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by Charles Ray

At the opening of the COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on November 7, 2022, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the representatives of the countries attending that they faced a choice: work together to cut greenhouse gas emissions or condemn the planet to climate catastrophe. “Humanity has a choice,” Guterres said. “Cooperate or perish. We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”

Guterres called for the world’s richest and poorest countries to work together to speed up the transition from fossil fuels, and for the wealthy to help with funding to enable poor countries reduce emissions and deal with the negative impacts that they have already suffered due to climate change.

“The two largest economies—the United States and China—have a particular responsibility to join efforts to make this pact a reality,” he went on to say. Left unsaid, but understood by most, is that China and the U.S. are also the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases.

While the U.S. and much of the rest of the world are still preoccupied with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rampant inflation, energy shortages, and the fallout from the Covid pandemic, the existential problem of climate change cannot be ignored.

Funding for Vulnerable Countries

COP27 began with an agreement by the nearly 200 countries participating to discuss compensating the poor nations for damage linked to climate change, the first time this controversial topic has been included on the agenda since the talks began decades ago. After consistently opposing this measure, on the last day of COP27, the U.S. signed on to a breakthrough agreement to provide ‘loss and damage’ funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters. The agreement established a ‘transitional committee’ to make recommendations on how to ‘operationalize’ both the new funding arrangements and the fund at COP28 next year. The committee is expected to hold its first meeting before the end of March 2023. It remains to be seen, though, whether the summit will produce actionable outcomes and whether countries will follow through with concrete actions. Despite the optimism generated by the agreement, many are doubtful that the fund will actually reduce net emissions, and point out that the deal does not address the growing gap between climate science and climate policy.

While all the world’s crises are important and must be addressed, without cuts to greenhouse gas emissions this decade, scientists warn that it will be impossible to avoid a global temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees C.

In my opinion, the climate crisis is the greatest crisis of this century and one that the U.S. should make a central part of our foreign policy. The Biden administration acknowledged this by appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, but progress has been slow.

As the world continues to get warmer, other problems are worsened. It’s not just the future we must worry about either. The negative impacts of climate change are being felt now. Food prices are increasing because of the impact of climate change on agricultural production; we are experiencing more frequent and more intense tropical storms, and longer hurricane and wildfire seasons that disrupt travel and impact the tourism industry; extreme heat waves, flooding, and air pollution are causing lost productivity. More important than these new problems, though, is the fact that climate change is making existing problems worse. Disruptions caused by climate change worsen social and economic inequality, speed up destruction of the biosphere, contribute to the spread of certain diseases, and cause increases in gender-based violence and violence related to competition for scarce resources.

John Kerry, U.S. special climate envoy, during a discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland
John Kerry, U.S. special climate envoy, during a discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. | Markus Schreiber/AP Photo

Addressing global problems, including climate change, requires global action. Diplomacy is key to achieving the consensus necessary to effectively cope with cross-border and transnational issues. Climate diplomacy needs to be integrated into U.S. foreign policy and national security decision making at all levels. As Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry is the face of the administration’s efforts. At the conference in Egypt, he pointed out that “President Biden has made addressing the climate crisis a top priority. He rejoined the Paris Agreement on Day One and set an ambitious NDC target. He passed a $1.2 billion Infrastructure Bill. And this summer, he signed the Inflation Reduction Act, the most important climate legislation in United States history.”

Emissions Credit Plan

Kerry has been criticized for his ‘emission credits plan,’ which would be used to finance the renewable energy transition in poor and vulnerable countries by allowing companies to pay for someone else to cut their emissions instead of cutting their own. Climate experts have expressed concern that this could discourage companies from making real cuts to emissions, but Kerry, speaking to CNN at COP27, said that the world will not be able to avoid the worst effects of climate change without private money because governments are not willing to pay what’s needed. Furthermore, he added, ‘there is not enough money in any country in the world to actually solve this problem.’ “It takes trillions,” Kerry said. “And no government that I know of is ready to put trillions into this on an annual basis.” Kerry conceded to critics that his carbon trading plan could be problematic, especially if there aren’t sufficient rules or guardrails and if you don’t have environmental integrity, but he hopes to set up a system that is tightly controlled.

A Whole of Government Approach

Kerry’s Office of the Special Envoy (SPEC), which is charged with leading U.S. diplomacy to address the climate crisis, is integrated closely with existing staff within the Department of State. One key bureau is the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES). The Bureau’s Office of Global Change (EGC) is tasked with exercising strong U.S. leadership in efforts to address climate change. Also in OES are the offices of Conservation and Water (ECW), which coordinates U.S. foreign policy to conserve important ecosystems and water resources, and Environmental Quality (ENV), staffed by scientists, lawyers, and diplomats who develop and implement policy to protect air, food, soil, plants and animals from pollution by working with trade partners and multilateral institutions worldwide.

In a 2020 Foreign Policy article, Columbia University Professor Jason Bordoff argued “It’s Time to Put Climate Action at the Center of U.S. Foreign Policy.” Bordoff pointed out that proposals such as the Green New Deal put forward by progressive environmental groups and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, while good, fell short by focusing on domestic actions and not paying enough attention to the global nature of the climate crisis. Climate change affects the entire globe no matter where the causative agent was emitted. An effective climate strategy cannot be domestic only; it has to be central to our foreign policy. Bordoff writes, “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. As with human rights in the 1970s, climate diplomacy must be ‘woven into the fabric of our foreign policy.’”

The Biden Administration has already taken the first necessary step by rejoining the Paris Agreement, and on November 11, 2022, the U.S. joined the governments of the EU, Canada, Norway, Singapore, Japan, and the United Kingdom in a declaration on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. President Biden, in his COP27 address, pledged that the US will ‘do our part.’ This includes support for the wealthier nations helping poor countries who are hardest hit by the climate crisis. In another encouraging sign, Biden and PRC leader Xi Jinping agreed at the G20 meeting in November 2022 to restart talks between their countries as part of international climate negotiations.

On a working level, each geographic bureau in the Department of State has been authorized an additional position devoted to climate issues, and some of these positions have already been filled. Whether they will integrate with other bureau missions and activities, or be able to make a difference, is an open question, but it is a step toward elevating climate diplomacy.

The Department of Defense (DOD) and NATO are already far ahead of State on this issue, recognizing that climate change poses serious national security risk and negatively impacts the ability of military forces to carry out their missions. DOD has, for example, recognized that climate change impacts its missions, plans, and installations, and is elevating it as a national security priority and integrating it into policies, strategies, and engagements with partner nations. In 2021, NATO released its Climate Change and Security Action Plan, which recognized climate change as one of the ‘defining challenges of our times’ that affects security globally.

Climate Change and Food Security

An issue that hurts poorer countries, especially those in Africa, South America, and Asia, is food insecurity, which is worsened by climate change. Climate change’s impact on food insecurity was not addressed in COP26. The COP27 final agreement recognized the need to safeguard food security and called on countries and organizations to increase efforts to promote sustainable agriculture with a view to eradicating hunger and poverty and ensuring food security.

Key to successfully addressing food security, as well as agriculture’s impact on climate change, is to ensure adequate financing for small-scale farm production and promotion of a shift to low-input, diverse, climate-friendly agriculture. Despite being responsible for 34 percent of emissions, mostly from industrial agriculture, food and agriculture have been largely ignored in previous climate negotiations. Small-scale farmers produce as much as 80 percent of food consumed in places like Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, but they received only 1.7 percent of climate finance flows in 2018. At COP26, wealthy countries agreed to increase funding for adaptation to US $40 billion by 2025, which is still only a fraction of what is required. While the shortcomings were recognized at COP27, the document that came out of the meeting was short on specifics related to funding.

Herd of about seven cattle cross a paved road, headed toward dry scrub brush.
Farmers face arid conditions in Zimbabwe

In addition to what is being done at the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has published an eight-year strategy that guides a whole-of-agency approach to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and working with partner countries to build resilience to climate change. USAID’s strategy has six ambitious targets to achieve by 2030, including reducing six billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, supporting the conservation of 100 million hectares of land, enabling improved climate resilience of 500 million people, mobilizing US $150 billion in public and private sector finance for climate, aligning USAID development portfolios with climate change mitigation and adaptation in at least 80 countries by 2024, and supporting partners to achieve meaningful participation and active leadership in climate action by critical populations in 40 countries.

U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: A Chance to Demonstrate Commitment

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, held in Washington, DC, Dec. 13-15, 2022, was an opportunity to show U.S. commitment to helping the countries of Africa begin to overcome the serious impacts of climate change. A symposium on ‘Conservation, Climate Adaptation, and a Just Energy Transition,’ was held on the first day and ‘Growing Agribusiness: Partnerships to Strengthen Food Security and Value Chain’ was highlighted on the second day. A leaders’ session on promoting food security and food systems resilience was held on day three of the summit.

While climate change, the Just Energy Transition initiative, and food security were included on the summit agenda, these issues were mostly addressed in side events run by NGOs or educational institutions.

Also missing from the summit, according to several people who were involved in main events, was a dialogue with the African leaders about climate change or any other issues. While the administration’s rhetoric on climate and other issues was welcomed, the absence of African voices was noted. One foreign official who asked not to be identified said that, except for what was being said, this summit was not unlike others he and his colleagues have attended, where the hosts talk to rather than with the assembled African leaders. Hopefully, this official said, there will be follow-through on the commitments made at the summit, but he cautioned that he remains skeptical.

The deck has been shuffled and the cards are on the table. Achieving real progress in the effort to mitigate the effects of climate change, though, is a step-by-step process that will take time. Although the State Department has taken several steps toward a more focused climate diplomacy, we still need to step up our game. The fact is we don’t know how much time we have; any progress will take a more sustained commitment than we have seen to date.End.

Amb. Charles Ray

Ambassador Charles Ray served 30 years in the Foreign Service (1982-2012), after a 20-year career in the U.S. Army. He was the first American consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and subsequently ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe. In addition, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs from 2006 to 2009.

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