Combating Global Climate Change at the Regional Scale

by Lisa Foderaro |December 10, 2019
photo of panelists at event

Panelists from left to right: Alex Halliday, Ruth deFries, Joshua Fisher, Lisa Sachs, Jason Bordoff, V. Faye McNeill. Photo: Eileen M. Barroso/Office of Communications and Public Affairs

With climate change affecting different parts of the world in different ways, a group of Columbia University faculty members gathered last week to examine regional approaches to the climate crisis in a forum that marked the 10th anniversary of the Columbia Global Centers.

The panel discussion, “Combating Climate Change: Regional Responses to Global Challenges,” touched on topics as wide-ranging as food security in India, metal mining in Latin America, drought in the Middle East, and air quality in Africa. Although the participants’ research spanned both geographic and subject areas, they seemed to agree on one thing: there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with climate change.

The participants said, too, that engagement with the Columbia Global Centers — located in nine major cities, from Mumbai to Istanbul to Santiago — helped them appreciate the distinct characteristics and priorities of each region when it comes to the climate crisis.

Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy, said that one of the key takeaways from the Global Centers is the “perspective of what a global problem looks like,” adding that it looks “really different in Bangladesh than it does in Berkeley, California.” As an example, he said that while there was a campaign to bypass natural gas — cleaner than coal, but still a fossil fuel — and move straight to renewable energy in the United States, such an approach was unrealistic in places like China or Africa.

“Brookline, Massachusetts and Berkeley, California have banned the use of natural gas for heating,” he pointed out. “We can debate whether that’s a sensible policy solution in Brookline or Berkeley. It’s not when you are using firewood and dung for cooking and when switching to liquified natural gas would be a massive win.”

The panel brought together a diverse group of Earth Institute scholars. In addition to Bordoff, a top adviser on energy and climate in the Obama administration, the panelists were Ruth DeFries, University Professor and Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development; Josh Fisher, director of the Earth Institute’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity; Lisa Sachs, director of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment; and V. Faye McNeill, professor of chemical engineering. The discussion was moderated by Alex Halliday, director of the Earth Institute.

Halliday asked the panel whether they detected a new sense of urgency among elected officials and policy makers around the world. The response was a resounding “yes,” though not necessarily in the ways one might expect.

In India, for instance — where DeFries is studying the move away from nutritious, drought-resistant grains like sorghum and millet in favor of rice and wheat — the conversation on climate change “has really taken hold.” Until a few years ago, she said, it was difficult even to broach the subject since global warming was viewed as “Western-driven” or “somebody else’s problem.”

Still, discussion of climate in India often centers on water, agriculture, migration and other impacts, rather than on the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for them. “Most of the concern and conversation is around climate adaptation and how is the country going to live with these risks,” said DeFries.

In Chile and Brazil, where Sachs is researching energy-intense mines that will yield important metals for clean technologies, climate change is very much on the minds of industrial leaders and investors. “I’m not sure they are yet asking the right questions or necessarily taking all of the appropriate actions,” she said, “but I think the interest and openness to have that discussion has changed a lot in recent years.”

Noting the different approaches to climate around the world, Halliday observed that in the United States, it is cities, states and private philanthropies that are advancing the agenda, absent leadership from the Trump administration. He asked whether the panelists gleaned strategies worth emulating in other countries, where “you think these guys have got it right and we should actually follow them?”

In Bordoff’s view, countries that are either autocratic or very wealthy can best tackle emissions. “Command-and-control governments are pretty effective,” he said. “When China makes a decision about a target it wants to hit, where it wants to lead the world in electrification of vehicles or the solar industry, it does it. We have seen leadership in Scandinavia, but these are countries that have the resources and means to do this.”

Many countries, however, now face political and economic headwinds, such as rising populist movements, that threaten to slow the transition to clean energy. “Climate policy has a cost,” said Bordoff. “It’s much less than the cost of climate change, but it does have a cost. And there really is a concern about what we see — not just in the streets of Paris, but elsewhere — with whether people will be willing to accept that.”

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