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Tackling Climate Change: A Conversation with Josh Busby

July 19, 2018

Readers of the Duck will be very familiar with Duck editor Josh Busby’s commentary on climate change and security, U.S. foreign policy, and a host of other topics. Earlier this year, Bridging the Gap (BTG) awarded Josh a Policy Engagement Fellowship (PEF). The purpose of this fellowship is to support efforts by scholars to connect their research on international issues to the policy community. Josh is using his PEF to write policy-oriented pieces and organize events with practitioners on the role of actors other than the U.S. federal government in combating climate change. This work builds on Josh’s prior research on various dimensions of climate change and is particularly timely as the United States under Donald Trump retreats from a leadership role – or even a constructive role – on this critical global challenge.

BTG recently asked Josh some questions about his overall research agenda, his climate change work, and engaging with policy communities and the public. In addition to the work highlighted below, keep an eye out for a forthcoming Atlantic Council report by Josh and Nigel Purvis on leadership in the climate regime, which will draw on a memo Josh wrote for a BTG workshop on public goods last fall.

BTG: Your work has examined issues ranging from climate change to global health to U.S. foreign policy. What’s motivated your choices of particular research topics?

JB: I was an anti-apartheid activist in high school and an environment and development campaigner in college so I’ve been drawn to big global issues since I was young. My first two books were on social movements and whether and how they could exercise influence on foreign policy. As an American, it was a natural fit for me to focus my energies on my home country. My goals were mostly normative. That is, these were big issues I cared about and wanted to write about in my scholarly work. 

BTG: You just published an article on climate change in the July/August 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs. What was your intention/hope when writing the piece?  

 JB: Despite the politics of the moment, climate change isn’t going away as an issue. It’s an urgent threat that will increasingly command more attention and resources. What I wanted to do with that piece is bring together two different strands of my research on climate change: (1) on climate governance and (2) climate and security. Those issues are often discussed in isolation so I wanted to bring those discrete pieces together to assess the nature of the problem and the limits and possibilities of what can be done about it.

BTG: Given everything we know about the difficulties of climate policy, where do you think the greatest policy leverage might lie? What under-appreciated opportunities should a bold, activist policy maker be looking for?

 JB: If you think about it, climate change is many problems. It’s a power sector problem, an industry emissions issue, a transportation problem, a forestry problem, and beyond. Some of the most promising efforts to address climate change of late have involved sector- and problem-specific efforts to address short-lived gases, fossil fuel subsidies, forestry emissions, aviation and shipping. The scope for faster electric vehicles scale-up looks like it has untapped potential. Air pollution is taking years off of people’s lives, particularly in Asia. An air pollution initiative that produces co-benefits for climate change is another area where I think more attention is warranted.

BTG: You’re organizing a side event at September’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. Tell us about this event. What do you hope to achieve with it?

JB: Where is leadership and high ambition in climate policy going to come from? With the US federal government stepping away from leadership in the international arena, our side event is intended to identify what other actors, other countries, sub-national governments, and non-state actors can do to fill the void. 

BTG: You’ve published reports with leading think tanks and received major research grants from the U.S. Defense Department. What advice do you have for younger scholars who are looking for ways to engage policy communities and the broader public?

 JB: I recently wrote a piece for the Texas National Security Review that identified five different ways academics can engage the policy community. My general advice is for people first to think carefully about their motivations. Why do you want to engage? That should give people some caution to think through the responsibilities of engagement. Ideas are powerful and dangerous, and even as we try to unlock the best ways to bridge the gap, we need to do so with appropriate care.

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Bridging the Gap promotes scholarly contributions to public debate and decision making on global challenges and U.S. foreign policy. BtG equips professors and doctoral students with the skills they need to produce influential policy-relevant research and theoretically grounded policy work. They also spearhead cutting-edge research on problems of concrete importance to governments, think tanks, international institutions, non-governmental organizations, and global firms. Within the academy, BtG is driving changes in university culture and processes designed to incentivize public and policy engagement.