21st Century Challenges: Climate, Immigration, and Terror

Last week, the Miller Center and UVA’s Democracy Initiative kicked off the Presidential Ideas Festival (PrezFest), a three-day festival examining the state of democracy through the lens of the presidency. As part of PrezFest, Batten professor David Leblang moderated a discussion examining the role of the president in relation to 21st century challenges of climate, migration, and national security. The panelists included Rosa Brooks, Georgetown professor of law; Deborah Lawrence, UVA professor of environmental sciences; and Todd Sechser, Batten professor of politics and public policy and UVA professor of politics.  

While each of the challenges discussed figure daily in the national and even international discourse, they are often viewed through separate lenses.

“We could have individual panels on each of these topics,” said Leblang. “But what I challenged our panelists to do is to think hard about how these challenges intersect, modify, amplify, and potentially exacerbate one another.”  

Developing and implementing policy does not occur in a vacuum, and having a nuanced understanding of how, for example, climate change may lead to food insecurity, which then forces people to leave their homes and migrate elsewhere, demonstrates how each issue is interconnected and why it is imperative for the president to see and understand those connections, especially when it comes to enacting effective policy.

“Climate change influences migration which can lead to violent conflict,” said Leblang. “Conflict can cause migration which can impact food security. And the beat goes on.” 

So where does the president figure in all of this? How can the leader of the free world influence and shape policy that can adequately confront these 21st century challenges, rather than exacerbate them, or worse, ignore them until it is too late?

Leblang, who studies migration, focusing specifically on why people decide to leave their homes pointed out how presidents have a great opportunity to shape both the push and pull factors that influence population flows, mitigate climate change, as well as the ability to strengthen national security.

The executive branch is referred to as the executive branch for a reason—something that all three of the panelists highlighted. The president, whether in times of conflict or peace, has the power to influence and shape policy—policy that can adequately address the challenges of the time and also anticipate the future. In the case of 2019, the challenges are many, often shrouded in uncertainty and ambiguity, making it all the more difficult to implement policy that will ensure the security and well-being of the nation for both the present and the future.

“What we’ve seen in the last couple of decades, are many events that have confounded the experts, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Arab Spring, that the things that appear stable are stable until they’re not,” said professor Brooks. “They are stable until they collapse. Collectively we are really bad at figuring out what is going to happen when and that is understandable because we as a species have never faced this kind of rapid change. We are in an era of incredible uncertainty.”

“Climate change and migration are not only environmental and social issues; they are also national security challenges,” said professor Sechser.

“Nuclear energy, for example, has been proposed as a solution to climate change but could also accelerate nuclear proliferation. Migration flows cause — and are caused by — military conflicts. Recognizing the national security implications of these problems could help overcome the political divides that stand in the way of effective solutions.”

Recognizing these implications is the only way to overcome political divide as well as implement effective solutions. If the president can recognize that it is in the national interest to mitigate climate change, this might lead to strengthening national security, curb population flows, and so forth.

In the aftermath of World War II, President Truman issued the Truman Directive which announced that displaced persons—most notably the Jews liberated from concentration camps—would receive priority status as part of refugee admission into the United States. Kennedy enacted a similar directive with Cuban refugees. Presidents from Kennedy to Obama have issued executive orders to provide relief to foreigners in the United States, so that they can rebuild their lives within American borders following the devastation of war, natural disaster, or a pandemic.

“And only the president can do this,” said professor Brooks. “But then the next one can undo it just as easily—that’s both the challenge and also the strength of the executive branch.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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