March 12, 2013

PSU professor studies international climate negotiations


---- — PLATTSBURGH — To Dr. Lauren Eastwood, combating climate change is far more complex than simply addressing environmental issues.

“It takes you out of environmental questions and into a whole range of moral and political questions,” said the associate professor of sociology at SUNY Plattsburgh.

For the past several years, Eastwood has been attending meetings of the United Nations, including the group’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Biological Diversity, and Forum on Forests, where she studies the processes involved in U.N.-based environmental policy making, as well as how civil society engages in trying to influence such policies.

She is currently writing a book, expected to be released sometime next year, titled “Negotiating the Environment: Civil Society, Globalisation and the UN,” in which she discusses international policy making from an insider’s perspective.


In recent months, Eastwood has attended the Convention on Climate Change in Doha, the capital of the State of Qatar, where she witnessed negotiations on the next commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty intended to obligate developed countries that emit significant amounts of greenhouse gasses to reduce them.

However, one issue with the protocol, Eastwood said, is that when it was enacted in 1997, it was much easier to establish what constituted a developed versus a developing country than it is now.

“These environmental negotiations were set up understanding the world as being relatively easily dividable into two sorts of countries: ones who were creating the problem and ones who were experiencing the results of that problem,” she said. “And that’s not so clear anymore ... and to some degree, it is used as an excuse for developed countries not to make strong commitments.”


The United States, she noted, which comprises about 5 percent of the world’s population but accounts for a far greater percentage of global carbon emissions, has chosen not to sign onto the protocol.

“There’re a lot of stalemates in the climate negotiations … I would say it all comes down to the fact that it would be fundamentally in opposition to the way we organized our economies around fossil fuels for anybody to really take any kind of responsibility, whether it’s developing or developed countries,” Eastwood said.

For example, she noted, in the United States, the entire infrastructure, from how people travel to how goods are transported, relies on fossil fuels.

“We would have to transform our infrastructure in ways that you can’t do overnight, and that would require a whole national investment in alternative ways of doing things than we’ve been doing for the past 200 years,” Eastwood said.


While she believes it’s important for climate-change issues to be discussed at the international level, she noted, “I don’t think that there’s going to be a whole lot of progress in terms of actual things that are going to change what happens to our environment at that level.”

Even on a national level, she noted, passing meaningful legislation to reduce America’s carbon emissions will likely be difficult due to bipartisanship in Congress and “partly because the average American sees themselves as very invested in fossil fuel.”

Americans, Eastwood added, seem to be somewhat unwilling to accept the notion of climate change and its causes, and instead question the science behind it.

“We see ourselves as Americans being built on what we call progress, which was very much fueled literally by fossil fuels,” she said. “So we see it as an affront to our lifestyle and our sense of ourselves.

“It’s hard for us to accept something that may critique our lifestyle.”

However, Eastwood noted, it would be beneficial to the United States to invest in cutting-edge research of alternative-energy sources, not only to gain the tools needed to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels but also to ensure that America is producing what other nations will need as they transition into less fossil-fuel-intensive economies.

“We could be positioning ourselves to be what is needed in the future to be a superpower, and I don’t think we’re doing that.

“It’s sort of saying that because we were once great, the things that worked for us are going to work for us in the future,” she said. “And I think that’s a misconception.”


Still, Eastwood said, positive changes are taking place regionally and locally.

“I don’t think that we should abandon the multilateral policy processes, but I do think what needs to happen is for people to become more invested in their communities, and I see that happening on a lot of different levels,” she said.

For example, the creation of the Plattsburgh Community Garden, as well as a student-tended garden on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus, indicates that people are showing an interest in where their food is coming from and how much energy is going into producing it, according to Eastwood.

And people seem to be making an effort to support local businesses and keep their money within their own communities, she said, rather than relying on outside sources for goods and services.

“There’s a movement toward starting to be more thoughtful about where we shop and what we buy and how we think about where we live as a place that needs to be maintained,” she said.

“It doesn’t just exist on its own.”

Email Ashleigh