How to Have the Climate Change Conversation

by |November 2, 2015
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Participants (from left to right): William Eimicke, Chuck Todd, Steven Cohen, and Emily Lloyd. (Photo: Tim Lyons)

On Thursday, October 29, the Earth Institute and the School of International of Public Affairs hosted a panel on Sustainability and Climate Change in the 2016 Presidential Race. The panel, moderated by Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press, included Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute and a professor of practice at the School of International and Public Affairs; William Eimicke, director of the Picker Center for Executive Education and a professor of practice at the School of International and Public Affairs; and Emily Lloyd, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. The panelists were joined by an audience of 150 people – many of whom were students, staff and faculty at Columbia University – as well as 135 people tuning in from nine countries and 15 U.S. states, via the live webcast.

Rather than discussing individual presidential candidates’ views on climate change and sustainability (there’s an interesting piece on that here), the panelists largely concentrated on the challenging task of how to frame the climate change conversation in such a polarized political environment. Todd opened the panel with some facts about the high cost of extreme weather events. Since Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, there have been 97 extreme weather events across the United States, ranging from storms and tornados to droughts and wildfires, each of which has cost more than $100 million. This means in the past three years, extreme weather has cost the U.S. $177 billion dollars, not to mention hundreds of lives lost in these events.*

Todd’s point was this: in order to have a conversation about climate change in today’s political environment, you need to talk dollars and impacts. Much of the conversation revolved around the need to make areas more resilient to extreme weather events, because both liberals and conservatives can understand and see the impacts of flooding, storms and heat waves. As Eimicke stated, it doesn’t matter who caused it, it’s here, and we have to deal with it – this is how we move forward.  Of course, part of the issue is the role of fossil fuels in today’s economy. Todd used the state of Kentucky as an example. A good portion of the state’s economy is based on coal, and people feel that they are losing when regulations are placed on greenhouse gas emissions. Eimicke pointed out that many governors and mayors have made progress by tying environmental responsibility to a new, renewable economy. He pointed to a solar factory built in Buffalo, New York that has become the largest job creator in the state, and is also being subsidized by the government. It is proof that government can provide incentives for renewable energy and new technology that can lead to jobs.

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Panelists answer questions during the audience Q&A. (Photo: Tim Lyons)

What other role does the federal government play? Cohen pointed to the impact of regulation and policy. The environmental legislation that was developed in the U.S. in the 1970s is structurally sound and has effectively cleaned our air and waterways. Cohen pointed to a class on environmental law that was taught last year at Columbia University by Tom Jorling and Leon Billings, the two senior staff members who led the Senate environment subcommittee which developed these important laws. They wrote bills across the aisle that looked to the future; the U.S. is now regulating greenhouse gases with a bill that was originally passed in 1970. But the U.S. hasn’t had a new piece of environmental legislation since the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 – that’s 25 years without a change.

Not much seems to be happening at the federal level when it comes to environmental policy. But one thing is clear: the power of cities is real. All panelists agreed that cities are increasingly leading the way when it comes to sustainability, climate change policy and resiliency initiatives. The impacts of extreme weather are felt most tangibly in cities and communities. And the places that are advancing in sustainability have high quality leaders. Commissioner Lloyd, with decades of experience working in local government, discussed how drastically the relationship between the local and federal government has changed. Activity is now very much driven by what happens in our cities. But then the question is, how do you pay for something that doesn’t have support from the top? The federal government is good at helping clean up after a disaster, but is less willing to pay for the things that will reduce vulnerability in the future. Lloyd emphasized the need to prepare for the climate changes that are coming, reduce the susceptibility of our cities and communities, and build an understanding that mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is a huge part of the solution. And because so much of what is happening is at the city level, whoever becomes the next leader of the U.S. should be looking to have conversations with those cities.

So, how do you have the climate change conversation in a politically salient way? Frame it around dollars, jobs, the economy, and local impacts. Talk to cities. Get the private sector in the game. And have strong leadership that can put these issues on the agenda.

Want to learn more? A recording of the webcast can be found online here.

*Data compiled from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and AON.


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