21st century challenges: climate, immigration, and terror
Watch the UVA Democracy Biennial
The Biennial was originally broadcast September 24-25, 2021
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May 21, 2019
Rosa Brooks, Deborah Lawrence, Todd Sechser, David Leblang (moderator)
By Christopher Tyree
Global issues are, by their very nature, interconnected. Climate change gives rise to human migration and pandemics such as Zika virus. And with the pace of change increasing, more complex problems emerge. “It would be hard to find a period in human history in which the rapidity of change, the rapidity of global interconnectedness has increased so fast,” said Rosa Brooks, professor of law at Georgetown law, part of a diverse panel of academics who discussed 21st Century challenges.
“It is both the president’s role to lead the United States and develop a coherent approach to U.S. foreign policy, but also the president’s role [is] to, in many ways, try to help create global order. I’m not sure that’s the moment we’re in,” Brooks said.
In many of these transnational issues, the lack of a clear adversary makes policy harder to generate, argued Todd Sechser, professor of politics at UVA and a Miller Center senior fellow. Sechser's research interests include nuclear security and political violence. “There is no clear enemy to point to as a way to motivate collective action," he suggested. "There are different sectors of American society that have widely different perceptions and widely different interests in how we approach these problems.”
President Trump announced almost two years ago that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Yet, last week the level of carbon in the atmosphere was higher than it has ever been in human history.
“Unlike some of the uncertainty that can happen with how humans will evolve, how we will interact with each other or other nations, there is not a lot of certainty about where the climate is going. There is actually a lot of certainty. We know what will happen if we add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere,” said Deborah Lawrence, professor of environmental science at UVA. “What is really the uncertainty is what we will do—and what we will do in the next five years.”
“When it comes to dealing with the effects of climate change or migration these are multilateral transnational problems that naturally require international cooperation,” said Sechser. “The president, more than any other political institution, is in a position to help foster international collaboration.”
Seschser also believes that the president has, “enormous control over the narrative in trying to justify and explain to the American public why policies are necessary, why international cooperation is necessary, to address these issues.”
“There is a relationship between what leaders say and what the American people think. People won’t care about it if you don’t talk about it and they won’t care about it if you don’t talk about it in a way that is direct and compelling and makes the case to every ordinary American that the neighborhood we live in, this globe, that we have to take care of our neighbors otherwise it's going to come back and hurt us,” said Brooks.
“We are in an era of incredible uncertainty for a president, an American president. It has never been an easy job. It wasn’t an easy job for George Washington. It wasn’t an easy job for Abraham Lincoln. It is not an easy job now. Trying to come up with a coherent vision of the American role in the world is almost impossible in an era of such great uncertainty.
“Even as we worry, as we should, about climate, migration, all these other interconnected things, don’t forget there is a significantly rising possibility of good old fashioned mass carnage caused by war between states.”
The crowd in the small room, in near unison, sighed.
Key quotes from this session
Presidents have an opportunity to influence both sides of the immigration decision. . . . I view presidents and presidential leadership as having opportunities to shape both pro and pushback factors that influence population movements. —David Leblang
We live in an age that is increasingly characterized by interconnectedness, complexity and a rapid rate of technological and social change in all kinds of ways. And that produces a different amount uncertainty. —Rosa Brooks
[W]e are absolutely kidding ourselves when we make predictions. I think we are at a moment in time when even for most individuals around the globe day to day life is less perilous than it was for most of human history. So most individual humans life has gotten better. But for the species as a whole, the risk of global catastrophe has gotten worse. —Rosa Brooks
We are at a moment when the rate in the amount of change has just been astonishing. The types of risks we face are potentially existential in a way that was not true 100 or 150 years ago, . . . and our ability to predict probabilities of any of these risks is close to nonexistent because we don’t have any model. The last thousand years doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what happens now. —Rosa Brooks
Trying to come up with a coherent vision of the American role in the world is almost impossible in an era of such great uncertainty. —Rosa Brooks
I think there are ways, important ways, that a U.S. president still could craft a policy that is in fact premised on uncertainty. And that means building resilient global institutions that can help us confront some of the collective challenges. . . . At the moment I don’t think we are doing that. At the moment I think we are doing the opposite, we are retreating from our historic role in creating robust, resilient and agile institutions and we need urgently to get back to that. —Rosa Brooks
Uncertainty about climate as a reason for failure to act is really not an option, it is an abdication. —Deborah Lawrence
We’ve got all these uncertainties. Will a warming planet lead to conflict and migration that ultimately destabilizes a European Government? How much of a risk is that? I don’t know. Nobody knows. And anybody who tells you they know is making it up and should be ignored. Given those uncertainties, which makes us very nervous, we have a tendency to fall back on the familiar. And the familiar is things like great power conflict. —Rosa Brooks
Things may get worse before they get better. Will we adapt? Yeah, we’ll adapt. The question is how painful will that adaptation be and how long will it take? —Rosa Brooks
Coming to things like the ideas festival is really important. Thinking about what democracy means. Thinking about how we can participate in the creation, sustenance, and the transmission of democracy to other generations and to other people. This is a normative plea. —David Leblang