Western Political Science Association: Pi Sigma Alpha Lecture

President Janet Napolitano delivered the Pi Sigma Alpha lecture at the annual conference of the Western Political Science Association on April 18, 2019. Here are her remarks as prepared for delivery:

I am honored to be here today at the annual gathering of the Western Political Science Association. Thank you to the WPSA, President Junn, and the UC San Diego Center on Global Justice for inviting me to deliver this year’s Pi Sigma Alpha lecture.

A lot has changed since this group first met on the University of Utah campus in 1947. For one thing, members no longer use telegrams to communicate… I was grateful to receive my invitation to speak via email.

And what began as a handful of colleagues from Western universities gathering to discuss issues such as diversity and academic freedom has grown into a robust collective of more than 1,200 political scientists, working on some of the most urgent issues in global politics today – issues such as the future of our planet.

I’m encouraged that the focus of this year’s conference is “The Politics of Climate Change.” It’s clear to the majority of us that this is the most pressing problem the world faces today. The science is undeniable, and the proof is all around us.

Across the globe, natural disasters are becoming more prevalent and weather patterns are turning more volatile. We’re witnessing an increase in wildfires, rising sea levels, and the extinction of plants and animals. Climate change also impacts disease management and food security; the preservation of water resources and the stability of fragile governments; immigration patterns and transportation infrastructure.

So these developments affect not only our natural environment, but also our economy, our national security, and our very way of life.

The United Nations recently warned that we only have a dozen years to curb emissions and avoid a warming catastrophe that could imperil the future of the planet. With a threat that dire – and with that much advance warning – one would hope that our leaders would immediately launch an all-hands-on-deck response. But, by and large, that hasn’t been the case.

Many elected officials – up to and including the President of the United States –refuse to acknowledge that climate change is real. They question the extent to which humans have contributed to the problem. And they dismiss many of the solutions and innovations we must adopt to put our society on a path to a sustainable future.  

These actions have a dual effect. They not only spread confusion about the reality of climate change. They also sow doubt about the validity of academic research and science as a whole.

Now, as the President of the University of California, I recognize that the academic inquiry taking place in university classrooms and labs generates vital knowledge and solutions that will help us preserve a thriving, sustainable planet for everyone.

As political scientists at some of our nation’s leading universities, you know that, too. And if you believe – as I do – that the best public policy is shaped by evidence and data, then you can see how these attacks on science have led to fragmentation and inaction precisely when we need to join together and take bold action.

These are challenging dynamics that won’t change overnight. And the remedies are complex – these aren’t slogans that fit on the front of a baseball cap. But over the course of my career, I’ve had some experience transcending political obstacles and getting things done. And I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.

That’s what I’d like to talk to you about today: what we can do in light of inaction and obstruction by our nation’s President on the single most urgent issue of our time, and how we can navigate the complex politics surrounding climate change while still moving toward a sustainable future for our planet.

First, we must identify the real problem, then set out to address it with resolve.

As Governor of Arizona, and later as Secretary of Homeland Security, I was charged with evaluating problems and determining which of them constituted real risks to Americans and our way of life. Every day, I evaluated potential risks according to three factors: magnitude, likelihood, and immediacy.

And in this process, I always gave greater weight to scientific evidence and facts than to ideology.

Evaluating risk this way made it clear that climate change was, and still is, a critical threat for our national security – and that it was a greater threat to Americans than all other issues rolled together.

Unfortunately, discourse in Washington D.C. has been disproportionately focused on developments that simply aren’t a crisis – for instance, the so-called threat posed by the migrant caravan at our Southern border. Meanwhile, many of our elected leaders still refuse to acknowledge the evidence of climate change and the risks it poses.

Let’s be clear: the migrant caravan issue was a distraction from the real problems our nation faces – issues such as gun violence, income inequality, the resilience of our election system, and, yes, climate change.

Now, it’s important that we keep talking to those with whom we disagree – to debate and discuss and try to find common ground.

But that’s different than spending precious time and energy on irrelevant issues and those who have no interest in solutions, but only in scoring political points.

We must exercise some discipline in the face of such distractions. We must focus our attention and our resources on the threats we know are looming, and work quickly to adapt.

That brings me to the second lesson I’ve learned: if you get stuck, get creative.

Here’s an example.

When President Obama arrived in the White House in 2009, he made it clear that immigration reform was one of his main priorities. As Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration, enforcing the nation’s immigration laws – and the president’s immigration priorities – was my responsibility.

We knew this would be a difficult endeavor: Congress was just a few years removed from a failed attempt at comprehensive immigration reform. The American economy was in the midst of the Great Recession. And with the fiscal stimulus bill and health care reform emerging as urgent issues, momentum toward meaningful immigration reform had stalled.

In 2010, the House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. The bill failed by just five votes in the Senate.

At this point, some leaders might have decided to cut their losses and move on. But that didn’t sit right with me.

Dreamers represent an integral part of our nation’s fabric. They are educated in our schools and contribute to our economy. Many of them are students at UC campuses, studying to become doctors, teachers, lawyers, and engineers. It seemed patently unfair – not to mention foolish – to deny them the certainty of the future they have worked for after all that our nation had invested in them.

As a lawyer and the former Governor of a western state, I was also in the habit of prioritizing limited law enforcement resources – a practice known as prosecutorial discretion.

From that vantage point, it didn’t make sense to me to spend law enforcement resources on Dreamers; I believed our attention was better focused on violent criminals and gang members.

So, over the next few months, my team at the Department of Homeland Security began to build the foundation for a program to provide eligible undocumented immigrants with temporary protection from deportation, and authorization to live, work, and study in the United States. We called it the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

It was a politically risky move, and we knew there would be legal challenges to the program. But leaders who wait for 100 percent certainty of success before acting… well, they’re probably still waiting.

When we launched the program in 2012, we didn’t know how many young people would sign up – maybe few hundred or a few thousand?

Ultimately, 800,000 Dreamers enrolled in the program, allowing them to continue to live, work, and contribute to the only country many of them had ever known as home.

And when the Trump administration took steps rescind the DACA program in 2017, UC immediately filed a lawsuit to prevent it. Thanks to an injunction issued as a result of our action, more than 373,000 Dreamers have been able to renew their protected status and continue to legally live and work in the U.S. while our case makes its way through the court system.

Now, for this reason and many others, DACA is no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform, and I have never stopped advocating for Congress to act on this issue. But you have to seize the opportunity to make incremental progress however and whenever you can. When it was clear Congress wouldn’t act in 2010, I found another way to move forward, with the aim of laying a foundation for bigger change down the road.

Indeed, just one month ago, the Dream and Promise Act was introduced in the House of Representatives. This legislation will extend protections to Dreamers and recipients of Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure protections. And I hope you will all join me in sending a strong message to Congress that this nation needs a bipartisan legislative solution that will protect this population.

And that brings me to my third piece of advice on how we can achieve momentum on climate action: we must stretch the boundaries of what’s possible and pursue audacious, pioneering solutions.

It was researchers at UC Irvine – lead by atmospheric scientist Ralph J. Cicerone – who first theorized in 1974 that chloro-fluoro-carbons in aerosol spray cans could harm the Earth's ozone layer. At the time, their findings were ridiculed by chemical industry critics who argued that there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant taking action against these useful compounds.

But their hypothesis paved the way for subsequent research that confirmed these gases had created a hole in ozone layer – a discovery that captured the public’s attention and galvanized the world to action. In 1987, world leaders finalized the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty phasing out the use of chemicals responsible for ozone depletion. Thanks to unprecedented cooperation under the protocol, the hole in the ozone is now shrinking.

Here’s another example. Just a few years ago, 50 UC researchers and scholars – led by UC San Diego Professor Ram Ramanathan – collaborated on a groundbreaking report called “Bending the Curve,” which outlined 10 solutions that could change the trajectory of global carbon emissions. Modeled off of UC’s own institutional sustainability commitments, the report helped shape discussions among global leaders at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference that resulted in the landmark Paris Climate Agreement.

Now, we know that the United States’ subsequent withdrawal from the Paris agreement was a tough setback. But, in many cases, hurdles like this also serve a useful purpose by galvanizing other entities into action.

In the wake of this decision by the Trump administration, we have seen a massive groundswell of institutions – universities, cities and states, the private sector, citizen advocates, and others – step up to the plate and implement solutions and adaptations that might have seemed unthinkable a few years ago.

Last year, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed a landmark bill committing the state of California – the world’s fifth-largest economy – to transition to 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2045. At the University of California, we have pledged to reach that benchmark at our campuses, laboratories, and medical centers even earlier – by 2025. In setting this bold goal, we have mobilized dozens of efforts that are transforming our institutional approach to sustainability.

And to broaden the impact of these efforts, UC also spearheaded the launch of the University Climate Change Coalition, a collective of 20 top-tier research universities across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico who are working together to advance local and regional climate action.

The private sector has taken bold steps, too – last year, more than 100 global corporations committed to emissions reductions in line with the targets outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Even in Congress, we’ve witnessed a few voices challenge the accepted notion of what’s possible and plausible in climate action.

In February, Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced the Green New Deal, a resolution laying out a set of priorities and goals for a rapid “national mobilization” to reduce U.S. carbon emissions.

Late last month, the Republican-controlled Senate blocked the resolution from advancing on a procedural vote. The Green New Deal is on ice, for now. But it is still worth reflecting on the vision behind the proposal, how it was critiqued, and what that all means for the future of climate action at the national level.

You see, when the Green New Deal was released, critics wasted no time in belittling its authors and characterizing the framework as an unachievable fantasy.  A writer at The National Review described it as “an untrammeled Dear Santa letter without form, purpose, borders, or basis in reality."

I would argue that these criticisms miss the point.

In politics, progress can be stimulated by setting a daring goal that challenges our accepted notions of what is possible. As scholars of political science, this concept may be familiar to you, so I hope you’ll indulge me.

In the 1990s, a policy expert named Joseph Overton developed a theory about the range of policy ideas that the public was willing to consider on any given issue. On a spectrum from “unthinkable” to “popular” ideas, Overton suggested that only a portion of this continuum was politically achievable at any given time. That portion is known as the Overton window.

To shift the window is to nudge an idea that might have previously been considered “radical” – like achieving nationwide carbon neutrality – into the realm of the “possible.”

The Green New Deal may not have been perfect. It may not have been possible to implement all of its components immediately.

But by sparking a mainstream conversation about a comprehensive national carbon strategy, the Green New Deal may ultimately expand our collective perspective on what sensible sustainability options look like, and lay the groundwork for the big solutions and adaptations we know we need.

I know I’ve covered a lot of ground today. But it all boils down to this:

Focus on the fights that matter.

Get creative in the face of setbacks.

And finally, embrace aggressive goals with the potential to redefine what’s possible.

These are important principles to keep in mind as we look forward to the 2020 presidential election, too. Our next president will lead this nation through a critical period for climate action.

We need that person to be a true leader—someone who can cut through the rhetoric and identify our most pressing issues. Someone who believes in research- and data-driven policymaking, and in the vital role experts play in honing those ideas. Someone who is willing to test the limits of current ideology and technology, and who embraces a bold path forward.

Thank you all once again for inviting me here today. And in the words of the motto of the University of California, “Fiat lux,” or, “Let there be light!”