When someone asks why get a philosophy degree in college, Andrew Light has a ready answer.
His career that started as a philosophy professor at the University of Montana in the 1990s evolved to become staff climate adviser to former Secretary of State John Kerry in President Barack Obama’s administration, where he was one of the architects of the Paris Climate Agreement.
President Donald Trump campaigned on getting the United States out of that agreement, which commits 169 nations to lowering their pollution levels and take other actions to halt global warming. That can’t actually happen until the day after the 2020 election, according to the commitments the United States has already made. The only other large countries not signing are Russia, Turkey, Columbia, Iran and Iraq.
“We are losing influence with every other country around the world, because they’re wondering who will pick up the influence we had,” Light said during a visit to Missoula on Friday. “It’s China that scoops up that influence, and I don’t know how we get it back.”
Light now teaches at George Mason University and serves as the Distinguished Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute Climate Program. He credited his philosophy background for the tools necessary to find shared values among dozens of different cultures, economies, religions and political agendas.
“We’re here on a campus where we’re asking do we need a philosophy department,” Light observed. “That was unthinkable 100 years ago.”
UM philosophy professor Albert Borgmann called Light “the most important philosopher in the country” for his work on the Paris Climate Agreement and subsequent international work.
Borgmann added that his discipline can be its own self-absorbed enemy. When it gets so complicated that the most prestigious philosophers only talk to one another, the rest of the world justifiably questions its support. Instead, Borgmann said those philosophers need to go into public service and help people express their values.
Climate change negotiations offer the most extreme example, Light said. Much of international diplomacy has been given over to the field of economics, which values decisions by market responses. But many other scales can weigh whether something is good or bad besides a dollar value.
“When you’re putting together an international agreement on climate change, you’ve got 197 parties and each of them have a veto,” Light said. “There’s no way that agreement can only reflect a narrow set of values about what a just solution would look like.”
In the Obama Administration, Light worked on climate change policy with India — the biggest potential change-maker in the global-warming debate. The country has about 1 billion people but a relatively low pollution production because so many of them live in poverty. To provide electricity to 300 million rural residents, India could invest in more coal-fired generating plants or seek out new technology that provides more services with less pollution.
The challenge, Light said, was keeping that debate from collapsing into a political fight between “Stop Climate Change” and “War on Coal.”
“Climate advocates need to show they aren’t trying to make people’s lives worse or destroy pockets of America,” Light said. “There has to be a just transition for folks in the fossil fuel industry.”