Lind Initiative Student Wins IR Essay Competition

Jose Carvajal, a UBC student and 2019 Lind Initiative seminar student, has won an IR essay competition prize for his essay on climate policy titled ‘Can The Crumbling City on a Hill Dream in Green: American Exceptionalism and the Challenge of Climate Change.’

Jose was a student in the Lind Initiative that focused on America and the Climate Crisis, as part of the 2019 Phil Lind Initiative series held at UBC Vancouver.

The prize is the Mack Eastman Prize, given in memory of Dr. S. Mack Eastman, is available to all students in the University. Dr. Eastman was the first Head of the History Department until 1925 when he left to become the Chief of Research in the International Labour Office in Geneva. He was instrumental in establishing the League of Nations Society of which he was Secretary. In recognition of his outstanding work and influence, the United Nations Association has endowed this prize. The prize is awarded for the best essay on a problem related to international peace and security or international cooperation in economic or social areas.”

We asked Jose a few questions about his essay topic, what the prize means to him, and his ongoing research interests. Find the interview below:

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What key argument do you make in your essay? What impact did you hope it would have?

My paper makes a contribution to the scholarly debate surrounding current American climate inaction at the federal level by adding a psychocultural insight missing from the literature. It analyzes American exceptionalism, as a form of nationalist and geopolitical discourse, and how it influences policy formation.

By drawing a link between the American self-identity discourse and a specific form of economic arrangement currently known as neoliberalism, I sustain that current problematizations of the climate crisis are incongruent with national identity narratives.

Drawing from an interdisciplinary literature review, this paper argues that with the rise of China, the emergence of a global Indigenous movement, and the theorization of climate change as a ‘Capitalocene’, American policy makers, informed by a discourse of American exceptionalism, are prone towards inaction. At a time when the American state is being challenged for hegemony of truth, power and sovereignty, I will argue, nationalist discourses influences the way Americans engage in global collective action.

My essay is an attempt to contribute to the conversation around American climate inaction at the federal level. I want to highlight that at the municipal, individual, and even state level, cities, states, companies and people in the United States are doing a lot towards climate change mitigation and prevention. However, the question remains as to why, at the international and federal level, the US is not ‘leading the way’. There is a lot written about inaction but what was missing for me was the sort of insecurities and stakes that may be involved or laid bare through climate change. 

What does this prize mean to you?

I feel very grateful to have received it. It was a very personal research topic for me. I tried my best to hedge my bets writing it and to make it truly as interdisciplinary and nuanced as I could. In that regard, I appreciate all the help I received from Dr. Alger, Dr. Kuus, Cole Smith, and Kendra Powell from the Lind initiative for helping me write it. 

Most of all, I would say is is very cool that the prize went to an essay on climate policy for an essay contest about “international peace and security or international cooperation in economic or social areas.” I think that way beyond my writing abilities, it speaks a lot about growing recognition about the importance to think of climate change as geopolitical which is a lot of what we talked about in the course. 

What are your research interests?

Right now my research interests are up in the air and I am currently working at the Liu Institute on issues regarding memory studies and critical military studies in post conflict settings. Beyond that, I am very interested in issues of ‘othering’ and the sort of politics behind territoriality and political belonging.

Regarding climate change and climate policy, I have mostly devoted my interest to ‘socially just transitions’ and to what sustainable food policy might look like from a critical point of view. I think more attention and empathy needs to go towards changing the discourse from climate change denialists being ‘backwards’ or ‘conservative.’ There must be some sort of empathetic listening to the people that will face very real and painful transitions and whose livelihoods and communities depend on industries or traditions that are detrimental to the environment. This is not to justify some of their rhetoric, privilege or industries, but essentially to perhaps complicate it beyond just a dichotomy between self-proclaimed ‘morally superior liberal environmentalists’ talking down to what are perceived as ‘privileged, backwards conservatives’. I think that conversation takes us nowhere, especially as we near a Canadian and an American general election. 

I think more and more, and part of what the essay is about, is that this whole ‘climate crisis’ is a mess and that there needs to be increasing interdisciplinary collaboration when we try to understand inaction. It is a ‘super wicked problem’ and as such, as someone else in the course said, it also opens up avenues for communication across academic departments (and political spectrums) because it is not just natural or social.

For me, I think national analyses and affective analyses will be increasingly important in understanding climate action and inaction: attention to how people feel, and how they feel collectively, and not just what they should be doing is an important part of the conversation in my opinion.