18 June 2020

The Need for Climate Smart Foreign Policy

In recent months, many experts and government officials have pointed out the similarities between the current pandemic and climate change. Much like the current pandemic, climate change is a global phenomenon that requires a global and multifaceted response. The solutions to both crises lie in some combination of technological and policy solutions, but also human behavior and the ability to change behavior for the purpose of achieving some level of public good. We see that some places are better prepared than others, and that preparation leads to real advantages in terms of resilience. What once seemed like a far-off possibility that should be considered but not overly dwelled upon is now the central organizing factor in our daily life and activity. What once seemed like the purview of only global health experts, is now a critical factor to be considered in all sectors of the economy and areas of policymaking. These lessons should serve as a wake-up call to how the world is currently organized to deal with global climate change because the one main difference between the impact of the pandemic and the impacts of climate change is that the latter is likely to be far worse.

Despite clear signs of progress, the world is not currently prepared to address the causes and consequences of a changing global climate. While clean energy technology costs have declined and policies to advance a more meaningful low carbon transition exist in many countries, greenhouse gas emissions are not dropping commensurate with globally agreed-upon targets. Meanwhile, climate-related impacts, both gradual and dramatic, have begun to occur with increasing regularity and severity, laying bear how ill-prepared international, national, and local governments are to withstand and respond to these changes.

Motivating adequate worldwide action to address this complex issue has bedeviled the international community for decades. A complex array of programs, initiatives, and institutions exist for the purposes of combatting climate change. This web of activity has grown over decades of engagement by governments, civil society, and corporations. Each organization plays an important role, including investigating and improving scientific understanding of the problem and solutions; motivating political will for new commitments, policies, and resources; mobilizing investment and technological advancements and deployment; and many other areas. From time to time, it has been necessary to add new institutions or mechanisms to refresh, revise, or redirect efforts to be more appropriately focused on areas of concern or opportunity.

Three core challenges exist today. The first challenge is to find a way to make climate change a priority for policymakers outside the energy and environmental community. Far too often, there is a great deal of work done by the same people, in the same circles, and not the people in charge of the systems and institutions that could be most effective in dealing with climate change (finance, trade, security, etc.). New strategies to make climate change a central pillar of non-climate community organizations, structures, and institutions are needed, particularly in the area of international engagement. This is not a new idea in and of itself but instead a much-needed strategic rethink of institutional arrangements and engagements on climate change during a time when traditional institutions and alliances are in a state of flux. The opportunity to think about climate change in the context of global trade reform, regional security initiatives, the global health agenda, and international development are perhaps the largest areas of opportunity.

The second challenge is the inconsistent nature of U.S. engagement. Within the United States, the historical partisan divide on climate change is softening with more and more Republicans, particularly of younger generations, recognizing climate change as a pressing problem, and more and more Republican lawmakers looking for ways to proactively engage on the issue. And yet, mobilizing around common ground on the U.S. strategic posture relative to the challenge is still elusive. The United States is getting to the point where our lack of ability to engage seriously and consistently on this issue is becoming a vulnerability both at home and abroad. More consistent U.S. engagement on the issue of climate change over a wider range of issues could lend much-needed stability to the global efforts to deliver additional progress. It also requires U.S. policymakers to focus on how embracing the issue of climate change can convey strategic benefits to the United States, like a platform through which to spur additional innovation, increase U.S. technological competitiveness, and create common ground for dealing with other countries on shared global interests.

The third challenge is the declining faith in multilateral institutions and the breakdown in global collaboration more generally. A key component of creating more consistent leadership is to ensure a broader base of support for global engagement that goes beyond the federal and national governments into states/subnational, companies, and civil society. In practice, this is happening today, but the global community is not necessarily organized to engage and help these non-state actors achieve their full potential. More private sector and civil society engagement could also be part of the solution to bolstering support for institutions and initiatives where governments have taken a step back. One opportunity is to encourage more private sector-led multilateral strategic initiatives like sector-based clubs through which the private sector and civil society can advance voluntary efforts and advise governments on necessary regulations to help them achieve ambitious climate-related targets.

The global pandemic has afforded the opportunity to ask how we are preparing for the crises we know are on the horizon but are all too easy to ignore. From our regional and bilateral relationships to the systems and organization we use to safeguard security, public health, trade, development, data, and finance, climate change will intersect and reshape many parts of the world in which we live and our expectations about the future. Pragmatism and our current experience suggest we would do well to create climate smart foreign policy now to ensure our expanded capabilities to deal with these shared challenges into the future.

Sarah Ladislaw is senior vice president and director and senior fellow of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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