A Conversation on Climate Change & Forced Displacement with David Sussman

Nov 18, 2016

Conflict and war are often talked about as main drivers of forced displacement, but researcher David Sussman also points to climate change and consumerism as major factors. How is this playing out in Latin America and the Pacific islands? And, in regards to these issues, what can we expect from the Trump administration?

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders Podcast. I'm Alex Woodson.

Today I'm here with David Sussman, a research fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. David has a Ph.D. in international relations from the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University, and among his areas of focus are sustainable development, natural resource conflicts, development-induced displacement, humanitarian aid, and refugee protection. So we have a lot to talk about.

David, thanks for coming.

DAVID SUSSMAN: Thank you so much. Great to be here. I appreciate the opportunity.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to start, how did you get interested in this field? Was this an interest of yours from your childhood, or was there an event later on that had an impact on you?

DAVID SUSSMAN: When I was in junior high, my dad did medical trips overseas, and I think that got me thinking about what is going on in other places. And then, of course, I had teachers who were teaching global studies. I knew when I went off to college that I wanted to do international programs, if I could, and during college I spent a semester in Mexico and I also spent some time in Kenya as well. So I was kind of off to the races once I was taking college courses, thinking about my effect and place in the world.

ALEX WOODSON: You wrote an article for Praxis, the journal published by the Fletcher School, that I read, entitled "Can Driving or Recycling Reduce Forced Displacement?" At Carnegie Council, for the last year or so we have had a lot of events and posted a lot of articles about the refugee crisis. Most of those are focused on war and conflict as main drivers of displacement. Your article looks at displacement from a different perspective. You link economic growth and rampant consumerism with conflict and then displacement. Can you explain what that means? Can you share some examples with us? I know you spent some time in Peru; you mentioned Kenya and Mexico.

DAVID SUSSMAN: Yes, sure thing.

I think, to take a step back, the U.S. public, the media, are thinking a lot about the conflict that is taking place in Syria right now. We hear about this "refugee crisis," so to speak, where more than a million Syrians and refugees from other locations have moved into Europe. So I think this is a great focus of the public.

My research and this article that I wrote are looking at people who are displaced due to other reasons. We think of climate change, maybe rising sea waters; people would be displaced that way. There also are populations that are displaced by development projects—there might be a large dam; it could be a road project; we could consider gentrification in cities. Another way to think about it is how mining might cause displacement or affect people. There might be conflicts in communities that are protesting about mines in their local locations.

In this article, I tie the consumerism and just the basic use of resources that we have a need for in developing economies, growing cities, and where those resources come from and how the greater use of minerals, metals, demand for gold, etc., may through this supply chain, through this longer, almost sometimes seemingly disconnected, connection to other people, lead to needs or potential harm for people in other locations.

That is a bit of a summary, but that is how I am looking at it, as another way that conflict may be affecting communities and how we here in the North, so to speak, or more developed countries, may be impacting people.

ALEX WOODSON: What does that exactly look like on the ground in, say, Peru, which I know you have done a lot of research in?

DAVID SUSSMAN: I did research a number of mining communities in Peru. No doubt mining is critical to the economy there. Peru has grown at 5 and 6 percent GDP growth over a number of years. The city of Lima is expanding. There are new malls, more people driving cars, etc. There is this great economic benefit. So I'm definitely not against development.

I did go to some more rural communities in the Andes region where they are mining copper. These are communities where the children have higher levels of lead poisoning. There is actually in some cases a large open pit that is swallowing up the communities and the neighborhoods nearby. There are a number of other health issues involved. That could be maybe a more formal mining process.

There is also a lot of informal mining taking place. That would be in Puerto Maldonado, which is an Amazonian part of Peru. There you have many miners coming in and hacking away at the jungle, digging into the ground, to try to find gold there. As I took off from an airplane and flew over the Amazonian area back to Lima, I could see these huge scars on the landscape. You can imagine this lush green jungle and then huge kind of pits of muddy water. It really made a great impression on me, thinking about what is happening there.

ALEX WOODSON: What is people's reaction to that in Peru? You have, on the one hand, people in Lima who are driving around, going to malls; and then you have these, I would imagine, much poorer communities in the Andes and in the Amazon.

DAVID SUSSMAN: I think one of the global issues we are dealing right now with is the sense of inequality—who are the winners and who are the losers.

When mining takes place, companies may build infrastructure, roads, and improve local schools, etc. When that happens, the local community can benefit. A number of people will get jobs—not as many as they would like. They need education in order to operate the machinery and do a lot of the mining-related work. So again, there are the people who are connected and do benefit and can buy an SUV; and then there are others who may find that the land is drying up, there is less water because it is being drawn upon by the mine. You do have these agricultural communities that are losing access to resources, or even traditional lands.

So there is a large number of protests—over about, I think it was, from 2004 to 2008 a fivefold increase in protests in Peru. People are getting into the streets; they are mobilizing; they are trying to fight for their right to get to the negotiating table; to, in not all cases totally stop the mine from happening, but to gain benefits from it, to have resources brought back into the community, so they too can gain from that development, so it doesn't end up going to Lima at the expense of the more rural areas in Peru.

ALEX WOODSON: I know one other area that you research is the Pacific islands. You mentioned the Marshall Islands. That's a part of the world that I really don't know much about; I think most Americans don't really know much about it. What are the displacement issues there? What are the natural resource issues in some of the Pacific islands?

DAVID SUSSMAN: It's a great question.

It is a region of the world that is dear to my heart. I ended up teaching in a school there the year after college, so I lived on one of these atolls where you step out your door and 100 meters to the left and 100 meters to the right there is water, lagoon and ocean. As we think about global climate change, rising sea levels—actually, this past summer some of the recent research is showing that the Antarctic sheet may be melting faster than we expect; the rising sea levels may occur faster than we had expected.

The Marshall Islands are halfway between Hawaii and Australia. It's an island country of 70,000 people who may indeed be displaced and need to move. There is, of course, the recent negotiations with the Paris climate talks. There is a mechanism for loss and damages as people are thinking, "How do we help people move? What responsibilities do the more developed countries have for this displacement? Where is the CO2 being emitted from that has led to this rise in sea levels and displacement?" I would actually connect this back to what I was saying about natural resource use in one place and how it affects other people. When we look at global climate change, who is benefiting from industrialization, carbon production, flying in airplanes, keeping the electricity on as much as they wish; and who might be being hurt in another location, like the Marshall Islands?

It is a great part of the world. They could definitely benefit from tourism. You would enjoy it. Great beaches. It is just very hard to get to and an isolated place.

ALEX WOODSON: I definitely want to talk about some of the solutions that you propose. But before I ask you about that, I'm just curious. You spent time in very different regions of the world—Peru, you talked about; the Marshall Islands; Kenya. When you are actually on the ground there talking to people, do you hear similar things? Do people in Latin America frame it very differently than people in the Pacific islands, or do you see that they're all converging on some main points?

DAVID SUSSMAN: That's a really good question. I think it reminds me that I have to be aware of who I am as an outsider coming in, having my perceptions or ideas about the world; certainly a life of comparative privilege, to be able to go travel to other people's communities.

In my conversations with Peruvians or with Kenyans, etc., I think that there is this general similarity of the desire to get ahead, to make a better life. I think we, again, live in this very interconnected world, so people through technology, through their cellphones, are seeing how life might be in other locations.

I think there is a greater sense of responsibility that I believe we may have here in more developed countries, but a great connection to people there. There is not this gap in information. That's a good question. I see general similarities related to the Internet and cellphones and cable news and the connections that we have.

ALEX WOODSON: That might not have been there 20, 25 years ago.

DAVID SUSSMAN: Yes, I think so. I think that there is this greater sense of connection and awareness.

ALEX WOODSON: Getting on to the more developed countries, thinking about some things that countries like the United States can do, one of the things that you mentioned in your article is the idea of a conflict tax. What exactly is that? We've heard about a carbon tax. What exactly does a conflict tax mean?

DAVID SUSSMAN: Thank you. I was taking a step with that article: at the very end, you ought to think about what could be different; what could we put forward that might lead to some change?

When I think about a carbon tax, it is put in place to, in part, reduce the environmental consequences, negative consequences. With the conflict tax, we as a society could be looking at what is the negative effect of our purchases or use of resources in general. When a community in Peru is affected negatively by the mining, as I told you about, or as we think about rising sea levels in the Marshall Islands, are those costs incorporated into the actual cost of the product? I think in large part that they are not.

We could think of an example, perhaps, of conflict diamonds or gold. We as a society are more and more aware of where that comes from. So there is room, I would say, for this connection to other people, thinking about where the materials come from, and whether the materials should cost more.

Now, I think a follow-up question would be: Well, if there is a tax—and I think we are maybe in a political situation where there are not going to be tax increases; there will be decreases—where would that money go to? I don't really know. But I'm just saying this may be a way of, as I said, incorporating the negative effects into the products when we purchase them.

ALEX WOODSON: Is this a conversation that is being had in development circles when people talk about displacement?

DAVID SUSSMAN: I haven't read as much about it so I can't name a certain number of authors and say, "X, Y, and Z have talked about it." So I think there is room for growth.

And maybe the fact that it is not being talked about means it is an idea that does not need to be talked about or does not really have as much basis in reality. But again, the idea is just thinking about what are the social costs for the products around us.

There has been new research and measurement of social footprints or material footprints and the idea of the analysis of the supply chain in footprinting—all of these different mechanisms where I think we can better measure what is happening. Again, this conflict tax might be a way of thinking about how do we account for that in some way within our lives here that may be—and would say definitely really are—connected to people thousands of miles away.

ALEX WOODSON: Another part of that, I think, is that you have these corporations that work between countries and it is unclear what their responsibility should be, because they have a responsibility to their shareholders to make money.


ALEX WOODSON: But you would hope they would have a responsibility to the planet Earth and to the people and the countries that they work in. I'm not expecting you to have an answer to that.

DAVID SUSSMAN: It's true. Companies are thinking about this.

Walmart is a company that is seen as devastating to small towns. I, myself, in my hometown in Western Massachusetts, can say that I have seen the local lumberyard and the general store and these kind of stores changing. But Walmart does have this huge imprint on the world, obviously, as we all know, and its supply chain is critical. So when it decides to do something and at corporate headquarters they say, "We need to make sure that the sourcing of this material is done in a way that will maintain our reputation and doesn't have negative social or environmental consequences," it can make a big difference.

So I think that these corporations are there. As you say, the shareholders are critical. But another way of pushing for change is to get the large companies to make this change.

ALEX WOODSON: Let's switch subjects a little bit. We're speaking eight days after the election of President-elect Trump.

It is hard to say exactly what his feelings are on climate change. He has said it is a hoax created by the Chinese—it seems like he was probably joking about that. He wants to put up seawalls around his golf course in Ireland. So at some level I think he intellectually understands that this is a problem. But you hear about the people he wants to put in charge of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) who are climate change deniers and we know what he thinks about refugees and the humanitarian crisis—we're not going to get any help on that. So, for the time being, it doesn't seem like the American government is going to be an ally of the environmental movement.

Maybe it's a little too early to ask this, but is there a contingency plan in your community among researchers and activists? What kinds of conversations are you having right now to make sure that this doesn't fall off the map?

DAVID SUSSMAN: I think you've hit on two important issues here as we think about a new administration. There is this immigration/refugee side and then there is also the environmental/climate change side.

I think we are at the outset here. We are finding out who is going to be filling some of the major positions in the government. But, as you said, Trump has made these bold statements, and we'll see how much he will follow through on them.

To give my opinion on it, I think it could be potentially traumatic. It's just traumatic. The EPA is going to be, it sounds like, pushed aside or diminished in influence. The Clean Air Act could be pulled back. The U.S. commitments to Paris climate change—there are going to be major changes in that way. I think that we will have to, as citizens, work with our representatives and find other ways of showing our disagreement.

When it comes to refugees and immigration, the United States each year welcomes 70,000 or 80,000 refugees into the country. It is a well-established system. People are vetted. The Trump administration could change these numbers as well.

So I think we are at the outset. I hope that the liberal norms of being a multicultural immigrant society can continue and that the climate activists can continue to express their position and perhaps limit the actions that Trump might make with the EPA in other ways.

I as well, sitting across from you here, am opening the newspaper every day and learning what next is going to happen.

ALEX WOODSON: I guess the worst-case scenario is he puts a climate change denier in charge of the EPA. How much damage could be done, do you think?

DAVID SUSSMAN: I have to say I'm not an expert on the EPA and all of the climate regulations and all. But my general take on this is climate change is real, and if the administration believes that it is a hoax or that we can continue to be pulling oil and gas resources out of the ground willy-nilly and using them as we wish and are not worried about conservation or alternative resources, it will have a detrimental impact on the world, future generations, as we know. And actually our present generation—I mean we are seeing the effects now. We are seeing the temperatures increase; every month for the calendar year has been the hottest month on record.

So I would say that even four years of a Trump administration could really set us back. I think there has been a momentum, there have been improvements, and each year is critical. We are talking about rising temperatures each year, and action needs to be taken yesterday on this. I don't think we can really afford four years of a giant step back.

ALEX WOODSON: One thing that makes me a little hopeful is that I think over the past couple of years there might have been a shift in the opinions of Americans. The official stance of the Republican Party might still be that climate change isn't real or humans aren't impacting it, but I think most Americans probably understand it.

DAVID SUSSMAN: I agree there is progress in that way.

ALEX WOODSON: Not to take specific organizations, but what can—you've got tens of millions, hundreds of millions, of people who really want to do something. How can we make our voices be heard? How can we really keep the momentum going, even if we can't depend on the government for help?

DAVID SUSSMAN: I think people say—as with all of these issues; it could be any of these—get in touch with your representatives and write letters. But I think there also are organizations that are working on these issues—there's 350—that are looking at trying to find ways to limit the warming of the planet, or people who are protesting against the Keystone Pipeline. So I think there are those avenues.

I think communicating with your friends, your family. As we know, on Facebook there have been issues about fake articles. But we are finding that, I think, something like 40 percent or 45 percent of people are getting major news articles from social media. So I think there is this greater social connection.

Tying back into what we talked about a bit earlier is I think that, yes, each person's individual impact does add up. It may be a depressed way of looking at the world and thinking, but when you're getting on an airplane you are using a lot of energy to get you from one place to another; or when you are driving the car to go do errands, maybe you could do a number of errands at the same time; or even as you're shopping, consuming, in many ways. Again, I'm not trying to be anti-consumerist, but I think there are things that we can do to save energy or to be more efficient in certain ways.

That is not really going to give an answer to all that we should do, but those are a few ideas that come to mind on this. But I think it is to be determined going forward what else we can do, what other organizations are out there taking action on this.

ALEX WOODSON: Your article for Praxis ends on a very hopeful note. You write: "The cumulative and aggregated effect of choices and actions by citizens in more developed countries affect the lives of people in places from which resources are drawn. It may take years for this reality to sink in with those in the developed world, but someday in the near future they may associate saving electricity with saving lives."

DAVID SUSSMAN: That's my take. Yes, I do think that there is this interconnection. I see myself as kind of a practitioner and a scholar and a global citizen. From that kind of academic side, I think there is more writing about the interconnection of the world, how what we do in one place affects other people, how there may be again "sacrifice zones," zones that are providing the resources to people in other locations.

I think we only need to look as far as global climate change to say: "Look, these coal-burning plants in one location are leading to down the road rising sea levels and potential—or really inevitable—displacement of what could be tens of millions of people by the mid-century."

So I do remain hopeful about this. I think that is really the only way to go forward. I think there is a sense of personal responsibility that I hope we will all have. Not being on my high horse in any way, I think that everyone can find different ways that they want to take action on these issues and decide what they think is most important in their own lives.

That article does, I hope, come around to saying: Look, we are living on a very small planet in this massive universe so what we do does affect people in other places.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to wrap up, what's next for you? Do you have any trips planned, any places that we should be thinking about that we're not thinking about?

DAVID SUSSMAN: A good question. I am next month heading to a conference on climate change. It happens to be in Hawaii, which is terrific. But, of course, I'm thinking to myself, "What resources are required to get me to Hawaii and is it worth it?" Yes, I do think it is. But I'm heading there.

I continue to do research at NYU on refugees, on forced displacement, on these issues. That is what I'm up to now. It keeps me busy.

And of course, holidays and family coming up as well.

ALEX WOODSON: That's all I have. Thanks so much for coming. This has been a great conversation. I'm glad that we were able to be a little hopeful.

DAVID SUSSMAN: I've really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.

ALEX WOODSON: Thanks for listening. This has been a Carnegie New Leaders Podcast with David Sussman. I'm Alex Woodson. You can find us on carnegiecouncil.org or iTunes.

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