Power to the People: Professor David Ciplet Discusses Power Dynamics and Climate Negotiations

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With an interesting research and career portfolio that blends social movements and climate change, David Ciplet joined the Environmental Studies Department at the University of Colorado Boulder earlier this academic year bringing with him a focus on power and inequality in climate change and global politics.

Ciplet joined researchers and international policymakers in Paris for the United Nations’ climate change conference (Conference of the Parties, COP21) in December. In his book, Power in a Warming World, which was published in September, he and his co-authors argue that international negotiations on climate change are likely to fail to prevent major climate impacts and continue to be vastly inequitable unless such efforts contend with powerful coalitions and the fossil fuel economy. We sat down with Ciplet, a former middle school teacher and community organizer, to find out what led him down this path and what negotiations are necessary moving forward.

Tell us more about your background. What led you to this work in environmental justice and social change in climate change politics?

I was a middle school teacher for a small school focused on experiential learning, and I’ve worked in the non-profit world focused on waste and environmental justice. My organization represented a network of community groups around the world that worked with people disproportionately impacted by environmental problems. That got me interested in international climate change politics and inequality. I sought to better understand who is being adversely impacted by international climate change policies and who has the capability to influence the process.

The network I worked with brought waste pickers (informal recyclers) to the United Nations’ negotiations so that they could be rewarded for what they were doing on the front lines of sustainability, increase their visibility, and challenge international policies that were threatening their livelihoods. I also worked closely with the group of 49 Least Developed Countries, which are among the countries most vulnerable to a changing climate. They are responsible for less than one percent of global climate change pollution yet they suffer five times as many deaths from climate related disasters such as floods, droughts, and heat waves than the global average. We advocated for more favorable policies and funding from the wealthy countries to help them adapt to changes already underway.

Tell us more about your book, Power in a Warming World: The New Global Politics of Climate Change and the Remaking of Environmental Inequality, (MIT Press, 2015). Could you summarize its focus and why it matters?

The book attempts to understand how we arrived at this point. After nearly a quarter century of international negotiations, we’ve arrived at a situation that continues to be inequitable and inadequate. The paradox is that those who are least responsible for climate change are the most impacted. That is something we should all care about.

The book offers guidance for how we can “shift course” and how we can challenge entrenched power relations in climate politics, which is no small task! Where do we begin?

Most importantly we need to keep big money interests out of politics in the U.S. and internationally. The fossil fuel industry, including coal, oil and natural gas, is heavily subsidized. To meet the stated targets agreed to in the United Nations process, we need to keep roughly four-fifths of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We cannot do that if political leaders continue to mainly represent the interests of fossil fuel companies. For example, in the more than thirty pages of text that was agreed upon in the Paris climate change negotiations, the words “fossil fuels” don’t appear even once. Reorienting our political system to serve public rather than corporate interests has to be at the core of what we are trying to do to address climate change.

Subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are around $750 billion a year globally. Yet, we allocate only $4-5 billion a year to the poorest countries for adaptation. Responding to climate change in a fair and equitable fashion will require a major shift in our priorities.

Personal actions are important, but systematic problems move beyond individuals. We need to seek local, state, and national policies that create better systems. We need to recognize that in the U.S., billions are spent responding to climate-related disasters every year that have serious impacts for people of color and low income populations. We need to be proactive and push our cities and towns to take climate change seriously, and to prepare for disasters in ways that prioritize the needs of those most vulnerable to the impacts. Climate change should serve as a catalyst for us to challenge existing systems of inequality and to work for something better.

Beyond COP21, you’ve witnessed or participated in many international negotiations. Why have we been so slow to make progress?

A major reason we’re not addressing climate change is that it’s going to involve major changes. It may be difficult; it may be painful, but it also reveals opportunities for us to build a better society. We need to focus on solutions and really understand the severity of the problem. It’s going to have very real implications for us, our children and our grandchildren — even if we completely change course. Countries like the Philippines and Bangladesh have already experienced devastating disasters. Unless we take far bolder action some small island states such as Tuvalu will completely disappear under rising seas. We need to work to ensure that all lives are valued in this context of a warming world.

You’ve mentioned that you have three, young children. Do they add a personal layer your work?

I certainly want to do what I can to be sure they have a livable planet. I want to help my kids develop empathy, to be responsible, caring and understand that the world is a complicated place. It’s hard to fully understand how to parent in a moment of climate change; how to help them grapple with complex and daunting problems. But I also underestimate their abilities to understand complexities, to understand the world. They certainly are not numb to injustice and the lack of fairness in the world. Often times they remind us how the world can and should be. I think they inspire us to be better people in that way.

About David Ciplet

Dr. David Ciplet earned his Ph.D. in Sociology at Brown University.  His research has been featured in journals such as Global Environmental Politics, Global Governance, and Social Movement Studies, and in media outlets including The New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Reuters, Radio Australia, and The International Herald Tribune.

Prior to earning his Ph.D., he worked for NGOs on issues of waste, energy, and climate justice, and as a middle school teacher.  As an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at CU, he teaches courses on themes including Environmental Justice and Community Engagement; Waste and Global Justice; and Power, Justice and Climate Change.

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