Batten Speakers Take Center Stage at Democracy 360 Panels on Climate and Lawmaking

Democracy 360, an ambitious three-day collection of events hosted by the Karsh Institute of Democracy and produced in partnership with schools and units across UVA, including the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, brought together thousands of people on Grounds and in Charlottesville last week to understand the emerging challenges to American democracy.

Batten faculty experts on Congress, economics and climate policy participated in engaging and interactive panel discussions during the summit. 

Read part one of our coverage of three Batten-sponsored events. 

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d360 gelsdorf leblang
Kirsten Gelsdorf (left) moderated the Climate Migration panel with (left to right): Kayly Ober, Jonathan Colmer and David LeBlang.

Millions on the Move: Climate Change, Displacement, and Migration

Climate change is one of the most pressing global challenges of our time, and its impact extends far beyond rising temperatures and extreme weather events. At a Democracy 360 event, UVA’s  Environmental Institute and the Batten School’s Humanitarian Collaborative brought together an expert panel to delve into complex issues around climate-related displacement and migration. Kirsten Gelsdorf,  professor of practice of public policy, led the panel discussing the implications and work being done to address the millions of people displaced due to climate events. 

Kayly Ober, the senior program officer for the climate, environment and conflict program at U.S. Institute of Peace, said that by 2050, up to 218 million people could be displaced and migrating within their own countries due to climate related problems. She emphasized that the impact is not uniform, as some areas are more vulnerable, especially those reliant on agriculture. 

While some countries possess the resources to handle these climate “shocks,” other countries may face severe damages and long-term consequences. Ober said there is hope in regard to the scale of the problem, and that cutting greenhouse gas emissions and rapidly implementing other changes could have the potential to reduce the number of displaced individuals by 50 to 80 percent.

A crucial point Ober made was that most climate-induced migration is internal, challenging the perception of millions of people converging on nations’ borders, and revealing the need for more nuanced solutions and interventions internally. “Not all numbers are created equal," she said, as the scale of the problem is often exaggerated due to biases rooted in xenophobia.

Also on the panel was Jonathan Colmer, a professor of economics at UVA, who offered insights into climate-related displacement from an economic viewpoint. He raised thought-provoking questions about who is moving, why they are moving, and the consequences of their decisions. In the United States, migration is slowing down, Colmer said, with primarily affluent, white individuals moving within the country. Colmer emphasized the importance of removing barriers that trap populations, allowing migrants the agency to decide whether to stay or go for their safety.

Colmer and LeBlang  

Batten Professor of Public Policy David Leblang, who has worked in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, shared his research on cross-border migration, and emphasized the influence of economic prospects and demographics. For example, he said single men tend to migrate for economic reasons, while unaccompanied children often flee violence and families tend to leave due to food scarcity. He also stressed the importance of addressing climate-based agricultural problems to help communities sustain their rural livelihoods. People often remain in vulnerable locations because they lack the economic resources and social networks to move,  he said, or simply because they consider it home.

The panel talked at length about the term "climate refugee,” and how it carries a controversial connotation. The concept is contentious due to the specific legal status of a refugee, making "climate-related displacement" or "climate-related migration" more inclusive terms.

The panel shed light on the complexity of this global challenge, a multifaceted problem with economic, social, and humanitarian dimensions. They also made note of the vast network of organizations, researchers, and policymakers working to address the issue through reducing emissions, prioritizing equity and focusing on access to sustainable resources for vulnerable populations. Climate change is not just an environmental issue; it is a human issue that demands our collective attention and action.

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Effective Lawmaking: A Cornerstone of American Democracy

In a time when our democracy faces unprecedented challenges, the question of effective lawmaking takes center stage. On a panel discussion in the Colonnade Club, two former congressmen and the co-directors of the Center of Effective Lawmaking (CEL) shared their insights on the importance of Congress's functionality and its role within American democracy. 

The panel featured former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, (ND) and senior counsel at Alston & Bird; former Rep. Peter Roskam, (IL); Craig Volden, founder and co-director of CEL, and Batten School professor of public and policy and politics; and Alan Wiseman, CEL co-director and chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. 

volden and panel
Left to right: Craig Volden, Earl Pomeroy, Peter Roskam and Alan Wiseman.

The panelists defined effective lawmaking as the “ability of lawmakers to successfully advance their legislative agenda, which involves introducing legislation, moving it through the lawmaking process, and addressing issues of substantive significance.”

Pomeroy set the scene by emphasizing the sheer complexity and diversity of the United States. Under the iconic Capitol Dome, the country's challenges are not merely academic exercises but real politics that require careful consideration of the diverse public’s best interest. The dome, a symbol of democracy worldwide, signifies the place where a diverse and complicated nation of over 350 million people must find a common path forward, Pomeroy said. 

According to Roskam, effective lawmaking serves as a forum where citizens can express their grievances and aspirations. It offers a venue beyond casual conversations, allowing for the creation of viable solutions. In a well-functioning legislature, constituents feel heard, respected and considered, regardless of whether their representatives agrees or not. When people believe their voices matter, tensions ease, and constructive dialogue takes precedence over street protests and unrest, Roskam said.

Both Pomeroy and Roskam acknowledged the current challenges facing American democracy, highlighting the stark contrast between democracy and authoritarian governance, and expressing their concern over the discrediting of democratic functionality. The erosion of democratic principles, they said, could pave the way for authoritarian leaders who exploit weaknesses in the system. 

Pomeroy noted that these trying times necessitate active engagement from citizens and political practitioners, and emphasized the need for individuals who are willing to run for public office, face the daunting challenges of the legislative process, and hold themselves accountable to their constituents. It's crucial that individuals willing to serve in public office are not only qualified but also committed to the effective functioning of government, he added. Once elected, lawmakers must work collaboratively within the institution, overcoming partisan divisions to find common ground. 

volden and pomeroy

The speakers also emphasized the pivotal role of voters in holding their representatives accountable, ensuring that democracy remains responsive to the people's needs.

Roskam highlighted the increasing polarization in politics and the impact it has on public service. He acknowledged that the culture of Congress reflects the broader cultural shifts, including an expectation of instant gratification. In this environment, the challenge for effective lawmakers is to manage expectations and focus on long-term goals. 

Both former lawmakers stressed the importance of building relationships across the aisle, noting that maintaining the ability to work with anyone preserves opportunities for effective lawmaking. They stressed the importance of “focus” in a world where there are countless issues and distractions. 

At a time when American democracy is under siege, the responsibility falls on citizens, as well as elected officials, to engage in preserving and strengthening the democratic principles that have served the United States for centuries. In these challenging times, effective lawmaking becomes not only a political duty but a beacon of hope for a healthy and long-lasting democracy.

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Garrett Hall at Sunset

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