The State of the World, Ep. 3: Climate Change
In episode three of The State of the World, Talking Policy host Lindsay Morgan speaks with Richard Matthew and Fonna Forman about climate change. Richard and Fonna explain the science of where we are and how we got here, and offer ideas about the role individuals have to play in finding solutions. Richard is research director for climate change and international security at IGCC and professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy and Director of Strategic Engagement for the School of Social Ecology at UC Irvine. Fonna Forman is a professor of Political Science and founding co-director of the Center on Global Justice at UC San Diego and co-chairs the UC Global Climate Leadership Council.
The State of the World is a special series on IGCC’s Talking Policy podcast that explores the biggest global challenges that will shape our future. The series is part of a suite of activities celebrating IGCC’s 40th anniversary.
This episode was recorded on December 11, 2023. The conversation was edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Talking Policy on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The Earth is warming.
Global temperatures are higher than they were 200 years ago, and they’re on track to keep going up.
[clip: “After a summer of extreme heat around the world, the U.S. government says September was the hottest in its 174 years of climate records”]
Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising…
[clip: “Our action, collectively, or worse, our inaction, will impact billions of people for decades to come”]
…and the climate is changing faster than life on Earth can adapt.
[clip: “What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!”]
Where can we look for solutions to the global threat of climate change? Do we as individuals have a role to play?
This is the State of the World, a series of five conversations hosted by the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.
I’m Lindsay Morgan, Associate Director of IGCC. And in each episode of this series, I’ll talk with some of the best thinkers from across the University of California about the biggest global challenges that will shape our future.
In our last episode, I spoke with Neil Narang and Brandon Kinne about war – and peace.
This is episode three: Climate.
Lindsay: To begin to process the vast subject of climate change, I sat down with two scholars who have devoted their careers to understand what’s happening to the planet and what that means for people. Fonna Forman is a professor of political science and founding co-director of the Center on Global Justice at UC San Diego, and the Blum Cross-Border Initiative.
Fonna: This coming decade will be the decade of most global reliance on fossil fuels that we’ve ever seen.
Lindsay: Richard Matthew is research director for climate change and international security at IGCC, and he directs the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation and Sustainable Development at UC Irvine.
Richard: Right now, we are at the warmest point in recorded history. And we’re on a trajectory to continue along that line.
Lindsay: Richard, I want to ask you, you know, how did we get here? And where do things stand now?
Richard: One way of thinking about it is that the planet created these massive deposits of coal and oil and natural gas over millions and millions of years. Up until 1850, the world hardly used any of it. So, we used mostly wood for energy. In the 1850s, the world started to pivot towards using massive amounts of coal. And then in the 1950s, we started to use massive amounts of petroleum, and since the 1970s, massive amounts of natural gas.
In other words, in a very short time, we have used an incredible amount of cheap, accessible fossil fuels. What we’ve discovered is it had a couple of implications. One was being able to have so much cheap, abundant fossil fuel energy stimulated enormous economic growth and population growth. But it also created greenhouse gases, now very well-documented, that began to trap solar energy on the surface of the planet.
So what we’ve seen in the past hundred, hundred and fifty years, is a steady, but gradual warming of the planet. And what this has done, imagine, you know, a fever, your body fighting a fever of a couple of degrees. Well, you know, when you get a couple of degrees of fever, your body is working very hard to maintain basic function.
And what we’ve seen is that the couple of degrees we’ve already warmed up has intensified the hydrological system. And we have bigger droughts and bigger floods and more intense and more frequent fires than we’ve had for thousands and thousands of years.
And what this means, of course, is impacts on public health and impacts on agricultural yields and impacts on labor productivity. And for as long as we know, one of the most– one of the most fundamental ways humans adapt to that sort of stress is by moving, but we have a world in which, you know, borders are pretty fixed and immutable, and so now we have tens of millions of people looking for better environments to move into, and they are struggling. And this generates sometimes conflict.
Lindsay: The arc of the story is quite long. But we have just in the last few years started to really realize that, like, climate change is actually real. We’re seeing it in front of us, and it’s not far away. It’s in our own communities.
Fonna, a lot of your work has been dedicated to thinking about climate justice, how climate change and the environment affect the most vulnerable. Can you give us a picture of that?
Fonna: The truth is, we’re beginning to see this all around us. So, there was a point in time at which, you know, the most vulnerable populations on the planet were at the front lines of sea level rise, were at the front lines of drought and famine and so forth. But these dynamics now are creeping into the lives of people who might not have otherwise thought of themselves as vulnerable to climate change.
There’s actually a positive side of this and obviously, you know, a substantively negative side of this, but as people are recognizing more and more that the impacts of climate change are not just localized to people who are understood as underserved or vulnerable, I think the needle is moving broader public perceptions.
One of the challenges, and this is a sort of sociological continuation of the story that Richard was providing a few minutes ago, is that we’ve become collectively globally inured to the kind of economic development that is the culprit for all of these knock-on effects down the road.
And so, part of the challenge is to rethink what it means to develop. To rethink what it means to actually progress. Because right now, progress and development are tightly linked with fossil fuel consumption. And the challenge is to disambiguate those things. And we are culturally resistant to that.
Lindsay: Climate change is so giant. It transcends borders. It requires international collaboration and cooperation. And of course, I should say for our audience, I mean, we’re recording this interview at the second to last day of the COP28 meeting, which is taking place in Dubai. You know, it’s in the headlines every day. Are those mechanisms – which are critical – are they better now than they were? Or are they actually getting weaker? Which direction are they going?
Fonna: I mean, what we’re seeing right now is the rise of nationalism and a hunkering-down of local politics and looking away from one another and looking inward.
And so much of this surging nationalism and this populist fanaticism in many places is a function of sort of cultural protectionism, the arrival of migrants, you know, the whole immigration story traditionally, historically has been a story of political instability and violence and food insecurity and so forth.
But climate change is a threat multiplier for all of these things. And it’s accelerating these flows. And as these flows accelerate, people are getting resistant and hostile and putting up walls, right?
So we’re moving away from an era marked by eagerness to collaborate and cooperate. Politicians run on platforms against the United Nations and against the idea of a global community, that we need to be taking care of ourselves.
So you look at an event like the COP in Dubai right now, and what stands out is the kind of cynicism of, you know, this meeting about global cooperation on an urgent collective issue taking place in a scene of dream castles, a fossil fuel fantasy land. Conveying messages that you can continue to live like you live, don’t worry, we’ve got this, right? Which reinforces this complacency and delays in public commitment on this issue.
So I’m actually becoming increasingly skeptical about what global cooperation looks like. It looks like a lot of sloganeering. It looks like a lot of greenwashing. It looks like a lot of tactics of accommodationism, rather than taking the challenge seriously in a collective way.
Richard: I think that one struggle that we have is that, in the 1990s, when this was put on the global agenda — that happened at the time that the Cold War had ended. Clinton and Gore were moving into the White House. There was a sense that the U.S. model for economic and political arrangements was very robust, and it was the model that was going to sort of define the future of humankind.
And all of this led many people to believe that climate change could be treated as a sort of scientific technical problem and the U.S. would lead the world in setting some targets and developing strategies forward. And what we’ve discovered is this has not happened at all. It isn’t that nothing has happened at that level, but very little has happened at that level.
Governments don’t tend to be boldly innovative. They don’t tend to go out there and sort of lay the terms for dramatic change. They’re more likely to respond to changes that are percolating up through society broadly. So what’s really important is that everybody gets involved and starts to do what they can do, as climate action. If we sit back and we hope that they’re going to solve this problem at the next COP meeting, we’re going to be frustrated.
Lindsay: It sounds like what you’re saying is that at the official level, the level of national governments, the level of global institutions, that there has not been as much progress as any of us would have hoped. And yet, climate change will inevitably require responses, whether they be, you know, taken unilaterally by governments or done cooperatively.
So those institutions will matter. And I’m wondering if you can say, what are the areas where you think global institutions and countries should prioritize in terms of working together?
Richard: I mean, if we look at, at any big important change in the past, look at the movement of Civil Rights, or Women’s Rights, or movements towards, you know, environmental rescue. There’s no case where government leaders and business leaders have led those efforts.
What they have done is they’ve paid some lip service to them, and when a critical mass of activity has taken place in society, then the government says, now is our time to come in, give it the stamp of approval, and sort of systematically integrate it into our legal structures. And that’s fantastic. You want to get there. You want to get to that point where the government feels comfortable saying we’re going to now align our institutions with what the public wants, what the public is doing.
So, I’m not saying government never leads, but I can’t think of any real bold policy initiative at– anywhere, for decades.
That said, are there issues that they need to address? I think that there’s clearly several big important issues that are not being adequately addressed. And one is the issue of migration. We can’t allow all migrants who are leaving drought or flood or violence or something like this to move into the neighboring country or to make it to one place in– in Europe. And think that that country is going to deal with the whole problem.
We need to develop these solutions to migration where everybody picks up some of the burden and come up with migration policy that’s fair and start to reconcile it with the migration policies of other countries, so that we can recognize that this is a normal adaptive response, and it can be in all of our interests.
The other thing, of course, is that, like it or not, we have to find better ways to fund adaptation and mitigation in that part of the world that has almost no resources. Now, we have a very, very wealthy world. The trouble is that wealth is very much concentrated in a small number of hands. So one of the things that political leaders and business leaders need to be committed to doing is finding ways to make the enormous resources and capability of the planet accessible to those who, right now, have very little access to it.
I think that the third thing is, there is a real need to deal everywhere with misinformation and disinformation and to find ways to rebuild trust. Because you can’t really have a system, a political system, and policies and laws coming out of that system that are bold and innovative, when you have most of the people feeling marginalized and wary of that system.
These are things that probably over five or ten years we could make a lot of difference in. They would be a great focus. Because these are issues where we can make progress at every scale.
Lindsay: Fonna, I want to ask you to tell us a little bit about the ‘Bending the Curve’ report, which was focused exactly on this, identifying promising and scalable solutions. Can you tell us about Bending the Curve?
Fonna: So, Bending the Curve was a report in 2015, led by my dear colleague at UC San Diego, Professor Ram Ramanathan, a climate scientist at Scripps. And essentially, we summoned 50 researchers across the University of California system to identify 10 climate solutions that California, because of its history, could model for the world.
And one of the things we quickly realized in assembling these voices, is that we need to get beyond thinking about climate change as a scientific problem with a technology solution. That we need to be thinking in more integral ways about solutions design.
It’s not just about technology, but it’s also about finance. It’s also about societal transformation. It’s about land use management. It’s about public health. It’s about so many things. And these, these ways of approaching the problem need to be integrated, and people need to be working across these sectors together.
So, I mean, that was the impetus behind Bending the Curve, and the report was actually transformed into an educational protocol that is now used for teaching undergraduates about climate change.
And I think just to say, I mean, young people today, more and more, want their lives, their careers to matter. And they’re trying to figure this out for themselves. How what I do will make a difference in this challenge. And what I tell my students is: you all have a place to play in this, big or small. You know, it’s about figuring out how to navigate through this new space.
Lindsay: One of the things, at least for me personally, that drives a sense of resignation about climate change, is this sense of being powerless to do anything about it.
And so how are we supposed to live with such a daunting problem where we all have to grapple with the limits of what we can do, but we will have to live through the consequences?
Fonna: I’ve devoted a lot of my work over the last 15, 20 years to the disproportionate impacts of environmental stressors on vulnerable populations and was drawn into the climate change discussion for that reason, it was no longer possible to study global poverty without studying the impacts of climate change.
But as a climate communicator, I’ve come to realize that climate justice, as traumatic and real as it is, cannot always be the cutting edge of climate communication. Because if the public was kind of resistant to global poverty sui generis, they’re not going to be convinced that there’s an urgency with the addition of a threat multiplier like climate change.
So this has been a kind of a wake-up call for me about the need to think about the way we communicate about climate justice, the audiences where climate justice might have more impact and the audiences where definitely it does not. Because when people begin to understand that climate change will impact their own health, their own neighborhoods, the well-being of their own children, their attitudes begin to shift.
There was a really wonderful study done by the Union of Concerned Scientists in South Florida several years ago about climate change and about sea level rise. And self-styled conservatives who are typically, you know, skeptical of climate policy or climate-forward candidates for political office, began to shift their attitudes when it became less of an abstract policy issue and more a concrete visualization of what their neighborhood looked like two feet underwater.
So, I think, we’re able to connect with a segment of the population around the science, around the more generalized global impacts, around climate justice and the disproportionate sort of consequences for certain populations. And then there’s a segment of the population who’s just shut off. But I think in the vast middle, there are ways to sort of access people through their interests.
So it’s about communicating differently. It’s about educating people, in the face of so much political polarization that presents very static positions on very complex challenges.
And I think that when you commit to these local projects, and you get to know intimately the communities that you’re working with, it changes the music.
Not only does it help to sort of overcome resistance to climate change by understanding your own local impacts and the impacts on your community and your children and your health and so forth, but to overcome the feeling of paralysis, it helps when you can work together. With people in your own community, collectively. It changes the feeling of stasis, where you can actually work together and get things done.
Lindsay: Richard, in your own career and life, what does being hopeful look like to you?
Richard: My focus has been on how do I make my life meaningful? And for me, there’s been sort of three elements to it. One element is I continually look at the incredible beauty, both in nature and that human beings themselves create in music and art and these sorts of things. Humans and nature create just awe-inspiring beauty. And that has never stopped.
The second thing I think is asking myself, what’s the relationship I want to have to suffering? And the relationship I want to have to suffering is to try and do something about it.
So that’s meant I’ve taken on some, some challenges. One has been to be sort of the leadership of an effort to introduce climate resilience and resource management into UN peace-building processes. And I think that’s a good thing. I think that bringing climate change and the environment into those processes was a good thing for a lot of people.
Locally, when I moved to California, to Orange County, there was a great deal of climate skepticism. And I thought, you know, this is what I study, and this is what I teach about. And so I’m going to be a sort of persistent, low-key voice saying this is real and we need to do something about it. And I feel that Orange County has changed, as Fonna was talking about the whole country, Orange County has also changed, and there are lots of people who say, ‘Yeah, I’m watching beaches erode. I’m watching massive fires take place. I’m watching long droughts. Explain to me again what’s going on and what we can do about it.’
And so I do think that part of having a meaningful life for me has been finding ways to cooperate with other interesting people at home and abroad. And I’m proud of the things I did. I’m one person out of eight billion.
But you, too. Everybody, every one of my students can go out and do some interesting things in their own backyard and connect with communities around the world these days to do some interesting things beyond their own backyard.
When you look at the climate change movement around the world, you look at it today in 2024. It is full of young social entrepreneurs, of artists, of filmmakers, of teachers, doctors, scientists. It’s full of this big diverse group of people who are really creative, really passionate, and who are doing things. And this is very promising. 35 years ago, nobody in the world was talking about climate change.
Today, everybody in the world is talking about climate change. I think this is remarkable. This is promising. It creates opportunities for everybody. And so, you know, from the household to municipal politics to the UN system, there are reasons to be buoyed up by what we’re seeing.
Lindsay: Richard Matthew, Fonna Forman, thanks for being with us on Talking Policy.
Richard: It’s been a pleasure, thanks Lindsay.
Fonna: Thank you.
Problems as existential as climate change require solutions that are far bigger than any one person. Nations will have to work together, as will local communities. But as Richard recently wrote, “The repertoire of human ingenuity is infinite and universal, and a vast array of promising solutions to climate change do exist. A warming world is certainly cause for serious alarm, but not for surrender.”
In the next episode of this series, I’ll speak with two experts from the University of California about democracy: a mode of governance we often take for granted that is being challenged here in the U.S. and around the world.
Thanks for listening to The State of the World, a special miniseries from Talking Policy. I’m your host, Lindsay Morgan.
This episode was produced by Anna Van Dine , with additional production from Tasha Lemley. Production manager, Gabriela Montequin. Mixing and sound design by Alex Brouwer. Our production partner for this series is CitizenRacecar.
Talking Policy is a production of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Archival audio used in this series is from NPR; the University of California, Irvine, audio recordings collection; Freesound.org; the Internet Archive; the Library of Congress; and the United States Government. Used with permission, where applicable. Any unauthorized duplication is strictly prohibited.
The UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) is a research network comprised of scholars from across the University of California and the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories that conducts policy-relevant research to mitigate conflict and promote a more peaceful world order. Our focus is on challenges that have the potential to lead to wide-scale conflict, and that can benefit from global cooperation to solve. Our portfolio includes both traditional security issues—defense innovation, strategy and deterrence, nuclear weapons policy, and security cooperation—and emerging and non-traditional challenges such as climate change, geoeconomics and great power competition, and threats to democracy. In each of these areas, IGCC builds diverse, multidisciplinary research teams that analyze the causes and consequences of global conflict—and help develop practical solutions.