The 26th UN Conference of the Parties (COP26) — a global summit that many commentators described as the world’s “last best chance” to take action on the environment — concluded earlier this month. Negotiations stretched past their allotted two weeks, with global leaders and delegates outlining a plan of action to confront the challenges of climate change on November 13.
In the lead up to and during the conference, faculty, alumni experts and students in the SFS community gave their reactions to the climate summit and explained the importance of utilizing an interdisciplinary approach in the fight against climate change.
What is COP26 (and Why Does It Matter)?
“COP26 is a really important conference because it’s the first time since Paris that countries will be coming forward with new pledges for increased ambition on climate actions that they’re taking domestically,” Dr. Joanna Lewis, Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) program director, said leading up to the conference. COP21, which saw the adoption of the Paris Agreement, set out a framework for limiting warming to well below 2ºC; the conference in Glasgow five years later provided an opportunity for countries to strengthen their action plans.
In the run up to the conference, the United States announced new climate initiatives domestically, and President Biden recently signed a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, which provides nearly $50 billion to improve community resilience to the effects of climate change. Observers also closely watched China’s commitments and criticized President Xi Jinping for not attending the conference in person.
“U.S.-China cooperation is extremely important, particularly in the global climate negotiations, because these countries are really watched by the rest of the world, and whether or not they take ambitious actions sends a signal to the other countries about whether they should follow suit,” Lewis said.
“If the United States cannot show that it’s committing real resources and legislation toward fulfilling the promises that it already has made, it’s going to be very hard either to increase the ambition of the world, or to meet the modest ambitions we’ve already set,” Professor Theresa Sabonis-Helf, chair of the Master’s of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) STIA concentration, added.
In the waning hours of negotiations, however, China and India — two of the largest emitters — intervened to soften language on moving from fossil fuel use to renewable energy. In particular, they pushed to change language from “phasing out” coal to “phasing down.”
“I think both China and India have made really solid strides towards addressing climate change, promoting renewable energy,” Lewis added, “but I do think there is much more they could put on the table to make more ambitious reductions, particularly this decade.”
STIA Professor Cynthia Wei emphasized the importance of swift action, especially in light of recent climate disasters. “We’re at 1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and we’re already seeing wildfires, heatwaves, melting ice caps,” she said.
How Climate is Changing Our World
Wei also warned about the exponential costs of continued warming, even to the prescribed target of 1.5 degrees. “With even half a degree more of warming,” she said, “the IPCC has estimated that double or triple the number of species are going to lose at least half of the habitat that they have to live in.”
While the conference focused mainly on approaches to climate change, there is a second and related crisis looming just out of the public eye, according to Wei. “We’re really facing twin crises of both climate change and biodiversity loss and that we really have to address both of these crises together,” she said.
Making the switch from fossil fuel energy production to renewables was a major topic of discussion at the conference and one of the primary ways countries hope to reverse worrying climate trends. “Because energy is implicated in about three quarters of all global emissions — sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly — there isn’t any way to take on this problem without a huge focus on energy,” Sabonis-Helf explained.
With an urbanizing global population and increasing development, Sabonis-Helf predicted that, by 2040, 50 percent of the world’s energy supply would come from electricity, compared with 17 percent today. However, she stressed, “Internationally, we still have an enormous number of people, nearly a billion, who are not yet on a grid at all,” she said. “Discussions on how to resource that and how to move in that direction are going to be very important.”
Energy transition raises persistent divides between so-called developed countries and the rest of the world. Many poorer nations see fossil fuel as an essential part of growing their economies. “How to get those communities, those individuals and even whole countries into a place where they can enjoy 21st century energy benefits while simultaneously trying to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint is an enormous challenge, but it’s one of the things to which the conference is committed,” Sabonis-Helf said.
“The E.U. should embrace a broader conceptualization of climate security by considering both the long-term consequences of climate change and the effects of mitigation policies on geopolitical instability,” he writes in ISD’s blog, The Diplomatic Pouch, urging global institutions to evaluate the effects of their plans in the immediate as well as distant future. Ignac writes that the internally focused E.U. strategy may actually create climate insecurity, and that the bloc must rethink its climate approach not only in economic and political terms, but also consider defense, migration and energy initiatives.
As ISD Director of Programs and Research Kelly McFarland and Professor Beth Ferris of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown discussed in a recent episode of ISD’s Diplomatic Immunity podcast, one of the areas of concern is migration. A changing climate will continue to shape the risks to vulnerable populations across the world, who will be forced to relocate as a result of persistent and dramatic environmental changes. “Most displacement due to these sudden-onset disasters is temporary,” Ferris said, “But we’re beginning to realize that sometimes this displacement isn’t temporary, that sometimes people don’t return.”
Voices at the Table
Other experts have raised a related issue, namely that the worst effects of climate disasters are unevenly distributed across global populations. Dr. Jessica Smith of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) said, “Pre-existing social inequalities mean that people experience climate impacts differently, depending on gender, class, ethnicity and other markers of identity.”
GIWPS, which also hosted an official event on the intersections of gender and climate change at COP26 in Glasgow, focuses on the unequal consequences of a changing climate on women and girls. Jennifer Grosman Fernández (MSFS’21), climate diplomacy and gender specialist at GIWPS, explained, “Women face unique burdens from climate change, including increased exposure to climate impacts, increased pressures on their economic livelihoods and increased labor burdens.”
According to Smith, even these effects have further gendered impacts. “As resources become more scarce, this increases the labor burden on women and girls,” she said. “This means girls are less able to attend school, and women are less able to pursue opportunities outside of the household.”
The unequal distribution of these effects makes it essential to have women and girls represented in the conversations about solutions, according to Fernández and Smith. Hillary Rodham Clinton Fellow on Climate at GIWPS Clara Chiu (COL’20, G’21) explained how women’s perspectives on the impacts of climate change at the local and international levels, as well as their valuable contributions to problem-solving and negotiation, mean the rest of the world could benefit from greater female leadership on climate issues.
“I really hope that policymakers center women who are already on the ground addressing climate security risks,” Chiu said. “I would like to see that being done through commitments to climate finance that is gender-responsive and is given directly to women on the front lines.”
Nevertheless, Smith said, “The same structural inequalities that make women more vulnerable to climate change and conflict impacts also marginalize them from participating in the solutions.”
Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) Professor Marwa Daoudy, whose research focuses on environmental politics and climate security in the Middle East and North Africa, sees similar trends playing out in the region. “The hotspots, the ones which are primarily affected by climate change, should be the ones also driving the discussion and the negotiation,” she said.
Daoudy argues that wealthy developed nations must play an essential role in making that happen; the countries most responsible for driving the acceleration of climate change since industrialization also tend to be the most insulated from its worst effects. “I believe there is a responsibility here on the part of the most responsible countries, the industrialized and the rest of the world, to help the most vulnerable in adapting to the effects of climate change,” she said.
“In the end, what matters is that climate and security is also about climate and justice,” Daoudy added.
Alumnus Rayne Sullivan (COL’18), who completed a certificate in Asian Studies and who attended COP26 as a U.S. youth delegate, believes that, in addition to ensuring greater representation in action-oriented discussions, there is also a long way to go to equip the most vulnerable communities with the tools necessary to make changes at the local level. “The ethical and equitable use of technology is absolutely essential to addressing climate change. It allows communities, especially frontline communities like islands, to not only have a seat at the table, but to build that table,” he said.
Interdisciplinary Solutions to a Global Problem
One of those tools, technology, could play a critical role in democratizing access to climate solution strategies. “Technology can be one important nexus for bringing all of those stakeholders together, developing equitable ways for data acquisition and management as well as the implementation and development of technological solutions,” Sullivan said. Key to the approach will be understanding and using the various environments and knowledge systems available in communities all over the world.
“Personally, I’m a big proponent of nature-based solutions. I believe that nature should be both the mentor and the model and that new technology should be centered in biomimicry, sustainable material science, as well as Indigenous innovation,” he added.
Fellow alumnus Tim Kasckow (MSFS’20) pointed out how finance and transparency are essential to making coordinated progress on climate change. Finance plays a role both in support for climate initiatives as well as the ability to keep corporations and global leaders accountable to the types of goals they set forth at summits like COP26.
“Financing in general is critical for accelerating the development and market deployment of climate-critical technologies like energy storage, carbon capture technologies and clean manufacturing processes,” Kasckow said. Coupled with better metrics for tracking progress, there are opportunities for markets and regulations to work together.
“One of the biggest issues in the climate finance world is that of climate risk disclosures. These days, companies face all sorts of climate risks, ranging from weather-induced power outages to climate-related regulatory changes,” he continued. “Since managing a problem requires measuring it, lots of organizations have already created voluntary climate risk disclosure frameworks like the TCFD [Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures]. However, these aren’t mandatory in most countries, meaning companies can cherry-pick, which can create a situation where investors are comparing apples to oranges.”
Progress on transparency, Kasckow believes, will come with increased investment in climate solutions, which can unlock the potential of new and developing technologies. “There’s a lot of private capital that’s looking for climate-friendly opportunities, but we won’t see the majority of that capital flow to where it needs to go until everything can be compared apples to apples,” he said.
Director of the Global Cities Initiative and STIA Professor Uwe Brandes added a third element to the conversation, explaining how the very structures of our lives can play a role in how we direct climate action and plan for a rapidly changing world.
“Urban development creates the foundation for human life in cities. More people around the world are living in cities than in rural areas than ever before,” Brandes said. “The foundation of how we make choices to use energy and the kinds of energy that we use are dictated by the urban structures that we live in.”
Where Do We Go from Here?
Those designing climate approaches in the present also need to keep in mind the longer-term effects. As many experts have mentioned, the environmental problems today are mere forerunners to the types of challenges still to come. With intentional design and planning, however, Brandes says present climate solutions can sustain future progress as well.
“Cities need to become much more resilient to the changes in the environment. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to transition existing cities to become carbon neutral over the decades to come,” Brandes added. “Mayors have been leading this charge for decades now, there’s so much opportunity for cities to demonstrate new solutions and share those solutions.”
He emphasized the role of grassroots action, at any level of locality and encouraged students to engage in building climate solutions in their neighborhoods. “Get involved in your own community. Many of you already are, but find the way in which to engage locally in these conversations.”
Many Georgetown students are following Brandes’s advice through academic studies and campus opportunities. Olivia Kleier (SFS’22), for instance, is incorporating research about the disparate effects of climate change into her thesis. “Our generation is very in touch with how the climate is changing and this urgency that we need to address it now, because it’s our future that’s at stake,” she said. “We’re on Georgetown’s campus and I think a lot of students are aware about climate change and environmental justice, but what we need to be doing is taking that knowledge outside of the silo of the university and taking that knowledge back to our parents, our grandparents, our friends at home who maybe aren’t having these conversations everyday.”
President of the SFS Energy Club Pau Ruiz Guix (MSFS’22) also spoke to the power of youth voices, saying, “They’re demanding that we transform political talk and long-term goals into concrete, short-term action that is able to put us on a right and reasonable path to stay below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.”
One way to put this potential into action is by getting involved in Georgetown organizations like the Energy Club. “The SFS Energy Club is a platform for Georgetown students to discuss the economic, political, foreign policy and environmental impacts of our energy system,” Ruiz Guix explains. “We try to bridge the gap between undergraduate students, graduate students, energy practitioners and policymakers working on climate energy to further discussions and provide networking opportunities.”
After all, he said, there is no better group of people to take action on this global crisis than his peers. “Fellow SFS students are uniquely positioned to tackle the climate crisis, and what they should be doing is thinking about climate from whatever specialization they are concentrating on.”