Director, Sustainable Finance Center, World Resources Institute; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy and Environment, U.S. Department of the Treasury; @Leonardo_MD1
Alice C. Hill and Leonardo Martinez-Diaz discuss their new book, Building A Resilient Tomorrow: How To Prepare For The Coming Climate Disruption. Decision-makers at all levels of government and business have been actively seeking ways to help communities build resilience to the impacts of climate change. In their book, Hill and Martinez-Diaz offer concrete, actionable policy recommendations and behind-the-scenes stories from their personal experiences in the U.S. government.
LINDSAY: Good evening, everyone. I want to welcome all of you here to the Council on Foreign Relations. I am Jim Lindsay, director of studies here at the Council.
It is my great pleasure and honor to get to introduce our guests for tonight. Now, I’m going to keep my introduction short because I really want to get into the really fascinating conversation we’re about to have, but also because you all have in the roster their complete bios.
So all the way to my right geographically, not necessarily ideologically, is Alice—
HILL: (Laughs.) They don’t know that yet. (Laughs.)
LINDSAY: —is Alice Hill. Alice is senior fellow for climate policy here at CFR. She has worked at the White House as a special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the staff of the National Security Council.
To my immediate right—again geographically, not ideologically necessarily—
LINDSAY: —is Leonardo Martinez-Diaz. He is the director of the Sustainable Finance Center at the World Resources Institute. Leo has also worked at the Obama administration, where he was deputy assistant secretary for energy and environment at the U.S. Department of Treasury and director of the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of Policy.
But we’re not here tonight to talk about their experiences in the Obama administration, but rather to talk about the publication of their new book, Building A Resilient Tomorrow: How To Prepare For The Coming Climate Disruption. So please join me in welcoming Alice and Leo. (Applause.)
HILL: Thank you.
LINDSAY: Alice, I want to congratulate you on the publication of your book. Came out beginning of this week. It’s always very exciting to have a book come out, particularly one that is such a terrific read. It’s very accessible, covers a lot of important information in ways that I think a lot of people can grasp. So I think that is all good.
It’s also, I think, actually timely in terms of the book coming out. I will note that earlier this week President Trump began the formal process of taking the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Also this week, we are seeing wildfires in California of some significant consequence. So I want to talk about that.
But I actually want to begin closer at home. And if I may, I want to begin with you, Alice. I want to talk about Norfolk, Virginia. Tell me the story of Norfolk, Virginia.
HILL: Well, Norfolk is, as it turns out, the epicenter for resilience for the United States in terms of what’s there and the impacts it’s suffering. It is suffering from sea level rise at a very rapid rate because it’s subsiding and because of the current also high level of actual sea level rise. So it’s highly vulnerable to flooding. In those communities that surround Norfolk-Hampton Roads area, they suffer from sunny day flooding frequently. Sunny day flooding means there’s a high tide and it washes over your road.
So it’s also the epicenter for naval strength for the United States, really the largest naval base in the world. We build nuclear submarines there, battleships there. We also have twenty-nine facilities—military facilities.
But the reason this came to home (and the rest ?) for me is about my second day in the White House I was asked to attend a meeting, and at the meeting was the city manager from Norfolk. And he explained this problem with sea level rise and sunny day flooding, but he said we desperately need your help. Ninety percent of the people who work on those military installations live in the community, and they had just completed the building of a light rail called The Tide—aptly called The Tide—with about—a very substantial contribution from the federal government of the over $300 million cost, but they had not accounted for sea level rise. So this brand-new light rail system that was going to get people on the base is already flooding during bad events.
And if you think about that in terms of military preparedness, readiness, the fact that the docks are beginning to sink, it’s a crisis point for not only that community but also the nation. And then they—many places in the nation are also suffering deeply from inequality and they have a substantial—about 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. So—and many of those are in flood areas, flood zones. We have many public housing units, over half a million in flood zones. So how are we going to transform Norfolk into the city it hopes to be in the face of very devastating, very rapidly changing environment?
LINDSAY: Let me draw you out a little bit more on that, Alice. Obviously, if you’re living in or along the coast, sea level rise is a problem. I’ll note that recently Nature magazine published a new study suggesting that projections of the rise in sea level have actually been understated and that the problem is going to be much more significant much more quickly. But if you’re living, I don’t know, Tripoli, Iowa, rising sea level seems far away. So is climate disruption just about rising sea levels?
HILL: No. Climate will—climate disruption will occur virtually everywhere in the United States. It pretty much has. If you’re in Iowa, you’re going to be worried about flooding and possibly extreme heat days. Not so much wildfires. Possibly drought. But certainly the Mississippi River has greatly suffered. In 2012 it got—the river got so low that we couldn’t have traffic, and of course that’s a major freight artery to bring down to our southern border for the port. And then in the same year it flooded and you couldn’t have traffic on the same river. So these impacts will hit in different ways, but they will hit virtually everywhere. There is—all of us like to think there’s some safe place to go, but unfortunately with climate it is an equal opportunity event and it will cause disruption everywhere we live.
LINDSAY: So, Leo, help me think about the consequences of climate disruption, because as you think about it these are big numbers that we’re talking about. Can you sort of give us a sense of how big those numbers are to protect Norfolk, or to keep the Mississippi open, or to rehab public health systems in the face of increased vector-borne diseases because mosquitoes now live further north in places they didn’t use to live? You’re an economist. I mean, how do you think about those issues?
MARTINEZ-DIAZ: Right. Well, I think there’s two ways to think about it. One is by looking at the projections, looking at the numbers. And the other is by looking at the actual impacts on people, right? And it’s easy to forget that second part.
On the first part, there’s lots of folks around town working on these numbers. There are essentially two types of ways of accounting for this. One is to think about the destroyed infrastructure, think of it perhaps akin to war, where you have buildings, facilities, productive equipment destroyed and has to be rebuilt. And that is not necessarily—of course, that’s terrible, it can be rebuilt, and in the process of rebuilding you can actually generate more growth.
The real problem is what happens to productivity. If greater heatwaves making it more difficult to work outdoors; if health begins to deteriorate, both physical and mental; if capital becomes more expensive and difficult to access; then the entire productive machine is able to produce less and less. It’s not simply about
rebuilding the stuff that is destroyed; it’s about our capacity to innovate and to stay productive. And that is what worries economists the most, because if you factor that in—that productivity component—then the effects compound, right? It’s not just a fixed amount of cost every year; it’s that the growth rate begins to shift. So instead of 3 percent, maybe it’s 2 percent. You compound that over the years, over the decades, and by the time we hit 2050, 2100, we are a lot poorer than we would have otherwise been, right? And that’s the real tragedy of this.
Then, in terms of what that means for people, right, it means—we’re talking about two generations of people who are now growing up with climate as a reality. And what’s going to be crucial is to figure out how do they—how do they grasp this problem? How do we help them do that without losing hope? Ultimately, we wrote this book because we wanted to find the right balance between fear and hope. In fact, in the introduction we talk about how we wanted to find an antidote to despair, but also a cure for complacency. And that’s, I think, at the—at the heart of the—of the work.
LINDSAY: But I would take it that you would argue that the price tag of climate disruption is already significant and that it’s worth spending money to avoid having to spend even more money down the road. Can you just give us a sense of how much growth we have seen in the costs of climate disruption?
MARTINEZ-DIAZ: Sure. If you look, for example, at the amount the federal government has spent on different bad years, right? So you’re looking at 2005; you’re looking at roughly a hundred and fifty billion (dollars) in appropriations just for those events. Sandy, fifty billion (dollars). 2017, wildfires plus hurricanes, about a hundred and thirty billion (dollars). You start adding those up—and we did when we were at Treasury. We did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. If these—
LINDSAY: Do you literally do it on the back of an envelope? (Laughter.)
MARTINEZ-DIAZ: Sort of, because, you know, people, they really didn’t want Treasury’s logo on any of these things.
MARTINEZ-DIAZ: But if we are looking at multi-hundred-billion-dollar—these are called, you know, special appropriations. They’re not part of the budget. They are borrowed money that Congress very quickly makes available. But if this is happening every five years right now, if it starts happening every two years or three years you can think about the mounting cost. This is why the Office of Management and Budget and the CBO are really concerned about this and have flagged these costs as a real threat to the fiscal health in the country.
LINDSAY: So you have argued in your book that what we should do is develop a strategy of resilience to try to, to the extent we can, adapt and deflect the consequences of climate disruption. So I have to ask you, Alice, I think for a lot of people that is equivalent to defeatism, and that they would argue that what we should be doing is spending all of our time and effort in trying to reduce emissions. So why do you think it makes sense to spend time talking about resilience?
HILL: Clearly, we need to cut our emissions. Anyone who works on the side of resilience will quickly conclude that we cannot successfully adapt our way out of what is projected to occur.
But in fact, because of our past emissions, we have baked in certain impacts that will continue to occur. Even if we cut our emissions to zero today, we will continue to see sea level rise. We will continue to see bigger storms, wildfires, drought, simply because there will be more heat. It’s a—remember when they used to call it the greenhouse effect, or it’s as if a blanket’s over the globe and it’s slowly heating up? Well, we’re going to have
that heat, and it will have significant consequences for us. But of course, if we don’t stop our emissions, the heat continues to go. And anyone will say we must focus on cutting.
To your point, why now? Because the impacts are here. You’re looking at the state of California. We’ve got a utility that’s bankrupt. We’ve got many people who may be at risk of being unable to insure their homes. There are homeless. Mass movement of populations. The city of Chico, a hundred thousand people in that city, over—within several hours grew by 20 percent—twenty thousand people from Paradise after the worst wildfire in California’s history arrived at Chico’s doorsteps. That is very difficult for any city to absorb. A Houston event, any of these events we need to take care of now, and we can reduce the risk by investing now in mitigation measures—risk mitigation measures, not just mitigation of emissions.
LINDSAY: So, Leo, let me ask you, then, how do you make yourself more resilient? What are the steps to building a more resilient society?
MARTINEZ-DIAZ: First, we need to understand the risk. And that means not just sort of getting it in abstract terms, but we have to quantify it. You have to be able to measure it, because then it becomes real. Then you can price that risk. You can trade it in the markets if you need to.
LINDSAY: You are an economist. (Laughter.)
HILL: You could tell. (Laughs.)
MARTINEZ-DIAZ: Or, you know, in simpler terms, you—if you have no access to any of these financial instruments to protect yourself, you still need to understand what are the—what is the likelihood that you’re going to get hit by these different risks.
The problem is that we’re suffering from a paradox right now. We have more—we collect more climate and weather data today than we ever have in the history of humanity, and yet much of that data is not available in usable—in simple, understandable ways that can be decision-ready by communities not just in the United States, but around the world. So understand the risk.
Then you need to make—you need to prioritize and to figure out where are you going to put your scarce resilience dollars, because they are not infinite and yet the risks are considerable. So in the book a theme that comes back all the time is we need to think about the poorest and most vulnerable first, because these are the folks that are not going to be looked after, that even currently in the current system are not well served. So you need to figure out how do you prioritize.
I remember talking to a planner in New York City who was saying, look, if we just wanted to avoid the losses, we would put all of our resilience dollars to protect lower Manhattan, where trillions of assets are sitting there, right? But that would mean that you are pulling resources away from many other communities in the New York area that are actually far more vulnerable and are less able to protect themselves. So we have to be able to make these decisions with equity in mind. Otherwise, we’re going to have—we’re going to compound the inequalities that already exist.
And then finally, we need to think about finance. How are we going to pay for this? There is a variety of ways to do that. They are all—there’s no sort of fancy financial architecture that is going to—that is going to do this easily. But there are things we can do, ranging from traditional instruments like taxes and bonds and insurance all the way to more novel things like something called value capture, we can talk about, cat bonds, and other things. But ultimately, we’re going to have to figure out how do we make more resources available.
And ultimately, it makes sense because investing in resilience is going to save us six, eight, twelve dollars per every dollar of resilience that we spend. So the economics make a lot of sense. But we all know that eating
vegetables increases your life expectancy, and yet we don’t do it, right? So we need to figure out, why is that we failed to build resilience even though there is overwhelming evidence that it makes sense to do so?
LINDSAY: Leo, can I go back to the beginning of your question, where you talked about the market and pricing in risk. I guess that raises the question of whether the market will recognize risk on its own or does it require government intervention or regulation to trigger getting firms to think about risk? Because I would imagine, presumably you write about it in the book, companies, invest, build factories in low-lying areas. And all of a sudden you have storms and those factories are out of commission. So do we just rely on the magic of the marketplace, or does government have to step in and regulate?
MARTINEZ-DIAZ: The market won’t do it on its own, for three reasons. One is, the market only reacts to what it can understand. So if the data is not there, if, for example, companies report their climate risk and everybody has a different scenario, and a different set of metrics, and a different set of assumptions, the market won’t know what to do with that and it will just ignore it, right? And it won’t—the prices will not move. Another reason is that the market will actually resist the prices changing. If you happen to own a home in a flood area, or you’re a developer that has a lot of assets at risk, or you’re a company sitting on top of a lot of climate risk, you want to put some sand in the gears to delay the day of reckoning, right? And so we see this all the time. We see lobbying to move the flood maps, the line of the flood map a little bit back. We see a lot of efforts to just delay this process, right, because there are real costs associated with it. So we have to deal with the fact that there’s a lot of fear out there and it has to be managed.
And finally, the market will not do it on its own because there’s something called the first mover disadvantage. People are wondering: If I report my climate risk, and I put it on my disclosures, but if my neighbor doesn’t or if the rival company doesn’t, then I’m going to be at a disadvantage. And until we have a centralized process where everybody has to report, and there is a centralized way of reporting in a way that’s consistent and intelligible to the market, then the markets won’t work. And that’s why—that’s why government has a role to play here.
LINDSAY: Alice, I want to go to the flipside, which is you write in the book a lot about the high cost of cheap construction. And that to become a more resilient society is going to require us to sort of rethink how we build infrastructure, how we build homes, how we build commercial operations. And as I read that, I go back to my introduction to American Government 101, the principle of federalism. I’ve lived all across this country. I’ve owned homes in a number of states. And the rules differ quite a lot as you go from place to place. So how do we talk about resilience certainly in a country where there is a plethora, if I can use that word, of different rules— some running from the very regulated to places like Houston which has traditionally prided itself in having no zoning?
HILL: I think Houston is a wonderful example of what you’re talking about, why this is so hard. Under our constitution these building and land use choices really fall to either the state or local governments. And unlike most countries in the world, we do not have a national building code. We have a private organization that creates model building codes. And then the states and the localities decide if they want to adopt all, part, some older version, whatever, of the building code, or none of the building code. Which is, in fact, what happened essentially in Houston. Houston had no building codes. The city wanted to attract more investment. It wanted more building to occur. It wanted cheap housing. And it’s also—the geography, it’s very flat. They put a lot of hard surface out there.
And so when we had Harvey arrive, Harvey matches consistent with what we expect with climate change. It intensified quickly. It was—brought a huge amount of rain. And what we know is these storms sometimes now stall. And it stalled over Houston and dropped something like fifty inches of rain in a very short amount of time. There was no place for that water to go. And Houston had also in its land use choices decided that it would allow development in an area where the federal government had said, this is going to be a backup floodplain for us. If there’s bad flooding, we’re going to let water into this area, where there are now homes. So massive
destruction. Interestingly, shortly after Harvey the city that said, we don’t want any building codes, put in place a building code that requires elevation. And that’s the most simple response to flooding, is just lift the house up so that the water can pass through. But this is how it gets so hard.
And then they pass a bond measure saying: We are going to spend $2 billion to deal with flooding because we want to be prepared as a city. But right now, just ongoing, is the mayor is in a runoff because it’s not so popular. One of the reasons is the slow preparations, the slow response to the flooding, criticism of the government. So it is, to me, a symbol of how a community can respond well in the face of making some choices that in hindsight certainly look that they weren’t very good, but how difficult I can also be politically to continue to encourage that kind of investment to make the community safer.
LINDSAY: I should note that you are a lawyer by training.
HILL: (Laughs.) Yes.
LINDSAY: You had a previous career as a judge. So can we expect the courts to step in and compel these various jurisdictions to do what they are reluctant to do because of the cost, the complexity, political opposition, and the rest? Or is that a bad idea?
HILL: It will happen no matter what we say if it’s good or bad, because the courts are going to be brought into this. The courts particularly are good when people are hunting for money. And you’re always looking for the deep pocket. These are, as we’ve heard, very expensive events. So there will be plenty of lawsuits. Most people when they think of climate change and the law, they think of the Exxon case of they should have told us about emissions and we’re going to sue them for damages. Within the legal community, I think there’s some skepticism as to whether those cases will be successful, for a variety of reasons. But what we will for sure see is lots of litigation about decisions either to adapt or not to adapt.
There’s one particular story that I found just sort of heartbreaking. Sandy comes through, wipes out a community—or damages many homes in a community. And a couple had had a hundred-year-old home. And they loved the community, they want to rebuild there. So they decide to build a new house, but they want to elevate it. They want it higher so the water can come through if there is another storm, and there probably will be another storm. The city said, well, that violates our aesthetic code. We don’t want anything elevated. And so it went to court, and the judge said—you know, in the opinion, which was pretty snarky, he said: We do not check common sense at the door when you come into the courtroom. And they could build the house that was elevated.
But it’s those kinds of decisions that will have to take place in many, many communities because all of our decisions about how we build and where we build reflect historical calculations of risk. None of them—virtually none of them include projections of the future risk. So we’re going to have to be going back and undoing those, and the law will play a significant role. It can also play a huge role if there are big judgements, as in tobacco, asbestos, opioids, to really move big change. But we haven’t seen those yet.
LINDSAY: Well, I want to ask one more question before I bring the rest of the room into the conversation. And I want to go back to a point, I think quite rightly you made, Leo, about equity issues. And you talked about the equity issues domestically. You pointed out in New York the question of protecting lower Manhattan versus probably other parts of the city that may have a harder time responding. I’m left wondering, well, what about the equity issue on an international or global scale? Because obviously a country like the United States, affluent, much greater capacity to talk about resilience. But many other countries, it would seem to me, don’t have that option. How do we think about the resilience idea in terms of international global equity?
MARTINEZ-DIAZ: I think the inequity of climate change is a double one, right? One the one hand, you’re dealing with the countries that did the least to cause the problem in the first place, the lowest emitters, are the
ones who are suffering in many cases the first impacts, in some cases the worst impacts. And at the same time, these countries are also some of the poorest, and therefore have the least capacity to adapt in the first place, right? So how do you deal with this double inequity? There is a whole set of legal thinking and philosophical thinking about how to deal with this incredible inequality. But ultimately the question is, how do you sell politically to the voters and the taxpayers of the rich world the idea that they should help either make whole and compensate, or at least help those that are going to be first and hardest hit elsewhere outside their borders, right?
In some ways, it’s not that different from the arguments about international development assistance of years past, except that now this is going to be a lot more intense. I think there’s a couple of issues here. One is there’s a religious community out there, faith-based communities broadly, that have been brought together by the equity imperative in climate change. And I recall in the White House there was a convening during the Obama administration of leaders of many different faiths galvanized in part by the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change. And it was clear to us that that was—that the equity concern was the one thing all those folks had in common, even though they had very different theological views about the world.
The other component is a very, you know, calculated and economic argument to the rich world, which is if we don’t do something to put at least a floor on the degree of deterioration of conditions we’re going to lose a lot of the investments that we’ve made there over many decades through international development and private sector investment. And there will be dislocations and chaos that will eventually come home—through immigration, through other shocks to supply chains, and so on. So we’re all in this together. This one is not something that we are able to escape. Nobody is immune from this. And the more we’re able to build resilience abroad, the more protected we’ll be at home.
LINDSAY: OK. Now I want to invite questions from people in the room. I ask that you would wait for the microphone, and stand, and state your affiliation.
We’re going to go right down here to the front. Mitzi, if you want to wait for the microphone and introduce yourself.
Q: I’m Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.
I think it’s really important to find a way to communicate this to students. And I guess what I would ask is, could you write a version of this for eighth graders, or something like that? I mean, I just think it’s incredibly important to get it to kids to start thinking about this. Anyway. And see who you could get to make a movie about it. (Laughter.)
HILL: Well, a good documentary, yes.
LINDSAY: Well, there is also an issue with intergenerational equity.
LINDSAY: There’s a question of intergenerational equity.
HILL: Huge. And I can tell you, one of the striking things is I do speak to a number of audiences. And I’ve been recently speaking to students, college students. And the for the first time I experienced anger at the sense that the Baby Boomers have failed. And frankly, I think in my anecdotal experience it’s not the kids who don’t get this. It’s the policymakers and the decision makers who don’t understand it, because they did not have the benefit, as many eighth graders—now, it’s going to depend on the state and the—have already learned about climate change in the science class. They already have a sense that there is something afoot that’s going to be not-so-good. But it’s the policymakers who came through school when climate change wasn’t even an issue that was discussed. And now they’ve learned about it from whatever news source they’ve chosen to turn to. And that
has left huge gaps, in my experience, in the discussion among policymakers as to understanding what’s really at stake.
So I think it’s for now we need to make sure that anyone who’s involved in making consequential decisions understands that there is another lens that must be used to say: Does that bridge—and I can tell you right now, there are things being built in the United States where no one’s thinking: What will happen to the land that this structure rests on? And is it resilient, this structure itself? That is not happening. We’re not alone in this. That’s a difficult place for many countries.
I’ll just give you how bad it is. I’m giving a speech to a transportation board, bringing in international leaders on transportation. And I ask—I said, I try to collect good examples of resilient infrastructure. Could you please share among—I got two examples, and they’re both from the Dutch. And Dutch do do a great job, but the rest of the world we’re all struggling. And it’s really key that we, as we make these big decisions, that we are beginning—not beginning—that we are actually screening to make sure that they still make sense.
Q: Hi. I’m Dave Harden from the Georgetown Strategy Group.
I wanted to sharpen the discussion a little bit on fragile states and threats to the United States. So my team came out with a study recently that demonstrates that thirty-five degrees Celsius wet bulb temperature—which is a combination of heat and humidity—so thirty-five degrees Celsius isn’t actually that high—is incompatible with human life beyond six hours. And so if you look at the arc of fragility from South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula to the Horn of Africa, we have hundreds of millions of people that are living in environments that are incompatible with human life in the very near term.
And so my question for you is: In a sense, are you kind of underestimating the risks? You know, you’re talking about Houston and New York. And we probably have the capabilities of dealing with climate stress. But if you look at the global impact and the risk of hundreds of millions of people being displaced or at real risk of life, how do you foresee that? And what is it that we’re supposed to do within this administration? Thank you.
LINDSAY: Do you want to take a crack at that, Leo?
MARTINEZ-DIAZ: Sure. I think in some ways developing countries, especially those on the frontline, are ahead of the curve, because they have to be. Especially the small island developing states are thinking already about a future in which they are unable to live on the ground they currently call a country. And so there are some of the most interesting, innovative ideas are actually happening in some of these places. For example, the island of Fiji in the Pacific has created a resettlement fund, has purchased—other islands have purchased land elsewhere. And there are some early experiments about trying to find the refugee status for so-called climate refugees, right? And so they’re starting to think already about a future in which they will have to move.
In other places, in India for example, there are many different examples that we cite about how you can help in a very cheap, very mass-produced way, help protect people from extreme temperatures. So, for example, painting roofs white to reflect the sun, moving maternity wards down to cooler floors in hospitals that are not necessarily air conditioned. There are—there are hundreds of interventions that could be put in place at very low cost, often requires simply changing one’s habits and practices, that can actually save lives without having to air condition the whole country, which is not possible even for Dubai, right? And so there are—there is experimentation happening. There’s innovation going on.
What is—the problem we see is that a lot of these innovations are stuck in little island, right? And we have to learn collectively, as a world, about all of these different interventions. In the mitigation space, in emissions cutting, there’s, you know, the famous curves and the famous rankings of what are the emissions—the most emissions-reducing interventions you can do starting with, you know, getting air conditioning units to work more efficiently, and so on. In adaptation, it’s a much more complicated picture. There’s hundreds of thousands
of interventions that we can do. And the only way we’re going to be able to apply them effectively is by learning what’s happening in different places.
LINDSAY: We had a question at the back of the room.
Q: Yes. Hi. Thank you. My name is Angelique Walker-Smith from Bread for the World here in Washington, D.C.
And climate change, climate justice is a priority for us in terms of work around hunger and poverty issues. My question has to do with what you mentioned in terms of the faith-based initiative that was conducted under Mr. Obama, and how you view the faith community as a bridge relative to the science and other coalitions that are addressing the science, but also grassroots communities—particularly grassroots communities that are affected around the equity issues that you’ve cited here—rather globally or domestically. What kind of strategies would you offer in terms of how we do more effective bridge building around that? One of the pieces I think about is environmental justice. That always has been here, before we even got to the kind of critical moment we are with climate change and climate justice, as it’s being defined. So how might we be more strategic in building those kind of bridges going forward from the science community, faith community, and those who are directly impacted—that you cited—you know, have cited example about—going forward?
MARTINEZ-DIAZ: Yeah, the—what we learned talking to all those faith leaders was that they and their communities have enormous commitment. And there was a lot of desire to make a difference, and a lot of anger, right, at the inequities that are fueling all of these sentiments. The problem was that they didn’t know where to turn that anger to. How do you channel all that feeling in a way that generates policy change and makes a different in the lives of the folks they’re trying to help? And so what we tried to do is to educate them about some very specific policy issues like, for example, the green climate fund, which is a multilateral fund to help developing countries. And so we explained to them all of the different processes, and the budget cycle. And said, look, this is where—if you want to make a difference, write to your congressman about this particular issue and this particular week, which is critical for the policy process. And then they would turn to their folks, and they were able to simplify that and to get action on it.
LINDSAY: Do you want—(background noise)—I feel like I’m in a sci-fi movie. (Laughter.) Do you want to jump in here, Alice?
HILL: Sure. One critical space here is as a translator. One of the things that I have noticed is that the scientist, because of their discipline and their rigors of what they need to do to be accepted within their community, tend to talk more about the uncertainty even though there is a huge amount that we know and we already can prove has occurred because we have excellent recordkeeping. But so much of the information is siloed. And that means that people have a hard time getting it from a trusted messenger, someone that they believe would tell them the straight story. And that’s where I think faith leaders have an enormous role to play in sharing with their constituency what is occurring, why we need to take action, and then helping them, as Leo has said, figure out ways to effectively do that.
But we don’t have nearly enough people—I am a former lawyer. I am not a scientist. But the only reason that, honestly, I’m able to be in this space is because there are so few people in this space talking about what climate change means, and what impacts it will have on the ground. And that’s where faith leaders can also be a force for generating the energy and the resolve to do a lot better than we’ve been able to do so far.
LINDSAY: Let me just note on that score that the Council on Foreign Relations has a fairly robust outreach effort to faith leaders across the country to provide them information on a whole range of issues in foreign affairs, including the issues, challenges, risks that come from climate change. And I think you’re quite right, that there needs to be more of that. And we encourage people to do it.
But we have time for one more question. Before we take the final question I want to remind everybody that this meeting has been on the record. And I also want to let you know that when the meeting is over there’ll be copies of Building A More Resilient Tomorrow on sale at the back of the room. I’m being helped by the old-fashioned pitch method, which is hold the book up. (Laughter.) I’m not allowed to do it anymore because it’s on the screen behind me. So if we have one final question? I’ll go right here to the front. Just wait for the microphone.
Q: Thank you. I’m Dawn Calabia, Refugees International.
Two hundred and fifty thousand Guatemalans have shown up in the United States seeking asylum, many of them coffee farmers, an impact of climate change. But somehow nobody’s drawing the line together. So what do we do?
HILL: We need to make that very clear, that there is a climate nexus to the pressures on our southern border. In fact, I was at the Department of Homeland Security when the first tranche of, at that time, kids were coming north from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the Northern Triangle. At that time I was already very concerned about migration and climate change, for the reasons that have been discussed. We tried to do polling at that time of the migrants as to whether they felt it was climate change. It turned out that was difficult to do because there are many factors that someone may identify as a reason for seeking to leave. And that’s what climate change does. It’s a threat multiplier.
So you have a problem in the agricultural sector, people move to the cities, then there’s violence, then there’s some other things that happens, and then they’re on the move. But I am very confident that one of the reasons we are seeing these pressures in climate change. And the assumption that somehow a bigger wall will stop the flow does not match what my understanding of climate change is. Instead, we need to think about how are we going to help those people stay at home and thrive there, versus having their societies collapse, and then they’re going to go to some place they think they can find a better life?
So huge switch in focusing on the conditions that are driving the challenges in those countries, versus just trying to put up a bigger wall. In my opinion, it’s not going to work, particularly when we’re talking about the volumes that even our—the Department of Defense and our intelligence agencies warn will happen. And this is not in the—this isn’t 2100. This is in the next two decades. We are going to see, they predict, possibly unprecedented levels of migration. And there currently is no plan for this. So we need to figure out how to help most people be able—and most people want to stay where they’re from. It’s—they’re driven to leave. So let’s take advantage of that desire to be there.
LINDSAY: Leo, do you have a good answer on what to do about that particular problem?
MARTINEZ-DIAZ: Look, I’m not a techno-utopian. I don’t think technology is necessarily the answer to everything. But there are enormously powerful things we can do with the technology we have. And one of those is to help smallholder farmers better understand when, and what, and where to plant. That is crucial. It’s a crucial driver of migration. We talk about an example of in Colombia where the technology that now allows farmers to understand the weather and the conditions over the next several weeks and months then can be translated down and communicated via radio, smallholder farmer associations, and sometimes even word of mouth, and cellular phones, of course. And so that farmers have a very simple understanding, a practical understanding, of exactly when, where, and how to farm. And that is made possible thanks to communications, thanks to the modeling that is now much more accurate than it ever used to be. So there are very powerful tools that we need to exploit. And they are not necessarily very shiny objects, but they can make a huge difference in the lives of some of these folks.
LINDSAY: We have only sort of scratched the surface of what is a very big and very complicated issue. Again, I highly recommend the book, which goes into much more depth about this whole range of issues that we have
discussed tonight. And I’m going to ask you in join me thanking and congratulating Alex and Leo for making an important contribution to a critical subject. (Applause.)
HILL: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks. We did it.