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Op-eds & Essays Geopolitics

It’s Time to Put Climate Action at the Center of U.S. Foreign Policy

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In the U.S. Democratic Party, perhaps no issue has risen more in prominence during this election year compared with prior ones than climate change. The number of self-identified Democrats who consider it a “major threat” is up from 6 in 10 in 2013 to almost 9 in 10 today. A slew of proposals—from the Green New Deal embraced by many progressive environmental groups to a new 538-page climate plan released by Democratic members of a special committee on the climate crisis in the U.S. House of Representatives—lay out various policies. Yet while these plans offer much to celebrate, all of them fall short by focusing on domestic actions while paying scant attention to the global nature of the crisis. Every ton of carbon dioxide contributes to climate change no matter where it is emitted, so an ambitious climate strategy cannot only be domestic—it must put the issue squarely at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Past U.S. efforts to advance global action, such as Washington’s leadership to help secure the 2015 Paris climate agreement, have been key to progress. Yet given both the urgency and global nature of climate change, the issue cannot be siloed into U.S. State Department or Energy Department offices and spheres of diplomacy. Many aspects of U.S. foreign policy will impact, and be impacted by, climate change. An effective foreign policy requires taking climate change directly into consideration—not just as a problem to resolve, but as an issue that can affect the success and failure of strategies in areas as varied as counterterrorism, migration, international economics, and maritime security.

Human rights offers some important lessons. In the wake of the Vietnam War and the United States’ secret bombings of Cambodia, public concern for human rights was on the rise. Upon taking office in 1977, President Jimmy Carter declared human rights to be a “central concern” of U.S. foreign policy. In contrast to the realpolitik promoted by outgoing Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Carter argued that protecting human rights would advance U.S. interests and was too important to be divorced from other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Rather, human rights must be “woven into the fabric of our foreign policy,” as then Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher testified before a Senate subcommittee.

Despite Carter’s mixed foreign-policy success, climate change demands a similar centrality. As the defining challenge of our time, climate change must be elevated to a foreign-policy priority and cannot be addressed with a compartmentalized approach. It is necessary, of course, to rejoin the Paris agreement, contribute to international finance efforts such as the Green Climate Fund, curb multilateral coal financing, and collaborate with other countries on clean-energy innovation. Yet all these efforts add up to an international climate strategy, not a climate-centered foreign policy. Truly making climate change a pillar of a foreign-policy strategy would have five key elements.

First, the biggest shift from the current U.S. approach would be to take climate change considerations into the mainstream of all national-security and foreign-policy decision-making. If a meeting in the White House Situation Room is not squarely focused on a climate-related concern, it is unlikely any official in the room will bring that perspective to how the issue is discussed. Prioritizing climate change requires integrating its consideration into foreign-policy strategies broadly, just as issues ranging from counterterrorism to nonproliferation are treated today.

For example, stability and security are central aims of U.S. foreign policy: They influence how the United States addresses conflict in the Middle East, counters Boko Haram, confronts China, and much more. Yet a strategy for stability in Iraq will not be effective unless it considers the impacts of water scarcity and heat waves on the Iraqi people or the loss of Iraq’s oil revenue as climate policy gradually erodes oil demand. Similarly, the United States’ efforts to counter terrorism in North Africa may prove fruitless unless officials also consider climate impacts on desertification that make local populations vulnerable to terrorists’ promises.

A climate-centered foreign policy would also require that foreign-policy actors consider the consequences of their actions for climate change and determine whether less harmful approaches exist. For example, U.S. foreign policy has aimed for many years to rebuild Iraq’s struggling economy by helping the country to boost its oil output, and to address its chronic and politically destabilizing electricity shortages by increasing gas production as well. A climate-centered foreign policy would not only provide assistance to reduce flaring and use that gas within Iraq, but also explore opportunities to attract investment in renewable energy. Iraq’s neighbor Saudi Arabia just announced a $5 billion project to generate solar and wind energy to produce hydrogen.

It is easy to say that climate change should be considered when making policy, but much harder to actually do so. As important as climate change is, there are many other urgent foreign-policy priorities, and in many cases there may not be a climate-friendly alternative approach. But foreign-policy makers won’t know whether the alternatives exist or not unless they ask the question.

Domestic policymaking shows how it can be done: The National Environmental Policy Act requires that before major federal actions are taken, the relevant agency analyzes the effects on the environment and identifies reasonable alternatives that may mitigate those effects. A similar internal step in the foreign-policy making process—time permitting—would ensure that officials have full information about environmental consequences before they act. Several international financial institutions such as the World Bank have processes, albeit imperfect, to review the environmental impacts of their actions.

To be clear, climate change considerations should not outweigh all other national security imperatives, such as nonproliferation, arms control, and counterterrorism. If the Iran nuclear deal boosted carbon emissions because the easing of sanctions brought an additional 2 million barrels per day of Iranian oil onto the market, that was a price well worth paying to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Similarly, more zero-carbon nuclear energy would help nations avoid coal power and lower their emissions. Yet nuclear nonproliferation concerns still mean U.S. foreign policy should seek to limit the proliferation of technology that could help produce weapons while ostensibly supporting civil energy, such as uranium enrichment.

Second, climate change obviously needs to be at the center of U.S. energy diplomacy. For example, dialogue with OPEC nations or cooperation on strategic oil stocks to address global supply shocks should include discussion of how to prepare for an uncertain and potentially volatile period of transition away from oil. Plans to increase energy security for Eastern European countries dependent on Russian natural gas must consider the carbon intensity of alternatives, including U.S. liquid-natural-gas exports, and whether infrastructure investments to bolster security today may stymie efforts to reach lower emissions tomorrow. Expanding energy access for the 840 million people who lack access to electricity, the majority of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa, is critical for global health and development, yet support for efforts to achieve this goal must avoid following the carbon-intensive paths of other emerging economies such as India. At present, Africa’s growth in oil demand over the next two decades is projected to be larger than China’s and second only to India’s.

Prioritizing climate change in energy diplomacy also means attaching an even greater weight to issues such as securing electricity grids around the world against cyberattacks, since a decarbonized world will depend even more on electrical power as many additional sectors—such as buildings, cars, and trucks—are electrified. In most countries today, the power grid is at greater risk of cyberattack than the fossil fuel supply. Similarly, access to rare earths and other critical minerals such as lithium and cobalt will be even more important as raw materials for batteries, solar panels, and other renewable energy technologies.

Third, international climate diplomacy remains essential. That means not only rejoining the Paris agreement, but also taking numerous additional bilateral and multilateral steps, such as reengaging with China and India to deliver ambitious climate action; developing bold initiatives in such areas as clean-energy technology and sectoral emissions in the G-20, G-7, and other forums of the largest-emitting nations; expanding climate-related financing in development assistance; and setting tougher targets for methane and black carbon in the Arctic Council.

Fourth, defense leaders should work with their counterparts in other governments and within international institutions, such in the United Nations Security Council and NATO, to integrate climate change into their security agendas. Defense planning must increasingly consider the impacts of climate change, such as the threats of extreme weather to military installations, the stresses increased disaster assistance may pose to military readiness, and the risks food or water scarcity may pose to security in fragile states.

Finally, as with human rights, international leadership has little credibility if it is not matched with robust actions to prioritize the issue at home. That means implementing much stronger policies that will justify a more ambitious U.S. voluntary emissions reduction target in the Paris process and put the nation on a pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050. From the standpoint of foreign policy, stronger domestic action can also lay the groundwork for cooperation instead of conflict with the European Union, which is planning to impose carbon border tariffs on imports from countries taking inadequate climate actions.

The U.S. foreign-policy landscape is already complicated enough without adding yet more decision criteria. But the stakes for climate change are too high for it to be delegated to a marginal role, where it is considered only by climate officials in climate-specific policy contexts. To truly prioritize climate change, foreign policy must go beyond climate and energy diplomacy to make mainstream the consideration of climate change in all foreign-policy decisions. It may not always prevail when weighed against all other national security goals, but it is too important to be ignored.


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It’s Time to Put Climate Action at the Center of U.S. Foreign Policy