, and that’s the justice argument, right? And that leads to what we call sort of talks of reparation. That leads to loss and damage, which is a language that you hear a lot about.

And finally, this question of why is climate now and in the future essentially a justice issue? And I would add, you know, essentially is the key thing that I mention there. It is good to see people on Zoom, though Zoom is not essentially my favorite medium. I think the only good thing it does is we can change our backgrounds. That was me teaching my class on sustainable development last year. But that’s not the point. The point I want to come to about climate justice is the following: That, as I said, we are coming to a head. I think you have done this literally at the point when we are coming to a head. And the reason we are coming to a head is, A, the age of adaptation I talked about and, B, sort of where we are in this post-Paris, the climate agreement, world.

And there were two essential things that came out of that. One was this number. And if you count the zeros there, I don’t know how many of the people sort of, find it easy when there are that many zeros, but that’s 100 billion. That’s the number that came out of Paris, saying that’s the amount that will be invested in developing countries in particular, per year, on climate adaptation as well as mitigation. I’ll only put the point out there, why this is a climate issue. It hasn’t materialized. The last couple of climate negotiations were entirely about that. And therefore, you have a lot of countries that are now beginning to face the impacts saying: We in good faith went and started doing something about this issue that wasn’t even of our making on this agreement that the world would come together. And the world hasn’t come together.

The reality of climate is even more stark. These two numbers that you’re all familiar with, 1.5 and two (degrees). The fact of the matter is, I know of no science at this point where 1.5 (degrees) can actually be achieved. I hope I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I think we cling to the hope, but just from a reality perspective 1.5 (degrees) is nearly out of the game. And two (degrees) may be very closely coming to the game. And that is making a lot of countries very scared. If you remember why 1.5 (degrees) came, it is that Paris actually wanted a two-degree target. And then the small, especially island, states said: By two degrees we aren’t there. It’s existential for us. We are underwater, or nearly underwater.

So what I’m trying to set up here is that there’s a moment that we are in global affairs where this issue of climate justice is just boiling. If I—if you will allow me just a bit—you know, we often talk about 2020 because of COVID as a year like no other. Let me remind us what else was happening other than COVID in that year. Why it was really a year like no other. January 2020, hottest January ever—ever recorded since we started recording. February, second hottest ever recorded. March, second hottest. April, second hottest ever. May, hottest ever. You see the pattern here, right?

And you remember seeing these. You might have tweeted about it. By July, no one was tweeting about it because the cat was more interesting—the dancing cat. And we had started getting used to this, you know, just barrage of climate data coming every month. Eight out of those twelve, as far as I can tell, records have been broken since then. Why am I putting this as climate justice? Again, you have a lot of places in the world—floods in Pakistan being one, heat in India being another, floods in Bangladesh being another—all across the world who are now seeing that impact in the age of adaptation.

I’ll give you just two very quick other pictures, and then come to the climate—sort of, you know, open up very soon. And why I mean—why I state that we are in the age of adaptation, right? I hope people can see this. I some years ago decided I’m not going to put future data on climate. This is recorded, past data for every month ever since we started keeping climate records. So this is not about what will happen. This is about what has happened. And this ends around 2016. You can take it to 2022 now. And it starts touching 1.5 (degrees) even more. Touching 1.5 (degrees) doesn’t really mean that the barrier has been crossed because sort of, you know, that’s the way sort of it’s counted. But you see the pattern again.

And you see, again, for a lot of countries—and it’s not just countries. For the poorest people in the countries. This is true about the Pakistan floods, for example. If you look at the floods, it’s not the affluent in Pakistan whose homes get sort of blown away. It is the poorest. So essentially what we are seeing is that the poorest people, the most vulnerable people around the world, are paying the cost of our inaction—my inaction, other—(inaudible)—inaction, right? Now, you might be saying, that’s fine, but I don’t live on the planet. I live in a particular place. So choose your place. Same data. For every point on Earth that we have data for, ever since we have data on climate.

So what I’m trying to say is the age of adaptation is here. Just look at that picture. Choose the place you are interested in, and you start seeing that pattern. And if we are in the age of adaptation, once people start seeing impacts, right, they’re starting to see impacts. As soon as you start seeing impacts, you start demanding a very different sort of action. And that’s where—that’s where climate justice comes. Let me show a quick map. This is actually an old map, 2014. But the interesting thing—the reason I still use is it’s from Standard & Poor’s. It’s from a rating agency of risk. And if you look at that map, and you look at the red countries where the impacts are the most immediate, and you start thinking about where the emissions are coming from, this tells you what the climate justice argument globally is.

One very last—one very last point, and then I move to you. That while it is a global issue, it is also a domestic issue. And again, we think of climate justice by linking it to other justice issues, as we should. I’m only putting one picture here. What happened in the age of adaptation that makes it a justice issue? One of the things that happens is it immediately changes from an energy issue—a primarily energy issue, to a predominantly water issue. When you’re thinking about mitigation, right—mostly when we talk about the climate, we talk about how we can reduce emissions. And as soon as you talk emissions, you’re essentially talking energy. You’re essentially carbon management, right? You’re bringing down carbon emission. Most of them are in energy. And therefore, a lot of our policy is about that.

As soon as you start talking age of adaptation, a lot of it is about water. What do I mean by that? Think about impacts. When you think about what’s happened, not just in Pakistan. I’m using the Pakistan example because I’ve just come from there but think about wherever you are. A lot of the immediate impacts are about water. Water rises, sea-level rise. Water melts, glaciers. Water disappears, drought. Water falls from the sky like no one’s business, extreme events. That’s what a flood looks like in a country like Pakistan, but it’s not just Pakistan. It’s many other countries.

And again, if it becomes water, it immediately becomes something that affects the poorest people, the most vulnerable people, the most marginalized people, and those who have historically been least responsible. To give you just a picture of what a flood like this means in Pakistan, this is from 2010. But if you look at that blue squiggle, that’s the area covered by the flood. That blue, the dark blue and light blue, is the severe and very severe. I put that on a map to scale of the U.S. to give a sense of what is covered like what you see in that picture. It’s up from Vermont down to Florida. I put it on the map of Japan, it covers the whole country. I put it on a map of Europe, Denmark to France.

And the point of that is now you are in this moment that I’m talking about where it becomes a justice issue because within developing countries there is this immense pressure of climate being see as a reality, right? And that pressure then starts pushing domestic politics, and domestic politics start pushing international politics. So that’s my context of climate justice, as we see it.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much for that sobering overview. And I think the slides that you showed really bring it to life and make it so much—you see it really so starkly. So thank you for that. So now we want to go to all of you for your questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

So now I’m just going to go to questions and see—we have several raised hands. OK. So I’m going to take the first question from Fordham University. I don’t know who’s asking the question, so please let us know who you are.

Q: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for the discussion. My name is (inaudible), representing the International Political and Economic Development—I’m part of that program.

And my question is just in regards to what we’re currently seeing. So I’m originally from South Africa and the just transition was a very topical point when it came to climate change and climate adaptation. And there was a push for the emerging markets to actually adopt renewable energy, moving away from coal. However, we see that recently, with the Russian and Ukrainian war, there has been an increase in demand and exports from Africa to the northern regions for coal. And you see that certain regions, such as Germany, has started powering up their coal-powered station, due to the lack of energy that they’ll see from the Russian nation.

So my question is, what is the impact of what we see with this event being the war, and the impact on the increase in coal? And what does this mean for climate adaptation? Especially from regions from Europe, where African regions will be looking to them to actually see them adapting this change in climate and energy, I guess.

NAJAM: Irina, do you want to take a few questions and then come back, or? Whichever way you want.

FASKIANOS: I think we should just go—let’s go through them one at a time.

NAJAM: Sure. Sure. Thank you for that question. It has many layers. I’ll pick up on a few. And the first one is that you are exactly right. In a world that is crisis prone, in a world that is turbulent—we saw that with COVID, we are seeing that with the economic turmoil of COVID that still continues in all sorts of ways, and we’ve seen that with the war in Ukraine—climate comes as this sort of—you know, we used to say climate is a threat multiplier. And now I think climate is the threat, and everything else is multiplied.

And so we should expect that climate is going to be exacerbated by all these other things, and these other things are going to be exacerbated by climate. So what you are talking about in terms of energy is one issue, but as I talked to my friends in Africa, it is not just energy. Food, for example, is going to be hit equally hard. So in terms of energy, in terms of the Ukraine war, we see that not just in Africa but in other parts of the world. We see it in some places in coal. We see it all places in oil prices. But what is—what is hitting Africa particularly hard, for example, is food.

Now, what does that have to do with climate adaptation? What it has to do with climate adaptation is that it comes at a time when the stress on food production—because, for example, water stress is already there, right? So that’s the multiplier thing. One of the most difficult things I find in my work for policymakers is that they want clarity. And I keep telling them, there isn’t clarity. There isn’t going to be clarity. This is why the floods, for example, were important. Immediately the question is, but how do we know this is because of climate? We’ve had floods before, right? Or we have had droughts before.

And what is now becoming increasingly clear is it’s not like climate is going to give you a new set of issues. It is going to take the issues and do two things. One, the magnitude increases. And two, the frequency goes berserk, because whatever you thought was a twenty-year flood or a fifteen-year drought, now you have no way of doing it. And that creates an uncertainty for developing countries. But the justice question really—the justice question is that whose fingerprint is on it? And that’s the one that I would say you should keep—it is not going to be made for good politics. What I say is coming, I am very scared, because the politics it leads to is the politics of division.

Till now we’ve had the politics on climate mostly—you know, even if it’s ineffective—it’s about mostly in the form of let’s all come together, it’s a common problem. What you saw in these floods—and the reason I keep mentioning it—one important thing is the UN secretary-general goes to Pakistan and for the first time clearly says: This is because of climate. That means, you know, this is coming from the top. You hear it at the top, and that is going to lead to a divisive politics.

FASKIANOS: So there’s a written question from Mark Hallim, who’s a doctoral student, global security student, at the American Military University.

How can climate change be achieved without leadership, political will, and development by nation-state leaders?

NAJAM: (Laughs.) Not easily. Not easily. (Laughter.) Not easily. The fact, Mark, you said, right?

FASKIANOS: Mark, yes.

NAJAM: Mark. The fact, Mark, is that we have been kicking this one down the road. And that’s why we are confronting it. Till now—you know, I’ve been on this thing for at least thirty years. I was at Rio in 1992. I’ve been following the climate for nearly at every COP, at least until Copenhagen. And it’s not that the issue is new. We knew this from the beginning. The hope, the hope—because those of us who work on climate are essentially optimists. We want this problem to be licked. The hope was that we won’t come to the age of adaptation. The hope was that we would do enough on mitigation, right? What is adaptation? It’s the failure of mitigation. We would do enough that we wouldn’t come to this point of finger pointing. And therefore, it is going to become more and more difficult.

Now, interestingly, again, if—the most important thing that’s happened in climate justice, to answer your question, this last week—I still haven’t read the exact document. But for the first time a country, in this case Denmark, has said that they are going to acknowledge the principle of loss and damage. Now, this is huge. For those of us who study—so, I’m assuming all of our audience are people who study this. Loss and damage, what’s loss and damage? You know, it’s just words. But it is more than words, if you take it seriously. Loss and damage means that if there is loss to someone or damage to someone, those who are responsible for it will somehow pay for it.

We don’t do international relations like that. There are nearly no other areas in which we have things like that. I think what Denmark is trying, to answer Mark’s question, is saying: Let us restart, rethinking how we do climate assistance and climate aid, to address loss and damage. The challenge—the reason I’m scared about this is, imagine—you know, not even imagine. You don’t have to imagine. Just remember what happened in the summer. You had about twenty countries that had potentially climatically induced massive events—whether they were of heat, whether they were of fire, whether they were of drought, right?

You get a planet where you see more and more of these things happening. It is not just the appetite for assistance. It is simply the capacity for assistance that will go. One last line, because I want to hear from others. And at the same time you have climate justice issues within developing countries, right? Now you have to choose between climate justice within the U.S. and countries elsewhere also pushing. That is why I’m insisting that it doesn’t make for pretty politics.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Isaac Alston-Voyticky, who has raised your hand.

Q: Thank you very much. Can you hear me?



Q: Great. So I’m actually a CUNY law student.

And I am working on kind of the intersection between technology and environmental change. And I have kind of a combination question. First, what are your predictions for the combination of sea level rise and tides for mean higher high-water levels? For example, can we predict that higher sea level will actually have an effect on tidal highs and lows outside of the traditional modeling? And then, as a follow up to that, are there any models or maps out there which illustrate combination climate data. One of the most annoying things I find in my research is that, for example, NOAA’s sea level rise and tidal flooding can’t be compounded on its interactive map. They don’t show what will happen when sea level rises and tides also happen. So I don’t know if there’s anything out there.

NAJAM: Isaac, I’ll be honest. I don’t know the answer to that, to the technical part of that. But the question is very, very good from a policy side. And I’m particularly happy that you’re coming from a law direction to this. So what policymakers often want, and they are also disturbed, just like you are, they want clear answers, right? I’ve been working on this for years. And they say, well, tell us what climate will do to my agriculture. I say, I don’t know. I wish I did. I wish I could tell you it will be ten times worse, this or that. Because then at least you would have something to plan with. The thing about climate change is not just the climate, it is the change.

What makes it scary is that we don’t know what the change will be. But let me—let me, in not answering your question—not knowing the answer to the technical part—I have not seen those maps either. And I do not know what the combination is. There are many people I know who are as worried about that combination as you are, particularly in small island states. Because what people are realizing is that it’s not going to be one thing at one time. You get here, and you get hit there, and then you get hit in the face again, right? And again, just because of what—where I’m coming from, I’ll give you the Pakistan example.

These floods that you’ve been hearing about, actually, the flood isn’t that bad. Pakistan is used to floods, and it isn’t that bad. Something happened there which was in some ways synonymous to what you are talking about. What happened is that six weeks before the floods, there was massive heat and near drought, which means you essentially get a clay soil, right, that has been totally depleted. Three weeks before what we call the floods, there was massive rain—monsoon which was seven times the expected normal—seven times. And those were the first pictures that came. And again, that is clearly because of climate. Seven times doesn’t happen.

You know, and they came. And what that meant was on totally dry land they created this sort of lake effect, the type of picture you saw. And then came a flood which was higher than usual, but would have been manageable. Why am I giving you this example? That’s the one punch, two punch, three punch, much like your tides. Now, if you are a small island country, that’s what you are worried about. You are worried about that even if sea level rise on its own you can deal with in adaptation, you can prepare for. What happens when that happens, and the tidal change happens? It is the uncertainty—what makes climate particularly unpredictable is the uncertainty of what we are seeing, not simply the magnitude of the change.

Now, and this is particularly true for sea level rise. I am an optimist still. I think we are a wise enough species, particularly for sea level rise. We are able to change our life patterns and where we live. We have technology in many places to deal with it. But the reason we worry about is not because sort of—you know, it’s not like Hollywood, where New York will be half underwater. I really don’t think that will happen. I think we will get—come to our senses well before that. But it is this one-two-three punch of multiple climatic events happening together. Sorry I don’t have a technical answer to your question, but it is a very good question.

FASKIANOS: I’m going to take the next question from Molly O’Brien, who’s at George Mason University.

Climate change demonstrates the complex ways in which food, energy, and water are interconnected systems. What are the most promising approaches you’ve seen to addressing climate change from a nexus perspective, rather than addressing distinct aspects of food, energy, and water individually?

NAJAM: Thank you for that. I have seen some promising discussion, even if not fully implemented yet. You know, I’ve talked about—and I’m glad you talk about this. So as I’ve talked about this age of adaptation, there is a—I don’t know if it’s an opportunity—but there is—there is a hidden opportunity in that. And the hidden opportunity is that adaptation is essentially development. Show me any adaptation activity, and I will show you a development activity. I’m particularly talking about developing countries. And it is particularly about food, water—in particular about food and water. Food, in many ways, is nature’s way of packaging water.

And so that’s—the nexus is the answer. Now, one of the things—I’ll give you one example of work that I had done many years—a few years ago. Again, in Pakistan, where we looked at potential climatic impacts on agriculture. This is a mostly agriculture country. And what we found—we were only looking at certain crops and certain parts of the country. So it’s not for the entire—but still for a country that majorly depends on this. The finding—I may be slightly off on the numbers, but I’m trying to recall—was that yield could go down by about 12 percent, right? Twelve percent is huge, if countries’ economies are depending on something.

The interesting thing is not that. As I said, the number may be slightly off, somewhere in that range. What was interesting was that with adaptation interventions, good management, agricultural management, water management, better water use efficiency, better use of various technologies and so on and so forth, there could be a net benefit, even after accounting for climate change. And what that means is that there may be an opportunity around the world, if we take the nexus approach—and this is why sort of moving simply from carbon management to what you’re calling the nexus approach is not only a good answer, it is the only answer.

And again, we see this not only in developing countries. We see this as countries think about net zero. I want to come to net zero again, because I’m not fully a fan of it. But the good thing about net zero is that it says: What can we do as a system rather than as a one-point lever on carbon going up and down? So short answer to your question is, what you’re calling the nexus approach is the only approach to adaptation. And in fact, having the most vulnerable countries start focusing on that food-water nexus, rather than only on emissions, is a good thing.

You know, Bangladesh can bring its emissions down to zero. World emissions aren’t going to see much of a dent, right? But if Bangladesh starts focusing on food and water, it can make an actual difference on the type of impacts that 200 million people will face.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question, raised hand, from Evaristus Obinyan.

Q: Can you hear me?

FASKIANOS: Yes. Tell us your affiliation, please.

Q: I’m Dr. Evaristus Obinyan. I’m a criminologist. (Laughs.) As you can see, I’m not in the science field, but I’m very interested in this particular issue. I’m a professor at the Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia.

Now, I—listening to you intently, I thought I heard you say stop it from happening. But after I’ve seen the digitized presentations, I realized that you were—you wanted to use it—it’s sort of happening or deteriorating. Because you are saying that to stop the—this from happening—you know, absolutely, it’s already happening—to stop it from deteriorating. Now, some say, like myself—I said nothing works. This is just the story of the planet. It has to go through this major evolution. How, then, can we stop the deterioration? Maybe, actually, it won’t matter really, or maybe we can use science and technology to manage or attempt to mitigate the natural planet evolution.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

NAJAM: I hope I got the gist. I think I did, but if I failed—if I missed something, my apologies. There are two central points I want to pick up from that. I am not as pessimistic as you seem to be. I do think things work. I think—first of all, you’re right. You’re right, what we are seeing is a deterioration. Our efforts to try to mitigate have not yielded. And despite the fact that we have much higher interest in climate, and despite the fact that people sort of want to do the right thing, the fact of the matter is that line about emissions is just going upward, and upward, and upward. So that’s a reality. You are exactly right.

But I am not going to extrapolate that into the belief that we can’t do anything. I think we have been reluctant to change lifestyle. And despite the fact—you know, we are an amazing generation. We are—my generation was amongst the first generation in the world which had more food than the world needed. And yet, people were hungry. We have more technology, better science than ever before. And we had more money, and yet people were sleeping poor.

So the question is not of the ability to do it. The question is of willingness to do it. I mean, I have—I have faith in our species. I believe that it is a race between human knowledge and human wisdom. I think we have the knowledge to lick the problem, without creating lifestyles that are extremely uncomfortable. I’m not sure we have the wisdom to do it in time. We keep seeing that again. So I’m not willing to give up and say, well, this is inevitable. This is not inevitable. This is a choice. We make the choice. And I hope we can make an alternative choice.

Now, the question then is, how will we do that? And I know it’s going to sound glib, I think at least theoretically the answer is what we've had for a number of years, which is sustainable development. But we need to look at this growth model again, that growth for its own sake as a goal keeps too fixated on this constant growth pattern, as opposed to moving towards a lifestyle that is comfortable and yet that doesn’t kill the planet that has given you this amazing sort of set of resources.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. I’m going to take Ivan Ramirez’s question, from the University of Colorado, Denver. And he’s originally from Ecuador.

When I think about and discuss climate justice, I focus or relate it to health, existing disparities, and how climate exacerbates inequities. From your perspective, how is health being leveraged in the climate negotiations, as it relates to climate justice?

NAJAM: On that last part, unfortunately it’s not. Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s a beautiful question. Thank you very much for asking that. And health is just one of the areas, like many that, you know, the first question pointed out about that, about—from South Africa. This is the nature of not just climate, but of the development. That once one thing goes wrong, there is a cycle of other things unraveling. Again, since today I’ve been talking about floods in Pakistan, right now the biggest issue in Pakistan is actually not water. It is dengue. It is the mosquito. It is health, right? So that is one way in which climate events trigger.

The other and more important way to answer this is, you know, you’ve noticed that I talk about ourselves as a species. I hope other people do too. I think it is useful to think of ourselves as a species, amongst many, on this planet. If you think about that, one of the things that happens is you realize we’re not the only species adapting to climate change. That’s why dengue is happening in Pakistan, even in the north, next to the Himalayas. It shouldn’t. It’s a tropical disease. So the mosquito also changes when the climate changes. And that is what’s called vector-borne disease.

So amongst the scariest things in the science, and amongst the things that we actually know much less about—because we’ve been focused on carbon—is what is going to happen on vector disease? But just about all climate scientists are worried about if the climate changes, it is not just what happens to humans or, you know, the big sexy species like panda bears and polar bears. But what is going to happen to disease vectors? And disease starts moving to places where it wasn’t endemic. Which means those places are not ready for it. And again, we are still struggling to come out of COVID.

Now, COVID wasn’t because of this, but people who study Ebola have been—started worrying about that, that disease vectors move. Dengue is probably amongst the one that is talked about the most, because here is a tropical, maybe equatorial disease, that has been moving upwards, both in South Asia and the Mediterranean. So the health impacts are, in fact, one of those big ones, though they have not been talked about as much as climate change. Which is not to say that people are not interested in it, it is just that we don’t know enough about it. But people are worried about it.

The justice issue of all of these things—I don’t want us to lose the justice aspect. The justice aspect essentially comes from the fact that those who are most vulnerable, those who are most likely to see the impacts, are not the ones who are most responsible for creating this. That’s the dynamic that creates that divisive politics of injustice.

FASKIANOS: Let me go next to Gary Prevost, who’s raised his hand. And if you could—there we go.

Q: Gary Prevost, College of St. Benedict in Minnesota.

As I understand it, you’re basically suggesting that the resource allocation in the coming years needs to be much more on the side of adaptation than mitigation, especially in the global south. Does this mean that, say, the $100 billion a year, if it could be achieved, that would be used in the global south would be primarily more traditional development aid for the—in all of the fields that we’ve talked about, and not so much to create green energy in the—in the south? And that in the north it would still continue to be the focus on mitigation, since we’re the ones creating the carbon footprint. Am I understanding your basic argument that way? And then finally, if it is going to be traditional—more traditional development aid, do you think that’s going to make it easier or harder to achieve it politically from the global north countries?

NAJAM: Gary, that’s a brilliant question. And you’ve really sort of unwrapped what I’m saying, what I was saying politely you have said more bluntly. And you’ve also highlighted, very, very politely and diplomatically, why it is very, very difficult. So the easiest part of your question is the last part, will it make it easier or more difficult? Clearly, more difficult. Will it even be possible? Probably not.

So when I say that’s what—if I think that’s what should happen, that doesn’t mean that I think it will happen. Because we don’t have any models of massive reparations or, you know, international affairs doesn’t work on your fault, you pay me. There isn’t an international environmental court, or any court, that is going to do this. So how is this going to happen, except through goodwill? And at the scale, that goodwill there is no evidence we will be seeing.

But let me first come to your question, because your—the way you framed it, which is—which is kind of right. Kind of right. So I do think that going to the old essential principle that no one else talks about these days, but which was part of the original UN agreements on climate, et cetera, which is common but differentiated responsibility. I wish we had taken it more seriously. The idea of common but differentiated responsibility was: Global climate change is all of our responsibility, but it is a differentiated responsibility.

Those who have had high emissions already have a high responsibility to bring them down. Those who have low emissions now have a responsibility to try to keep it lower and not go on that same trajectory by using better technology, et cetera. And those who have historical high responsibility for emissions should help create the conditions that whatever impacts happen are not catastrophic. So which meant that all countries should do something, but different countries should do differently.

In a way, if you are a developing country person, as I am, one of the arguments that comes to mind, and many people say it out loud, is that the north, if you will, the industrialized countries, have been pushing developing countries to do what they were supposed to do. We aren’t really cutting our emissions that much, but why don’t you do it, Bangladesh? Bangladesh, you do EV policy. Bangladesh, you do solar policy. Or Pakistan. Or Papua New Guinea, or Burkina Faso, or whatever. I do think that it will be better, rather than pushing them only on emissions—because, you know, their emissions aren’t that much—so it is to bend the curve so that their future emissions are restricted, I understand that, right?

But it’s not really solving the problem. Now that we have adaptation looming at us, I do think it is the right policy to have countries, especially with large vulnerabilities and large populations, get ready for the hit that is coming, that is already there. I don’t see that easily happening, but I do think that that is the right thing. Now, you have rightly exactly pointed out the argument from my climate friends usually is: But that’s not climate. That’s just development. That’s what they wanted to do anyhow, right? And the argument is, you’re trying to divert our climate money to your traditional development agenda.

I understand the argument. I don’t agree with it, because, A, I hope it is not traditional. So let’s take a country that’s not a developing countries, the Netherlands. If there’s any country in the world that is historically prepared for climate impacts, past climate impacts, it is the Netherlands. How did it do that? Infrastructure. So I understand a lot of adaptation investment will be infrastructure. A lot of adaptation expenditure will look like traditional development. But I hope it is not traditional development. I hope it is sustainable development.

And you are exactly right. I think one of the reasons we haven’t gone back—(audio break)—that route is because my old friends, people like myself maybe, who come to the climate side look at adaptation as somehow a dilution, even stealing climate money for development. And that is why—Irina has heard me say this before—climate is not, must not be, cannot be seen as the opposite of development.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to combine two written questions from Leda Barnett at Our Lady of the Lake University, who says: You’ve discussed insights on shared governance via COP and the shortcomings of multilateral diplomacy. We should continue that, of course, but do you think approaches like sanctions or smart power would be effective? Are there examples of this being used effectively? And then Diamond Bolden, who’s an undergraduate at Xavier University of Louisiana: U.S. is not impacted as much as other countries. However, we contribute to it. What policy can we implement to progress on environmental justice? Or I guess, she meant to help progress on environmental justice.

NAJAM: You know, because of, again, the recent events, I see a lot of anger in a number of developing countries. That’s what I’m trying to bring here that, you know, there’s something growing out there. And a lot of it, you’ve seen that in major newspapers, New York Times, Washington Post, sort of, you know, people from developing countries are writing op-eds about reparations, about—some compare it to slavery and payments have to be made, and all that. Logically, I partly sympathize with that. But I am a realist enough to recognize that’s not how politics happens.

So sanctions on who, right? (Laughs.) Are we going to put sanctions on floods? The flood isn’t going to—just because I tell it to stop, going to stop. So I’m sure you don’t mean that. Are we seeing sanctions on rich countries or rich people to pay? That sort of power dynamic, I don’t know any example in history where the weak can impose sanctions on the rich, on the strong. Now, one of the things, by the way no one has pushed me on this. You should. I keep talking north and south, but it’s not just north and south. It’s not rich countries, poor countries. It’s rich people, poor people. The same flood in Pakistan, you know, people ask me, is your family safe? Yes, they are. I come from middle class, affluent enough. The flood impacts the poorest people in Pakistan. And the richest people in Pakistan also have high emissions, right? So it’s not as stark as that.

And this goes back to the last part of the second question you asked. Yes, the U.S. has higher emissions but, again, the question that hasn’t come, the U.S. has serious environmental injustice questions of its own. It doesn’t mean that all of the U.S. is equally responsible. And as the climate changes, it is the poorest and most vulnerable in the U.S. who are going to be impacted. Again, the reason I keep saying I am particularly worried about this is as that happens whatever will there might be amongst my U.S. friends to talk about global climate justice, they are going to be distracted immediately by the most real, much more close, much more visible impacts of climate justice within the country.

I’ll take a slight detour, Irina, but I think it’s a relevant one. This is from Professor Bullard’s work many, many—thirty years ago. You know, when he used to point out—this is not about climate, but it’s very much related—take a map of the U.S. And on that map, put a pin on wherever a superfund, most hazardous waste dumps are. And what you have just created is a map of the poorest African American communities in the U.S. OK, that’s the environmental justice question here. So just—it hasn’t come up, but I don’t want to sound as if this is simply a north-south issue. Within the south, within the north, and then within the north-south, because climate is not looking at those borders. Those are our creations, not the climate’s.

FASKIANOS: Yes. I’m going to take the next question from Keith Baker, who has a raised hand.

Q: Can you hear me?


Q: Hey, yeah. I’m Keith Baker. I work for Dallas College. I teach accounting and finance.

One of the things I’ve noticed of the last several years is that rural water systems in the United States are deteriorating at a very rapid rate. As a matter of fact, some ones I’m personally aware of, because I have some friends who work in the education industry for teaching water treatment plant people, is that they’re sending out notices to very large populations of people that says it’s not safe to drink this water. It’s not safe to bathe in this water. Do not get this water in your eyes. Oh, by the way, extended exposure to this water in taking a shower might give you cancer.

Now, if that’s happening in rural America, that means that some of the other infrastructure problems that we have, like in the Dallas area where I live where we’ve had these what I call downpours that have increased in intensity in the last several years, where our water runoff system has been overwhelmed. And neighborhoods that are a good hundred feet above the normal floodplains coming from creeks are having waters back up from the storm sewer system being overwhelmed, and starting to see some houses flooded that you would have never seen flooded twenty years ago or thirty years ago.

NAJAM: So, Keith, this goes back to my previous point that climate doesn’t discriminate, in this sense. Now, the map I showed there is greater vulnerability in certain parts of the world, but all parts are vulnerable. The distinction also is that if you are in a richer country, you at least theoretically have the ability to deal with it. Like hurricanes, I mean, the same hurricane comes to Haiti and then to Florida. We here in the U.S. have a greater ability to—to just to be able to buy our way out of the impacts. We can build better. We can move people. We have the resources.

And therefore, one of the things you always notice about with hurricanes is that when they hit the Caribbean the headlines are about how many lives lost. And when they hit our shores, the headlines are usually about the economic cost of that. That’s a good thing. I hope for every country it’s only an economic loss, right? But you are exactly right, now the—again, from a political point of view, as these things that you are describing in rural America, and some of it very scary from what you say, as that happens countries are going to find it more and more difficult. They’re already not inclined to support other countries for environmental justice, for climate justice. And if the pressure from within their country is higher, they’re going to be less and less inclined.

And this relates, for those of you who study geopolitics, not even climate, what that means is that another fault line in a very fractured world appears. So you already have a world, in terms of geopolitics, that seems to be fracturing in various ways, and you have various pulls and pushes. In comes climate, just like we saw in COVID, right, when we thought vaccine diplomacy from different countries. That reaction is also going to exacerbate. But that’s the multiplier.

FASKIANOS: So I’m going to take the next question from Jeanie Bukowski, who is at Bradley University, and sitting in now with her undergraduate class. Thirty-four students, science and politics of global climate change.

Could you talk a little more about how individuals, especially young people, can take action on climate justice?

NAJAM: I hope I’m amongst friends. (Laughs.) I’ll tell you what I tell my students and what I tell my kids. The good news is that we have now the type of—particularly in the U.S., but all across the world, actually—all across the world, all across the world, particularly in the young, there is a very heightened sense that this issue is real and that something has to be done. A lot of that has been channeled at you guys, meaning my generation, haven’t done what you were supposed to do, which is exactly correct.

But not enough—as, you know, my grandmother used to say, point one finger at someone and at least three point back at you. Not enough is being spent on what we are doing with our own lifestyle. And I think sort of that—the reason why we keep talking more about it but the graph on actual emissions doesn’t shift we need to interrogate, right? And some of those easy answers don’t really work.

So, for example, and I hope I am among friends so I’ll be blunt. It is—it is nice not to have a car and say, OK, because I don’t have a car therefore I don’t have emissions. But if you’re using a lot of Uber, those are your emissions. Those are not the emissions of that car—the Uber driver. When you get UberEats to deliver food, those are not the emissions of the restaurant. Those are your emissions. When I get Amazon packages three times delivered to my home, the world’s statistics might count them as China’s emissions, because something was created in China, but those are my emissions, right?

And ultimately, it is this question of lifestyle. And what I was saying earlier about we are—we have the technology. We have the knowledge. I am not sure we have the wisdom. And ultimately, that wisdom will come individually. I do not see scientifically any way—absolutely we are running out of time. I’ll be absolutely blunt. We are still living the dream that somehow I won’t change anything I do, but by corporations doing it or governments doing it there will be a magic wand by which this will be solved. I just do not see the math. And therefore, responsibility does begin with the letter I, me.

FASKIANOS: I think that is a perfect place to end this discussion. So thank you for that. Adil Najam, this was a terrific hour. And there are so many questions—good questions and comments, both raised hands and in the Q&A, I regret that we could not get to all of them. But we’ll just have to have you back. So thank you very much. Appreciate it.

NAJAM: Thank you for having me. Good luck to the planet, everyone.

FASKIANOS: Yes, exactly. We all—we all have to think about the “I” of what we are doing, for sure.

The next Academic Webinar will be on Wednesday, September 28, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. We are hosting Christopher Tuttle, who is the senior fellow and director of the Renewing America initiative here at CFR. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to follow CFR at @CFR_Academic. And you can visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues. Thank you all, again, for being with us today. And we look forward to you joining us again next week on September 28.

So thank you, again. And thank you, Dr. Najam, for this hour.

NAJAM: Thank you all.


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