The Global Climate Action Summit has created a subtle, yet resonating effect on international climate diplomacy. Arguably, its biggest contribution lies in reaffirming the active role of the US in climate action – a refreshing sign of political maturity and environmental responsibility in Trumpian times.
Yes, we are still talking about San Francisco. The summit produced many interesting exchanges, such as the panel ‘Threat Multiplier: Migration and Security in a Changing Climate’ hosted by the Center for American Progress. The panel brought together a rich constellation of actors – ranging from conservative Reagan-era Republicans to politicians of unrecognized states – showing that different socio-economic conditions and conflicting interests are no excuse for ignoring climate change and its devastating impacts.
The first part of the panel brought together two renowned US politicians from opposite sides: Ray Mabus, a Democrat who has served as Governor of Mississippi and as Secretary of the US Navy; and George P. Shultz, an economist who took over many high-level positions under three Republican presidents. They started by stressing that, although current political developments present conservationism and environmentalism as a partisan issue, historically it has been high on both Republican and Democrat agendas, an important example being the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by President Nixon.
Both panelists agreed on climate change being undeniable, as well as on the security threats that it brings. Turning its back on the climate cause will endanger the stability of the United States in the near future, while supporting climate change mitigation is in the country’s best interest. Mabus challenged the assumption that climate action is inconsistent with economic goals. “Business is not altruistic, it [engages in sustainability] because it understands the economic and security issues behind it.”
For Mabus and Shultz, the local level is key to US climate action. “In the history of America, a lot of times the great ideas, the laboratories of democracy, are the states and the ideas bubble up to Washington, not the other way around,” said Mabus. Shultz added that Trump’s position towards climate change is bringing about a new type of federalization, as states and cities see new opportunities for climate leadership and horizontal cooperation.
Furthermore, both politicians believed that the technological progress made by the US in the area of renewables are far too ingrained in the country’s security and economic interests to be halted by transitory ideological policies. “We are on the cusp of large-scale energy storage,” said Shultz. Mabus noted that 2/3 of energy used by the US Navy is renewable, the aim being to achieve 100%. He considered ditching fossil fuel dependency to be an imperative security issue for the US military, not to mention the huge economic advantages.
Mabus recognized that the energy transition affects people disproportionally, and that is precisely where the federal government must come in. It must reaffirm to the general public that the transition is in the interest of all, and make sure that a safety net for a smooth transition of the vulnerable actors is created. With regard to the federal government’s coal-friendly rhetoric, Mabus was clear: “Ignore Washington, because they’re not saying anything good, and they’re not right about anything.”
David Baldwin, a major general in the California National Guard, pointed out the sharp increase in response to catastrophic climatic events which national security forces need to deal with. Climate impacts are affecting the military’s budget and pointing to the need to prepare for future shocks. Sharon Burke, former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, stressed the connection between resource availability and security. She conceded not understanding why there is still a political debate about whether climate change is a problem, when its effects are visible and being felt by most of the American population as well as the country’s administration.
Shukri Bandare, Minister of Environment and Rural Development of Somaliland, brought attention to how three years of recurring droughts have decimated up to 80% of the region’s livestock, leaving a massive part of its population hungry and displaced. Climate change was taken over as a priority issue, however, it is now consuming all of Somaliland’s limited resources. With climate impacts having stripped most of the population of their livelihood means, much of its youth is pushed to the only available economic activity: crime. When forced to migrate, many are left in immense debt with smuggler groups and must then engage in crimes in their host countries, generating a dangerous cycle of insecurity. “Security, migration and climate change are one [problem]; you cannot separate it,” said Shukri.
On the solution side, Kevin Rabinovitch, Vice President of Sustainability at Mars, a company known for its famous chocolate bars sold worldwide, admitted that their business would not be possible in a world in which agriculture is threatened by climate impacts. He stressed the importance of actively supporting the path towards climate resilience throughout value chains, working closely with smallholder farmers to reduce adverse environmental changes to the minimum and actively co-create climate-friendly solutions. With a newly launched initiative that seeks to develop a new standardized approach for corporate actors to understand and map resilience, Mars aims at making climate resilience-building more accessible for the corporate world. Although still not obvious, it is becoming the new normal for the private sector to engage in sustainability, “which is very encouraging,” added Rabinovitch.
In essence, the panel reminded us that climate change is neither a partisan nor a sector-specific issue. As new and experienced leaders from the public and private sectors gather under one roof to understand and seek solutions to climate-related impacts to human security and development, competition gives way to cooperation and diplomacy – a lesson that cannot be stressed enough.