Tag Archives: Peter J. Stoett

  • Environmental Issues and the U.S. Presidential Debates

    Peter J. Stoett’s new book, Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice, provides readers with an excellent introduction to major global environmental challenges. Through a series of case studies, it explores the limitations and possibilities of international governance—which involves not only governments but civil society and the private sector—to create effective solutions to these challenges.

    The deeper aim of the book is to encourage sustained, informed discussions of environmental policy and problem-solving. And, serving this purpose extends beyond the covers of the book. Today, on election day in the United States, we would like to share Professor Stoett’s reflections on the absence of environmental issues in the U.S. presidential debates.

    It took a colossal storm to get the media to focus, momentarily, on climate change-related issues during the recent American electoral campaigns. Yet in the days before Sandy, a casual observer of the Obama-Romney debates might conclude there are no environmental issues worthy of discussion if the word “energy” is not attached (a pipeline from Canada, patriotic dreams of fossil fuel independence, and the old chestnut, the “price at the pump”). But there are (with apologies to women everywhere) binders full of them.

    No mention of the greatest ecological disaster in American history, the BP Gulf oil spill. Nothing on one of the most dangerous threats to human health, the loss of biodiversity; or on the safety of the new energy panacea, shale oil and gas. No melting Arctic. No Asian Carp on the verge of invading the Great Lakes, or the West Nile virus terrorizing Texas. And wasn’t there a severe, nation-wide drought this summer that inflated food and biofuel prices? Silence.

    The so-called foreign policy debate focused on Romney’s favourite phrase that evening, “American leadership,” without even the slightest mention of America’s role in an international community struggling to cope with climate change, deforestation and desertification, an unprecedented oceans crisis, and the threat of mass extinction. Some positioning on American promises made in Copenhagen on a massive climate change adaptation fund would have been fairly basic. Again, silence.

    This was not an eerie, mysterious silence, but an orchestrated one. Of course, the environment will be relegated to the sidelines when the economy is on the field. But even the two Bushes found it (to borrow a word from opponent Al Gore) inconvenient not to at least pay lip service, boasting of the reforms their own “green presidencies” could make. And recall that during these elections, also, it was “the economy, stupid.”

    This silence is a consequence of a sharp trend away from policy debates that can in any way trigger wayward thoughts about climate change, the latest “third rail” in U.S. politics. I just spent six months in Washington, D.C., and think tanks are definitely treating the issue seriously, but ecology vanishes in thin public air at the leadership level. Well-funded “climate skeptics,” fueled by Fox News and other conduits, have rendered the broader debate on the environment largely mute. An implicit vow of mutual silence emerged; even the moderators knew better than to go there.

    Naturally, if re-elected, Obama—probably facing a hostile Republican Congress—will lack a clear mandate to move forward in even small measures. Romney, who felt comfortable publicly accusing Obama of the sin of not being a “coal and oil man,” had little environmental agenda in the first place. But what, exactly, either man would push is hard to say after watching the debates, and their campaigns have not filled the void.

    As for the impact of this careful silence in Canada, this depends on how your ear is turned. Our majority party in Ottawa prefers environmental dilemmas to be as quiet as possible, and let’s be realistic: Alberta will get its pipeline south either way.

    But many Canadians would have liked to have heard even a whimper of an indication as to how the next four years may look, especially in a year in which Canada assumes the presidency of the Arctic Council, where that melting sea ice is a multi-level challenge. After all, we will share many of the larger problems, including climate change and more extreme weather events such as hurricanes, coastal erosion, invasive species, and air particulate matter, with the same voters denied an adult discussion south of the border.

    Thankfully, the real work on environmental improvement takes place on levels other than the presidential, and the billions of people engaged in the every-day struggle often embrace, rather than deny or try to defy, sound ecological principals. But silence is far from golden when it excludes some of the most fundamental challenges of our time from a debate which, given America’s potential leadership role, has significance for all of us.

    - Peter J. Stoett

    Note: If you are scheduled to teach a course that would benefit from having this book on the required reading list, please email requests@utphighereducation.com to request an examination copy. We would be more than happy to give you the opportunity to review this excellent text for yourself!

  • Durban, Dread, and Promise

    This month UTP Higher Education celebrates the publication of Peter J. Stoett’s Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice. “Can we save this wonderful, green and blue, mountain high and ocean deep planet from further human abuse? Will it save itself without us?” begins Professor Stoett. The book explores these questions first through an introduction to major environmental challenges and then through a series of case studies exploring the limitations and possibilities of international governance—which involves not only governments but civil society and the private sector—to create effective solutions to these challenges.

    The deeper aim of the book is to encourage sustained, informed discussions of environmental policy and problem-solving. And, serving this purpose extends beyond the covers of the book. Read on for Professor Stoett’s reflections on the Durban climate change conference (held this past winter), and the role of conferences like this (including the upcoming Rio+20 this summer) in establishing effective policy that serves a principle of environmental justice by protecting the right to a safe environment as a human right.

    Durban, Dread, and Promise: Moving Beyond Our Age of Angst

    Two recent (2011), critically acclaimed films do a brilliant job of capturing one of our least-favoured emotions: dread. The fear of more severe emotions to come. The sinking realization that doom is not just a far-off threat but is lurking outside the door. Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia take the viewer on a cinematic journey through mental illness, societal expectations, and a gnawing sense of impending doom. They remind me of the climate change debate and the lack of enthusiasm most environmentalists feel for the international talks in Durban, South Africa, last November and December.

    Take Shelter explores this sense of dread from an individual’s point of view. Its main character (in a stunning performance by Michael Shannon) is increasingly obsessed with what he feels is the coming storm of storms. His neighbours and family think he is losing it, and he has reason to suspect this himself, but those dark clouds are coming nevertheless. The deftly directed Melancholia portrays varying responses to the arrival of a colliding planet and plays deftly with our senses of denial, optimism, panic, and gloom. One of the main characters, played by Kirsten Dunst, begins the film in a state of mental disarray but emerges as a calm witness to the apocalypse, while the supposedly stable people around her are unable to adapt.

    Both films provoke thoughts about the fragility and uncertainty of life, the human frame against environmental catastrophe, and our own sense of agency, which is rather apt material for our times when the specter of destruction and mayhem induced by climate change has replaced the fear of nuclear weapon strikes that plagued several generations during the Cold War. (There is a major difference, of course, between the two images. Climate change is indeed here, now, happening largely to people who have the least recourse to political power or the economic power of adaptation; whereas, with the calamitous exceptions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have not been used—directly, at any rate—on human communities.) But these films echo our environmental realities not only through their apocalyptic themes but also through the near-indifference to these eventualities exhibited by the majority of the characters. (Politicians, by the way, are noticeably absent from both films, which could be worrisome or refreshing, depending on your viewpoint.)

    Meanwhile, predictably, climate change talks sputtered in Durban, South Africa, as yet another United Nations conference disappointed those who believed Santa would deliver the present of political certainty this year. Stalemates ensued the usual debates: the split between Northern and Southern countries over who should pay for past mistakes, the short-term costs of serious action (which pale next to the long-term costs of inaction, but that is harder for politicians to conceptualize), the sheer suffocative weight of heavily subsidized fossil fuel development, and distrust and resentment, all within the context of yet another global economic crisis.

    As the talks circled the drain, it was hard was to escape the image of Nero fiddling away while Rome begins to burn; of the coming storm driving Shannon’s character bonkers; of the arriving planet the wealthy subjects of Melancholia choose to treat as an exotic postcard rather than as a threat to all life on earth. Surely, by now, and despite the best efforts of the relentless climate change “denial industry,” we are conscious of both realized and anticipated floods and droughts, new extinctions of species, invasions of alien species, melting ice and permafrost, and the drowning of shorelines and small islands. Angst, and the smell of despair, sets in, not because we are doing nothing, but because most people realize we could be doing much more.

    However, work is getting done, especially at the local level—survival remains the strongest of motivations. While global negotiations can appear frustratingly divisive, the vast majority of constructive dialogue on climate change and action is taking place at a more local level, where citizens’ groups, invested local companies, and conscientious individuals are taking steps to modify their daily behaviour, albeit in the often-mesmerizing uncertainty of the international context. Individual actions, as the films remind us, speak volumes and make big and little differences in human lives. Governments may be unable or unwilling to take firmer steps (or may even be openly hostile towards those taking them), but many citizens are stepping on regardless.

    We can also take some solace (while exercising healthy caution), in the fact that the level of diplomatic activity on environmental issues is unprecedented. In every sector, from ocean to forestry to biodiversity, we have tens of thousands of scientists, national and international civil servants, politicians, non-governmental organizations, progressive corporate leaders, journalists, and others working hard to make a difference. My book Global Ecopolitics is fairly comprehensive but only covers a fraction of all this activity. Of course diplomats, scientists, and policy wonks do not always agree on everything and have a limited impact given the size and scope of the problems. But, the evidence is, happily, overwhelming: never before have so many people, from so many geographic regions and cultures, been so engaged in environmental protection, biodiversity protection, oceans research and advocacy, and many other facets of the contemporary pursuit of sustainable development.

    There are ethical issues at stake here as well, and we need to keep these in mind if we seek legitimate solutions. Whether or not the Kyoto Protocol will survive as an architectural framework for what people are calling “climate governance,” it is clear we need to think beyond this in order to realize any sort of effective change. Another phrase made the rounds in Durban and beyond: climate justice. This is not, contrary to those eager to dismiss the entire project, just another way of reframing the old debate about colonial responsibility. It is rather a reflection of climate science meeting contemporary ethics, and it is the logical continuation of pursuing environmental justice, a term still in use in many contexts around the world.

    The Canadian and American governments are right about their insistence that  countries such as China, India, and Brazil need to play a proactive role in greenhouse emission reductions (though there is evidence they are indeed doing so already). But, it is ethically irresponsible to ignore the basic fact that the majority of people adversely affected by climate change are those who contributed the least to it. This won’t go away, and needs to be discussed openly in venues such as the Durban conference, even in an era of fiscal austerity. While we would be foolish to place all responsibility for implementing environmental solutions on the outcomes of international conferences, we must demand that this venue be used to deal with the adaptation question, since the misery inflicted by climate change will have to be partially mitigated by the wealthier countries, which can also help by spreading technological advances.

    At least on this front there was, in fact, some progress made at Durban. Government representatives furthered an earlier commitment to establishing an international Green Fund that will be used for climate change adaptation measures amongst other things; this is a continuation of the dialogue on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Adaptation Fund. Though even semi-knowledgeable people suppress a smirk when they are told the Fund’s ambitious goal is to provide $100 billion per year by 2020, we are at least headed in the direction of compensation related to the excesses of industrial and agricultural activity. How we actually raise this money, and how it is distributed, will be a major factor of public life in the next few years, and we should challenge ourselves to open and protracted discussions now, before time runs out and talks resort to the more usual habits of recrimination and evasion.

    These harsh challenges should be viewed as calls of duty. We need to take the best science we have—which, it is widely accepted, points to the very serious consequences of inaction—and strive for a common approach towards collective survival. Today’s complexity is no reason to sacrifice the ability of future generations to cope with the ecological reality they will inherit from us. Rather than succumb to the temptation to declare all efforts futile, people are responding to the challenge of sustainability in remarkable ways across the globe. Some, such as the Inuit of northern North America, have no choice. They are by default the first-responders to climate change, losing valuable hunting ranges due to sea-ice loss and the displacement of hunted species. Others, such as the inhabitants of small ocean islands, see a colliding planet on the horizon, realizing their living space could well be submerged in the decades to come. Others face less immediate challenges but are concerned about the impact all this will have on their children’s and grandchildren’s quality of life. We need to think about our motivations and come to reasonable conclusions about the contributions we can make. Then, we need to make them. The upcoming Rio+20 conference may not yield spectacular results either, but it is an opportunity to publicize the need for more hard work ahead.

    Take Shelter and Melancholia explore age-old themes, but they seem more pertinent with the shadow of ecological collapse looming over our thoughts. A touch of dread and a large dose of confusion are also poignant reminders of the fragile beauty of life and nature, urging each of us to consider how we can be part of an ethical solution, and perhaps, in the process, find a greater part of ourselves than we knew existed.

    - Peter J. Stoett

    Note: If you are scheduled to teach a course that would benefit from having this book on the required reading list, please email requests@utphighereducation.com to request an examination copy. We would be more than happy to give you the opportunity to review this excellent text for yourself!

  • "A compelling expose of the environmental challenges of our time."

    Next week, UTP’s Higher Education Division will publish Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice by Peter J. Stoett. This is a unique book with a unique cover that deserves special recognition. In addition to the startling photograph of water pollution on the cover, we have chosen to print both the interior of the book and the cover on 100% recycled, chlorine-free, bio-gas fuelled, non-laminated paper.

    Despite sporadic news coverage of extreme weather, international conventions on climate change, or special UN days of celebration, rarely do we participate in a sustained presentation and analysis of environmental policy making. To remedy this shortcoming and to propel the discussion forward, Global Ecopolitics provides an introduction to environmental governance and the major environmental issues international governance has attempted to address.

    Through case studies on biodiversity, deforestation, air and water pollution, trade, and war, Professor Stoett analyzes the effectiveness of international policy in providing environmental protection and discusses the ever-present factors of equality, sovereignty, and human rights integral to these issues. Throughout, Professor Stoett reminds readers that the topic is personal, that effective governance is not solely the responsibility of governments but of individuals and communities as well. With concessions that environmental diplomacy may not always achieve its intended goals, Global Ecopolitics highlights where international policies have succeeded. And throughout, Professor Stoett builds a compelling argument that true change will only happen when angst is replaced with an educated determination to work toward environmental justice, and there is no better time for such a shift than now.

    According to Radoslav S. Dimitrov at the University of Western Ontario, Global Ecopolitics is "perhaps the most inspiring book on environmental politics of the last decade." In another early endorsement, Maria Ivanova, Assistant Professor of Global Governance and Co-Director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston, calls Global Ecopolitics "a compelling exposé of the environmental challenges of our time."

    This January, Peter J. Stoett travelled to Washington, D.C. for a four month research position at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Professor Stoett is working on a project titled “Transborder Counter-Bioinvasion: Canada-US Policy Networks on Invasive Alien Species.”

    For more on Professor Stoett’s Fulbright position see www.concordia.ca/now/university-affairs/accolades/20110927/professor-receives-prestigious-fulbright-chair.php.

    Note: If you are scheduled to teach a course that would benefit from having this book on the required reading list, please email requests@utphighereducation.com to request an examination copy. We would be more than happy to give you the opportunity to review this excellent text for yourself!

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