What’s Missing from the Climate Discussion?

On this episode, Sarah and Dan talk with scholars across Watson about the climate issues they think aren’t getting enough attention. The answers range from how climate change will affect warfare to the role international bribery might play in maintaining a habitable earth. Hopefully these conversations will leave you with lots to think about and underscore just how much our politics, policies, and futures depend on a healthy planet.

Guests on today’s episode: Jori Breslawski, Jeff Colgan, Mark Blyth, and Patsy Lewis.

You can learn more about Watson’s Climate Solutions Lab here.

You can learn more about the Rhodes Center here.

You can learn more about the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

DAN RICHARDS: And I'm Dan Richards.

SARAH BALDWIN: Today, we're doing something a little different. And that's because--

DAN RICHARDS: It is Earth Day. Happy Earth Day, Sarah.

SARAH BALDWIN: Happy Earth Day, Dan.

DAN RICHARDS: So we had a few different ideas of people we wanted to talk with for Earth Day. But it was actually kind of hard to choose. And that's because Watson is a very interdisciplinary place. And on top of that, environmental and climate issues affect so many different aspects of our lives and society.



SARAH BALDWIN: National security.

DAN RICHARDS: Immigration.

SARAH BALDWIN: The list goes on. So we thought instead of talking with one person about one issue today, we'd talk with a few different people at Watson who think a lot about climate.

DAN RICHARDS: And we asked them all the same question. What's a major climate or environmental issue that you think people are not talking enough about?

SARAH BALDWIN: We had a bunch of different answers. And we're going to give you a taste of all of them on this episode. Hopefully, it makes clear just how important the health of our physical planet is to all the other plans we humans make.

DAN RICHARDS: And we should probably say too, we weren't trying to make a bummer of an episode. But the answers we got sort of trended in that direction. That's partially because of the question we asked. We didn't ask, oh, what are humans doing really well with climate change? We asked, what are people forgetting about?

SARAH BALDWIN: But we felt like that's really important because as some of our guests even touch on, the first step to fixing a problem is naming it.

DAN RICHARDS: And as you'll hear, there are some solutions to the problems that we discuss. Just not easy fixes. And that's life on Earth for you. All right, Sarah, so why don't you go first. Who'd you talk with?

SARAH BALDWIN: Let's start with Jori Breslawski. She's a postdoctoral fellow at Watson. And she was actually on Trending Globally a few months ago talking about how rebel groups govern themselves in conflict zones. Recently, she's been looking at climate change and the environment as they relate to international conflict. Here's Jori.

JORI BRESLAWSKI: I think that one thing that people are not talking that much about is the fact that environmental vulnerabilities can really be weaponized by groups or individuals to achieve political goals. I like to refer to this idea of weaponizing the environment as environmental terrorism.

SARAH BALDWIN: Do you have an example that has happened recently?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Yeah, sure. So in Twenty-Fourteen, Al-Shabab, which is an Islamist extremist group in Somalia, tried to influence the government by cutting off water sources to government controlled cities. And it succeeded in kind of delegitimizing the government because the government wasn't able to get water to those people. But they actually contributed to the start of a famine that ended up killing hundreds of thousands of people.

SARAH BALDWIN: Did they achieve the end that they were hoping for?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: A lot of analysts say that they kind of got more than they were bargaining for. They actually made the situation far worse.

SARAH BALDWIN: What is especially destructive about Al-Shabab's actions in this case?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: So if we think about what Al-Shabab did, and then also this idea of environmental terrorism more broadly. One really big concern is the scope of people that it can impact. So if we think of more conventional forms of violence like attacking a bus, or a building, while devastating, this is a pretty specific target. Versus if we're cutting off water sources to entire cities or poisoning water sources and cutting off people's ability to fish in them or things like that, you're affecting a much larger population. Not to mention the effects can be much longer lasting. So if we take a situation where an ecosystem is already on the verge of collapse, or particularly fragile, we can think of situations where the result could be irrepairable. Or at the very least, take a very long time to recover.

SARAH BALDWIN: How might these kinds of acts get worse with climate change?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: So we can think about this in two ways. Both the consequences, but also the frequency at which we think we'll see this happening. So if we think of the reason that these groups are doing this, it's because they see a vulnerability and they want to exploit it. And so as those vulnerabilities become more widespread and more severe, they have more to gain by leveraging those vulnerabilities to attack people. If we think of the types of actions these groups are taking like destroying forests, or poisoning water sources, that's going to go into this feedback loop of making climate change even worse.

SARAH BALDWIN: So Jori, these acts aren't going to be just worse, but they're going to be more frequent?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Probably. I mean, if we think of the reason why terrorists are doing this. That they're exploiting these vulnerabilities. As more areas become vulnerable, we can expect that terrorists will capitalize on that vulnerability. And there was actually a recent study done that analyzed the frequency of terrorist attacks on water sources. And over the past five decades, there was a 268% increase.

SARAH BALDWIN: So I know that this has transnational implications. But how can individual countries better defend against environmental terrorism?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: So the biggest thing, in my opinion, is building an infrastructure that allows countries to rapidly respond to these types of attacks. So about a month ago, there was an oil spill in the Mediterranean that some government officials in Israel attributed to Iran being a terrorist attack. Since that accusation, things have become a lot more blurry. And there's thoughts that it wasn't actually a terrorist attack. But the bottom line is is that Israel did not have the capacity to respond quickly to that oil spill. So the first responders were NGOs and volunteers cleaning up the beach. It wasn't the government. The environmental ministry didn't respond until days after this happened.

Like climate change more broadly, this requires international cooperation. And so let's say we have a river that flows from one country to another. And a terrorist group either dams that river, poisons that river, that affects the country that river flows into. And so that requires cooperation between those two countries. And we've seen the beginnings of some international cooperation on this. So there's been two treaties that have come into being that say that the weaponization of water is an international crime.

And so we see countries beginning to recognize this as an issue, and trying to do something about it. But again, any action that they take is only as strong as our international institutions are.

DAN RICHARDS: Wow. Well, at least our listeners were warned this is not going to be a happy fun time next 25 minutes. But really though, that is an interesting idea that I had never thought about. And it's like a really good visceral, scary example of why environmental issues need global cooperation.

SARAH BALDWIN: Totally agree. And that actually segues pretty well to the next person I talked with. Jeff Colgan. He's a political scientist and Director of the Climate Solutions Lab at Watson.

DAN RICHARDS: Hmm. Solutions. I'm listening.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, I asked Jeff the same question. What's a major issue that's not getting enough attention? Here's what he said.

JEFF COLGAN: One thing that I think not enough people are focused on is what a climate focus for US foreign policy means for the rest of US foreign policy. It's not as though we can just add climate change as a top level super priority, and then expect nothing else to change about US foreign policy. So that's something I think we should be chewing on.

DAN RICHARDS: Interesting. But what does that mean exactly?

SARAH BALDWIN: So it means that when you think about foreign policy, and geopolitics, and quote unquote grand strategy, countries only have so much leverage to get what they want in a negotiation. And if climate is going to be a major priority in the US and globally, which it better be, we can't use up all our levers, and carrots, and sticks on non climate things.

DAN RICHARDS: All right. I think I get it. But I'm still a little confused. I assume-- did he have an example?

SARAH BALDWIN: He did. And in it, we also get into some proposed solutions for these problems.

DAN RICHARDS: Solutions. That's what I like to hear.

SARAH BALDWIN: So here's the rest of our conversation.

JEFF COLGAN: Well, one example of this is with say US China relations. And in particular, the discussion around trade decoupling. The idea that the US and China should no longer be as integrated as they have been. Not do as much trade, and finance, and et cetera between them. And a lot of that debate around whether we should decouple or not has been framed in terms of kind of the security benefits of decoupling. So protecting 5G infrastructure or whatever versus the economic costs of actually doing so because it would be really costly.

And my point about this is to say, well, listen if we want to address climate change, if we're serious about that as a top level issue, then we really need to have a set of countries that are serious about climate change and have strong pro climate policies. And then to support those countries, we need to have trade tariffs on anybody who is not doing that same level of pro climate environmental policy to protect the producers inside that climate club from unfair competition. We don't want China outside of that climate club because they are the number one emitter in the whole world. They're 25% of global emissions right now.

And what we can't do then is to say, well, we're going to restrict access to the markets in the US and Europe if we've already done it with trade decoupling for non climate reasons. If you are serious about climate change, you can't do decoupling for other reasons because then you lose your leverage on climate policy.

SARAH BALDWIN: How can, or is it possible, to incentivize China to join the club as it were?

JEFF COLGAN: Yeah. So what we want to do as the US and Europe is to put to China as nicely as possible to a choice of saying, listen, you can be in the club with us and therefore, we will have some expectations of a minimum threshold of pro climate policy. You need to have a carbon tax. You need to do something. You need to have the kind of regulations that will help bring down your emissions. Or you can not do that. Your sovereign choice. But then you're outside of the club, and your access to trade and finance from US and Europe is now much reduced, if not eliminated.

SARAH BALDWIN: Are you optimistic that that sort of mindset can creep into the people who are helping to make this administration's foreign policy?

JEFF COLGAN: I am actually. And that's a bold claim to have because unfortunately there is a lot of hostility obviously between the US and China right now. And so this is a low moment in the relationship. And that's difficult. But I think that this is the kind of thing that all three of the major economies in the world-- meaning China, the US, and Europe-- are interested in making happen.

SARAH BALDWIN: Are there other countries that are talking about climate in a more holistic way in their foreign policy?

JEFF COLGAN: Canada has moved very strongly in the last couple of years, the last year really, to put an escalating carbon tax that is moving really high. So they're kind of getting their house in order. Canada has, unfortunately, a long record of broken promises on climate change. But I think that that's one of the other places, with Europe being out in front, of places where you're starting to see OK, climate change is being built into a whole of government kind of approach.

DAN RICHARDS: That actually reminded me a lot of one of the conversations I had with Mark Blyth.

SARAH BALDWIN: I always want to hear what has to say. Take it away.

DAN RICHARDS: Yeah. So for our listeners, Mark is a political economist. And he's Director of the Rhodes Center for International Economics and Finance at Watson. And here is the problem he illuminated for me.

MARK BLYTH: We're actually not doing anything. And that's the thing that strangely we're not talking about.

DAN RICHARDS: OK . It's not as bad as it sounds. Or maybe it is, but I'll let him explain.

MARK BLYTH: Basically, the entire future of the planet depends on what happens in an arc from the Indian subcontinent all the way up through North Korea. That's basically it.

DAN RICHARDS: Specifically, he's talking about India and China, which are on track to dwarf most other countries in terms of carbon emissions in the coming decades.

MARK BLYTH: And those countries are poor countries. And those countries want to have the stuff that we have. Things like electricity. Things like air-conditioning as the planet heats up. Now, yes, the price of renewables have been falling. Yes, India is making huge strides in installing solar. But in comparison to the bang for the buck that you get, we still have this fundamental problem that fossil fuels are incredibly energy dense. And renewables justly so far cannot basically pick up all the slack that we need.

DAN RICHARDS: So if people in India, and China, and other developing countries want air conditioning, and cars, and electricity, which I think we can all agree is fair, how do we get them to do it in a more sustainable way even if that also is a more expensive way? Well, Mark Blyth does not beat around the bush.

MARK BLYTH: What you really need to do is transform the infrastructure of those economies so that they too can make that transition, which is a requires an enormous amount of subsidy if not outright bribery to make that happen.

DAN RICHARDS: And as explained. This is the ballgame.

MARK BLYTH: Either we transfer massive amounts of resources to them to enable them to make that transition much faster than they otherwise would, or it's not going to happen. And we're not going to do that.


MARK BLYTH: We're not doing anything, and we're not talking about it.

DAN RICHARDS: So I asked Mark is there any hope that if stuff keeps getting bad enough at some point, we might start doing something. In this case something being reaching out to the places that are really going to drive this in the next half century. Or is it more like we're not doing anything. We're not talking about anything. And end of story.

MARK BLYTH: No. I mean, the first stage of a terminal illness is denial. And then after denial comes I think it's anger or grief. Then eventually it's like acceptance. So I'm sure we'll go through all the stages.

DAN RICHARDS: Wow, that is grim.

MARK BLYTH: Well, you did come to a Scotchman. You want to [INAUDIBLE] story. I'll give you an upside story. Let's suppose that Biden's infrastructure bill passes. Let's suppose that it's the beginning of sustained green investment decarbonization, smart electricity grid, transformation of transport. Wham, bam, great. All right. So the United States is on a long term decline in carbon emissions over 20 years. Europe then does the same thing with managing to screw it up. And that's fabulous.

As we learn to do this, as we installed more renewables, as we get better at technology we really need like carbon capture and storage because literally there isn't enough biomass to soak up the carbon that's there already, then we share those technologies. You just give them away. You make it happen because otherwise it's pointless.

DAN RICHARDS: I think that tempered optimism is as good a place to leave it as any on Earth Day.

MARK BLYTH: Tempered optimism is a great name for a band.

DAN RICHARDS: Yeah, I like that. We should start that.

MARK BLYTH: Absolutely. All right.

DAN RICHARDS: All right. Thanks, Mark.

SARAH BALDWIN: Wow. Tempered optimism indeed.

DAN RICHARDS: Yeah. I mean, yeah. There's just a lot of people outside the US who want electricity, and air conditioning, and cars. And CO2 just does not respect political borders.

SARAH BALDWIN: So we need to invest in a transition to renewables wherever it's most needed, whether it's in our country or not.

DAN RICHARDS: I think that's exactly what Mark's saying.

SARAH BALDWIN: OK, do we have something a little more positive to end on?


PATSY LEWIS: For me, it's deep sea mining.

DAN RICHARDS: That's Patsy Lewis. She's a faculty fellow at Watson, and director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. And she's not a marine Biologist or engineer. But she's an expert in the politics and economics of small island countries. And as she sees it, we're on the cusp of taking huge risks that no one fully understands. And we're doing it in the backyard of smaller poorer countries that are going to foot the bill for any of the mistakes people make. But the conversation was not all about these massive new technologies. It ended up actually getting a little more personal towards the end. And well, I'll just leave it at that. Here is Patsy.

PATSY LEWIS: As the push for alternative sources of energy, renewable sources of energy, and green technologies become more urgent, the shift in focus has been to mind the deep sea bed for rare metals that would sustain renewable energy. Lithium batteries, and solar panels, and so on.

DAN RICHARDS: So this is primarily something like you were saying for lithium batteries, and solar panels. It's like cobalt or special minerals we need for electrification.

PATSY LEWIS: Lithium, manganese, cobalt, zinc, and so on.

DAN RICHARDS: And is there a lot of that on the ocean floor?

PATSY LEWIS: Yes. And they're found in largely-- they're not the only sources. But in deep sea vents on the ocean floor as well as in polymetallic nodules, which are like little stones for want of a better word. The challenge here is that only around 5% of the deep sea has been explored. There are lots of new species being encountered in the tiny bit of exploration that has taken place. We really don't know the extent of biodiversity that exists. We also don't understand the relationship between the different levels like the deep sea bed all the way up to the surface, and how these different areas interact or species interact.

DAN RICHARDS: Right. It sounds like what I feel like people talk about rainforests sometimes where there's we know so little of the diversity that's even in them that it's this like untapped potential that we might just sort of clear cut, or strip mine, or whatever it is in this case. How do they even mine that far down? Do they do submarines, and then bring them back up?

PATSY LEWIS: Yes. There are different technologies for the different deposits to access the deep sea vents, the sides of them, I think involves cutting. Polymetallic nodules are more like scraping and gathering. They would be taken up to the surface. Some basic processing. But that process then has wastewater that goes back into the sea as well as sediments and so on. But even if you thought that that was know the gentlest form of extraction you can have, you're still talking about disturbing the seabed. Sediment rising up. You're not quite sure how that is harming species. There's just a lot we do not know.

And I'm concerned particularly because small islands have disproportionately large exclusive economic zones.

DAN RICHARDS: This is like the border around an island or a coast where the country still has sovereignty for a certain x miles or something.

PATSY LEWIS: Yes, around 200 nautical miles, which is pretty extensive. And which gives small states a disproportionate access to these resources, which is great. But the flipside of that is that because these states are politically weak, the states are already find it extremely difficult to survive in the global economy to develop sustainable economies.

DAN RICHARDS: Right. I wanted to ask you about the different sort of regional effects of this kind of stuff because clearly not every country is going to deal with it in the same amounts.

PATSY LEWIS: No. And what has been happening is that small states have given licenses to companies from Canada, China, other places to start to explore their deep sea bed. I mean, and pressure a lot of them, especially the ones in the Caribbean, some of the most highly indebted in the world. The lure of finding a new source of income is obviously great So my concern is that immediate concerns about viability, surviving economically, is going to overcome any kind of [INAUDIBLE] we might have about how that can affect us.

DAN RICHARDS: So that they'll make short term deals and concessions to get some money and infusion quickly, but in a way that long term might leave them sort of behind in a way that they've been left behind other times.

PATSY LEWIS: Exactly. Over 30 companies have been given permission by the International Seabed Authority to explore. Not to mine. But to explore what minerals are there. But companies are not exploring out of interest, academic interests. Their interest is ultimately to exploit these minerals.

DAN RICHARDS: What can we do if we're not going to say, OK, no more mining? No more batteries? What do we do to make sure this is done in a way that doesn't cause 1,000 headaches we can't even imagine? I mean, headaches is a small word. 1,000 tragedies we can't imagine down the road.

PATSY LEWIS: That's an important question. The question is not really one about mining. It's really about the sustainability of our lifestyles. I mean, it's one thing to think about renewable energy. It's another thing to think that we need to have cell phones always doing more, and more, and more, and more amazing things. We are too invested, I think, in certain kinds of technologies in equating access to new models of cars, and phones, and whatever as being important to well being and success. As a species, we have to start to really think about how we could live differently. I think ultimately those are the kinds of conversations we need to have.

DAN RICHARDS: That, I feel like is as good a spot to end with this thought of what are conversations we need to be having that we're not as we think about Earth, and the environment, and climate. So thank you so much for talking with us, Patsy.

PATSY LEWIS: Thank you, Dan. It was my pleasure.

SARAH BALDWIN: So you kind of got two answers from Patsy in the end.

DAN RICHARDS: Yeah. I mean, really I think it went somewhere where neither of us were expecting. But I felt it was a really good reminder. We need to think really big and think really globally. But we also we just need to change ourselves. How we think about our futures, and things like comfort and affluence.

SARAH BALDWIN: Yeah. And that actually reminds me of something Jeff said after we finished the interview. And maybe we should leave our listeners with this.

JEFF COLGAN: Well, when we think of about climate solutions we need to think both top down and bottom up. Where we need mayors of cities, and CEOs of firms, et cetera thinking about the solutions that they can offer. But we also need a national plan. We need coordination between the different levels within the United States and really across the world of how to address this problem. And so it can't be either totally decentralized or totally top down. We need both parts of the story.

SARAH BALDWIN: That's it for this episode. Happy Earth Day, everybody.


This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards and Alina Coleman. Our theme music by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. Special Thanks to Jori, and Jeff, and Mark, and Patsy for talking with Sarah and I. And we hope you all have good Earth Day. If you like the show, please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps others find us.

And if you have a friend who you think might like the show, tell them to subscribe. You can find it on all your favorite podcast listening apps. For more information about this show and all of Watson's other shows, visit our website and we'll put a link in the show notes for that. Thanks for listening. We'll be back next week with another episode of Trending Globally.

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Dan Richards

Host and Senior Producer, Trending Globally