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Climate and Democracy

SINCE ITS BIRTH IN REVOLUTIONS THAT SWEPT THE ATLANTIC WORLD two centuries ago, modern democracy has developed under a relatively stable, if gradually warming, global climate. Now, even as they are beset by a diverse set of challenges – including right-wing populism, increasingly powerful authoritarian regimes, forms of media susceptible to disinformation campaigns, the impacts of the pandemic, and mass migrations sparked by environmental stresses, political instability, and economic inequality – the world’s democracies must also face accelerating climate change as it intersects with these other pressures in unpredictable and potentially devastating ways. In its 2023-24 theme year, CLIMATE AND DEMOCRACY, the Andrea Mitchell Center partners with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities to explore the risks posed by climate change to democratic norms, as well as the capacity of democratic institutions to address the issue. And while it is possible to imagine a future in which natural disasters and democratic failures compound one another, we are asking how climate solutions and democratic values might reinforce each other and lead to greater political and environmental resilience.


Energy Justice in a Climate-Changing World

Thu. October 19, 4:30pm to 6:00pm
133 S. 36th Street, Room 250 (Forum)
In-person and online: Zoom link sent to registered attendees.

A discussion with BENJAMIN SOVACOOL (Boston University), moderated by SANYA CARLEY (Penn Kleinman Center for Energy Policy).

CLEAN AND RENEWABLE ENERGY, like that from dirty sources, requires significant technological infrastructure, with potentially deep impacts on the wellbeing of surrounding communities and ecosystems. In this conversation, leading energy justice thinker BENJAMIN SOVACOOL (Boston University) grapples with the economics, politics, and environmental tradeoffs of energy production. He considers how and why any energy transition must account for social and multispecies justice. How can we conceptualize energy justice? What does it look like on the ground? And what cross-sector alliances can achieve clean energy transitions without perpetuating dirty energy injustices? Moderated by SANYA CARLEY (Kleinman Center for Energy Policy).

Fossil Fuels and Autocrats, in Russia and Beyond

Thu. November 16, 4:30pm to 6:00pm
133 S. 36th Street, Room 250 (Forum)
In-person and online: Zoom link sent to registered attendees.

A panel discussion with MAX BERGMANN (Center for Strategic and International Studies), moderated by MITCHELL ORENSTEIN (Penn Russian and East European Studies).

THE PRODUCTION OF FOSSIL FUELS is deeply intertwined not only with the economic interests of large global corporations, but also with the political regimes of powerful autocrats. In this conversation, security expert MAX BERGMANN (Center for Strategic and International Studies) focuses on the case of Vladimir Putin and his attempts to wield fossil fuels as a strategic weapon to undermine opposition to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. As Europe actively seeks to transition to renewable energy, but at the same time remains economically dependent on fossil fuels, has Putin’s strategy succeeded or backfired? More generally, do threats to global energy and food security provide leverage for autocrats, or do they instead energize transformative policies in the world’s democracies? Moderated by MITCHELL ORENSTEIN (Penn Russian and East European Studies).

Spring 2024

January 18: EDWARD MAIBACH (George Mason University).
February 15: RHIANA GUNN-WRIGHT (Roosevelt Institute) and JONAS SCHAIBLE (Der Spiegel).
March 21: GEOFF MANN (Simon Fraser University).


Youth-Driven Climate Action: Power and Potential

Watch the video here.

A panel discussion with ASTER CHAU (Academy at Palumbo), AMAN SHARMA (Penn C'26), JULIA OLSON (Our Children's Trust), moderated by MICHAEL MANN (Penn Earth and Environmental Science).

AS THE EFFECTS OF A CHANGING CLIMATE become clearer each year, in forms ranging from extreme weather to bleached corral, many of the most powerful and effective advocates for climate action are young people who foresee truly catastrophic consequences within their lifetimes. In movements including Fridays for Future, Sunshine, and The Last Generation, youth are driving meaningful climate action around the globe through governmental and extra-governmental channels. For the inaugural event in the CLIMATE AND DEMOCRACY series, the Mitchell Center and the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities are honored to host three activists in a conversation about the power and potential of youth activism and intergenerational alliances for climate action.


MAX BERGMANN (Speaking November 16, 2023) is the director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program and the Stuart Center in Euro-Atlantic and Northern European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS he was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focused on Europe, Russia, and U.S. security cooperation. From 2011 to 2017, he served in the U.S. Department of State in a number of different positions, including as a member of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff, where he focused on political-military affairs and nonproliferation; special assistant to the undersecretary for arms control and international security; speechwriter to then secretary of state John Kerry; and senior adviser to the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.

RHIANA GUNN-WRIGHT (Speaking February 15, 2024 in a panel with Jonas Schaible) is the director of Climate Policy at the Roosevelt Institute, where she conducts research on the power of government to equitably decarbonize and democratize our economy. Gunn-Wright leads the think tank’s research at the intersection of climate policy, public investment, racial equity, and public power. Along with Lew Daly, Kristina Karlsson, and fellows associated with Roosevelt’s Climate and Economic Transformation (CET) Program, Rhiana aims to create a body of work that examines the role of economic policy and large-scale economic transformation in catalyzing just and rapid responses to the climate crisis. She also supports Roosevelt’s engagement with the Green New Deal Network and other partners in the climate movement. 

EDWARD MAIBACH (Speaking January 18, 2024) is a distinguished University Professor and Director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication (Mason 4C).  Ed co-directs the Climate Change in the American Mind polling project (with Yale’s Anthony Leiserowitz), is principal investigator of Climate Matters—a climate reporting resources program that supports TV weathercasters as local climate educators, and he helps direct the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health—an educational initiative that currently involves 37 national medical societies.

GEOFF MANN (Speaking March 21, 2024) is Director of the Centre for Global Political Economy, Simon Fraser University. He is the author of Disassembly Required: A Field Guide to Actually Existing Capitalism, Our Daily Bread: Wages, Workers and the Political Economy of the American West, and In the Long Run We Are All Dead: Keynesianism, Political Economy and Revolution. He is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, and sits on the editorial/advisory boards of Theory & Event, The Journal of Cultural Economy, Antipode, and Historical Materialism, as well as the book series Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation (University of Georgia Press) and Economic Transformations (Agenda).

JULIA OLSON (Speaking September 21, 2023) is founder and Executive Director and Chief Legal Counsel for Our Children's Trust. After a landmark victory in Held v. Montana – the constitutional climate change case brought by 21 Montana youth against the state of Montana for violating their rights to a clean and healthful environment – Olson said, “As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos. This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate. More rulings like this will certainly come.”

JONAS SCHAIBLE (Speaking February 15, 2024 in a panel with Rhiana Gunn-Wright) is a reporter and editor at Der Spiegel. He was awarded the German Reporter Prize for the best essay in 2020 and is author of Demokratie im Feuer: Warum wir die Freiheit nur bewahren, wenn wir das Klima retten – und umgekehrt (Democracy on Fire. Why We Only Preserve Freedom If We Save The Climate - And Vice Versa), published in 2023. In his book, Schaible argues that climate and democracy are mutually dependent: democracy only exists on a habitable planet, and the climate can only be saved with democratic means. He takes a new look at politics in our times of climate crisis and creates a vision for the future in which freedom and climate protection strengthen each other.

BENJAMIN SOVACOOL (Speaking October 19, 2023) is the Director of the Boston University Institute for Global Sustainability (IGS) and a Professor in the Department of Earth & Environment. He works as a researcher and consultant on issues pertaining to global energy policy and politics, energy security, energy justice, climate change mitigation, and climate change adaptation. More specifically, his research focuses on renewable energy and energy efficiency, the politics of large-scale energy infrastructure, designing public policy to improve energy security and access to electricity, the ethics and justice of energy, and building adaptive capacity to the consequences of climate change.


IN ORDER TO DEEPEN OUR UNDERSTANDING ON THIS VITAL TOPIC, the Mitchell Center and PPEH have awarded Climate and Democracy Graduate Fellowships to five Penn graduate students, who will meet throughout the year to work on collaborative projects. The recipients are TAYEBA BATOOL (Anthropology), who studies nature-based urban planning in Pakistan; SARAH ESKANDARI (History), who studies the intersection of women, environmentalism, and revolution in Iran; HELENE LANGLAMET (Communication), who studies the ways in which the coal and natural-gas lobbies shape politics in western Pennsylvania; REHANA THEMBEKA ODENDAAL (Education), who studies youth climate activists in the U.S. and South Africa; and VANESSA SCHIPANI (Philosophy), who studies the roles of science and science journalism in shaping democratic deliberation over climate policy.


The members of the “Climate and Democracy” planning committee are Bethany Wiggin, Chair (Penn Germanic Languages and Literatures; Founding Director, Penn Program in Environmental Humanities), Marge Bruchac (Penn Anthropology), Brenda Casper (Penn Biology), Elizabeth Ellis (Princeton History), Jeffrey Green (Political Science; Director, Andrea Mitchell Center), Michael Mann (Penn Earth and Environmental Science), Lisa Mitchell (South Asia Studies), Eric Orts (Wharton Legal Studies and Business Ethics), Gwen Ottinger (Drexel Dept. of Politics; Center for Science, Technology and Society), Jennifer Pinto-Martin (Penn Nursing; Perelman School of Medicine), Matthew Roth (Andrea Mitchell Center), and Paul Saint-Amour (Penn English).