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November 9, 2016

Responding To: The Global Challenge of Climate-Induced Migration

Flipping the Narrative: From "Averting Catastrophe" to "Problem Solving"

Arjun Mehrotra

The problem of climate change has been clearly defined by President Anote Tong—its enormity does not need to be restated.

Before I expand on my ideas, however, I would like to share that I am writing from the perspective of an undergraduate student. So, this is a view that is not substantiated with rigorous on-the-ground policy knowledge.

At Georgetown, I am currently in a fascinating class about environmental history. In our discussion on Friday (Nov 9), we discussed what things would look like if the Trump Administration stuck to its campaign promises, as well as what impact it would have on future COP summits and the state of the world. Needless to say, our conversation did not paint a pretty picture. When people describe climate change as possibly the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, they are not hyperbolizing. When we destroy the planet’s self-corrective capabilities and continue to pollute the earth, runaway climate change is inevitable.

Last year, I met a researcher in Canada who framed an opposition to the burgeoning tar sands industry as a public health issue (research on the industry pointed to devastating health outcomes). I found it intriguing, as I believe that the narratives we ascribe to big problems are critical in determining how we can create meaningful change. Let us think back to the iconic line from President Kennedy’s inaugural address, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and the significant role it played in boosting morale during the space race against the Soviet Union.

Flipping the narrative is important. While I am sometimes skeptical of what can be characterized as the “techno-optimism” of Silicon Valley, I cannot help but marvel at how their worldview considers global issues as sets of problems to be solved. I genuinely believe that humans are ingenious enough to engineer some sort of viable solution to deal with rising sea levels. Buildings on stilts, underwater homes, floating cities—the proposed innovations are endless. People even talk about creating localized Silicon Valleys around the world. I say let’s talk about Silicon Islands and Silicon Deltas and Silicon Coasts. Somewhat similar to what Bill Gates has proposed, contests with payoffs function as a market-based solution. The rise in Socially Responsible Investing is encouraging [1]. Overall, the technological element of the solution is not my biggest concern, since humans are smart.

The real issue at stake is the inequitable distribution of the wealth and resources. There are huge disparities between the global North and global South. If we are to make genuine progress, we should accept that more efforts need to be made, even if that makes some economies less competitive in the short term. By bringing multiple countries together and reducing incentives for countries to defect, we can make better progress. Since climate change often disproportionately affects poorer countries that pollute less than richer, industrialized nations, it is vital that apart from decarbonization, the wealthier countries also help the less prosperous ones make investments in the world’s future. In that vein, a Republican Congress, which will most likely address climate change merely as a domestic partisan issue, should not scupper the $100 billion climate change aid commitment launched 7 years ago (incidentally, by Hillary Clinton).

Pushing for climate change concessions or promises during trade deal negotiations with bigger, more prosperous countries is one way to make this change. Within large multilateral institutions, taking collective action can be significant. Think about what could be accomplished if individual countries voted in a block to protect common climate interests (granted, this is easier said than done).

Apart from the other renewable efforts, tidal energy is relatively unexplored. MeyGen in Scotland is an ambitious attempt to harness tidal power through underwater turbines. It is expected to generate 398 megawatts (enough to power 175,000 homes) and be fully operational by the early 2020s [2]. This could be a good solution for island or coastal countries.

As I previously mentioned, I am no expert on climate change but what I can say is that if we don’t get this right and if the current territories of island nations, such as Kiribati, cease to exist (without viable alternatives), the complex migration issue we see today would be just the prelude of a larger human crisis.

Arjun Mehrotra is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service from India. He has lived in Singapore and the UAE, and is interested in sustainability and international relations. He was selected as the Queens Young Leaders 2016 runner-up from Singapore (awarded to young leaders aged 18 to 29 working across the Commonwealth) and wants to work with different stakeholders towards an equitable future.



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