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Sauvé Series Event Explores Collective Action on Climate Change

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Dr. Angel Hsu, Assistant Professor, Yale-NUS College and Yale School of Forestry; Principal Investigator, Environmental Performance Index; Founder and Director, Data Driven Yale
November 27, 2017

On November 20th, the Fall 2017 Jeanne Sauvé Forum Series on Social Connectedness and International Development continued with its 10th weekly seminar of the fall series: How Can Communities Advance Climate Action in the Trump Era?

The Sauvé Series, created by Professor Kim Samuel in collaboration with the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation, explores the root causes of social isolation, along with strategies for building social connectedness through international policy and program development. It began last fall with weekly discussions at the historic Jeanne Sauvé House in Montreal covering a variety of topics, from the UN Sustainable Development Goals to refugees and human rights. The Series is also closely linked with Professor Samuel’s fourth-year seminar course on social connectedness at McGill University, the first of its kind.

Professor Samuel opened the evening with a reflection on the state of collective action on climate change, given the outright denial of climate change by some key leaders. “With all of the noise on both sides, how can we understand the challenges and build solutions to those most at risk to the effects of climate change?”

Kim Samuel, Professor of Practice, Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University; President, The Samuel Family Foundation

Professor Samuel reminded the audience of the interconnectedness of all things, stating that, “The actions of one country, the policies of a region, the practices of one sector like fisheries or forestry … do not have limited impact. They affect every aspect of our lives and those of our future generations.”

Finally, she spoke of the importance of robust measurement and data in making progress towards concrete climate action as well as in many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Professor Samuel explained the concept of the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) which measures national and global protection of ecosystems and human health, and highlights gaps where more data is needed. The EPI is unique because it can equip actors at all levels –governments, policymakers, corporations, and ordinary citizens– to enhance accountability and create change.

In her opening talk, Dr. Angel Hsu, Principal Investigator of the EPI, Director of Data Driven Yale and Assistant Professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Yale-NUS College, spoke about the need for better measurement to understand what the most effective contributions to climate action can be. She noted that, even if all nations achieved their Paris targets, we would still be heading towards a three degree Celsius increase.  Yet there is not enough data to know how many additional tons of carbon dioxide we must reduce in order to narrow the gap.  “This is the challenge for all students, researchers and academics.”

Most importantly, Angel noted the critical role that sub-national and non-state actors can play in advancing climate action, especially in countries like the United States where national leaders are reluctant to acknowledge the realities of climate change. Cities, and the citizens that inhabit them, will be key to setting the bar.

Dr. Angel Hsu, Assistant Professor, Yale-NUS College and Yale School of Forestry; Principal Investigator, Environmental Performance Index; Founder and Director, Data Driven Yale

Following Angel, Carol Devine, a humanitarian and global and planetary health activist, spoke about the links between health and climate change. She highlighted opportunities for action for citizens in this era. Drawing a parallel between the AIDs pandemic and climate change, both as global problems that require solutions rooted in policy, Carol emphasized the need for multi-sectoral collaboration, especially between unexpected allies.

Carol also addressed the growing wave of climate-related displacement, reminding us that the impact of climate change stretches far beyond borders, with countries who have contributed little to emissions suffering some of the most severe consequences. Yet we are seeing a “hardening of borders and a closing off of our world,” she noted. “This is a time for taking down walls.”

Carol Devine, Humanitarian and Global and Planetary Health Activist

Shifting the conversation to a local level, Amelia Brinkerhoff, Coordinator for McGill University’s Sustainability Strategy, Vision 2020, emphasized the role that universities play in the conversation around climate change. “Universities are like small cities. They have a lot of potential to change and leverage within the system to model what could happen in other industries.” Amelia also stressed the fact that McGill has a large student population of roughly 40,000 students, which provides a highly captive audience for climate change action.

Amelia went on to discuss McGill’s Vision 2020, which was first launched in 2014 as the University’s first ever sustainability strategy. Amelia recounted how they consulted with several stakeholders – students, faculty, other universities and more – in creating a cohesive plan. One of McGill’s long-term goals is to become carbon neutral, which requires looking at the supply chain and energy production/consumption of the school and exploring carbon sequestration opportunities, to name a few. Overall, Amelia believes that universities have a tangible role to play in adapting to and mitigating climate change, and she invited audience members to get involved in their university’s work.

Amelia Brinkerhoff, Vision 2020 Coordinator, McGill Office of Sustainability

Leading the discussion portion of the evening was Alex Morrison, a recent graduate from McGill and Social Connectedness Fellow with a passion for environmental protection and Indigenous rights. Alex explained how the most vulnerable people are often excluded from dialogue around climate change action. Based on this reflection, he asked the panel: “For more vulnerable countries, are there currently initiatives that are promoting climate action and funding preventative measures across borders?

Angel responded that financing is a big piece of this challenge, and that there must be more financial aid given to the “most vulnerable countries to adapt to the consequences of climate change.” Carol pointed to the role of internal stakeholders such as “organizations and governments that are going to have to push for this” when it comes to dealing with countries that are hit by immediate climate impact.

Following this conversation, a McGill student asked the panel whether it is fair to ask developing countries to reduce their coal emissions since developed countries were not penalized in the past for their large emissions. According to Angel, under the Paris Climate Accord, this has been accounted for in the calculation and evaluation of countries’ pledges to reduce their carbon emissions. It has been recognized that in the short-run, developing countries will still use coal, but in the long-run they can transition to more cleaner energy sources, such as China with their leading investments in solar and wind power.

Another question was raised regarding the importance of carbon sequestration as a carbon emissions reduction strategy. Amelia noted that carbon sequestration is a way to think locally about climate change, and will be a key area of research for both students and faculty in the coming years. However, she pointed out that carbon offsetting is still an underdeveloped area and much more data is needed to ensure the most efficient allocation of the University’s resources.

Lastly, Professor Samuel raised a poignant question: “How do we convince governments, policy makers, and society that climate change is a public health risk?” In response, Carol noted that “something that will help us talk to policymakers is the benefits of action.” Re-shaping the narrative around the health impacts of climate change can be a more effective strategy to convince governments and policymakers to take action, especially those who are climate deniers.

The event closed on a positive note from all the speakers. As a young person herself, Amelia remarked that “I hope everyone feels thrilled and invigorated about this topic. 50.5% of the world’s population is under 30, and this makes me excited for the future.” Carol urged the audience to reflect on how pervasive the issue of climate change is: “I love data but let’s not forget our common humanity. We are leaning towards not calling people climate refugees. Because that could be us.” Lastly, despite being ushered into a new era under Trump, Angel reminded the audience that “the U.S. has never been a leader on climate change. So we should not be down or depressed. Trump has released a huge upwelling of activism. This is a long-term role and we all have a role to play. We want to include your action.”

The final Sauvé Series event will feature a discussion on exploring the visible and invisible barriers to accessibility that still persist for people with disabilities, in spite of national and global legal frameworks. The panel will feature William Alford, Chair of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability and Vice Dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies; and Michael Stein, Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability and Extraordinary Professor, University of Pretoria Faculty of Law. For more information and to register for this event, please visit