Biden needs more than a special envoy to deal sustainably with climate change

getty: John Kerry

President Biden moved promptly to re-engage the U.S. internationally on climate change. He named former Secretary of State John Kerry as his Cabinet-level Special Envoy for Climate, rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, will host a summit of climate leaders in April, and issued an Executive Order covering these and other actions. Biden is clearly making climate change a national security priority.

There are, however, no quick fixes to climate change threats to global stability and U.S. security and prosperity. Kerry’s recent call for “a decade of action” sounds ambitious, but is only a down payment on what is needed. Achieving meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases is the work of many decades, not just one. And global action to mitigate or adapt to climate threats to water security, agriculture, and coastal cities, for example, will also require decades of work to sustain viable livelihoods and prevent de-stabilizing large-scale migrations from affected regions.

Biden is pointing the U.S. in the right direction, but achieving meaningful global action on climate change requires more than naming special envoys and hosting high-level meetings. Special envoys come and go, but organizations and their missions endure — and climate change demands an enduring response.

Given his ambitions, Biden needs to support and complement his Special Envoy for Climate by strengthening the State Department’s capacity to work in the trenches coordinating the U.S. government’s day-to-day work on the international aspects of climate change for the decades ahead.

Climate change has been generally a niche diplomatic issue at the State Department, not a mainstream national security issue. While senior political level officials will often lead U.S. delegations to climate negotiations, the boiler room of U.S. climate diplomacy for decades has been in the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES). OES has a large office that develops U.S. positions on climate negotiations in close coordination with other U.S. government agencies and other stakeholders. OES also leads U.S. government teams negotiating issues that feed into high-level agreements, such as Paris.

But OES is also responsible for coordinating U.S. government work on international fisheries and other oceans issues, a growing number of international environment negotiations, outer space and international health issues, and bilateral science relationships. Thus, while climate change is an important part of OES’ portfolio, the bureau deals with a wide range of other significant issues that are important to various U.S. constituencies.

To signal domestically and internationally that climate change is an enduring U.S. national security priority, Biden should establish at the State Department a bureau focused only on climate change, the Bureau for Climate Diplomacy and Development. The new bureau could serve as the locus of expertise and coordination within the State Department and the U.S. government for all international negotiations and foreign policy and development policy issues related to climate change. It could have an integrated staff of State Department diplomats and scientists and development experts drawn from USAID and other government agencies, U.S. national laboratories, and academia.

The new bureau could support Kerry and his White House team in their efforts to strengthen international commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This would involve supporting bilateral and multilateral negotiations related to meeting the Paris Climate Agreement commitments and, almost certainly, a future agreement that goes beyond the Paris commitments. It could also coordinate interagency work on these negotiations and leverage U.S. embassies to build support for U.S. climate change positions in negotiations.

Climate change is not, however, some future problem that can be dealt with via negotiations; its negative effects are already evident in rural areas, agricultural regions, and coastal cities around the world. These early problems will cascade in the coming decades unless action to address them begins now — and is sustained for decades.

The new bureau’s longer-term focus, therefore, should be on building international support for developing, funding, and implementing mitigation and adaptation strategies to address climate change threats that have the highest risk of producing the worst consequences, e.g., water insecurity that undermines agricultural viability, leading to migration from rural areas. The bureau’s science and development experts could coordinate within the government to identify global regions most at risk of the worst consequences and potential mitigation and adaption strategies and actions to address those risks. The bureau’s diplomats could work with existing international institutions and perhaps build new coalitions of likeminded nations to turn strategies into action where it is most needed.

Biden’s Executive Order on climate indicates he knows business as usual will not protect U.S. security and prosperity from the threats posed by climate change. His appointment of a Cabinet-level Special Envoy for Climate shows he wants to shake things up to prioritize work on climate change. He similarly needs to shake things up at the State Department by establishing a bureau with the sole mission of dealing with international climate change issues for the decades of work that lie ahead.

Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA in the George W. Bush administration and as a senior intelligence official in the Obama Administration. He also served as Acting Assistant Secretary for State’s OES Bureau at the end of the Clinton administration and the beginning of the Bush administration. He was founding director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (2005-2009). He was involved in international environmental issues and negotiations in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Tags Biden climate executive orders Biden climate plan Climate change Climate change policy Environmental policy of the Joe Biden administration foreign relations Joe Biden John Kerry National security special envoy State Department U.S. Department of State
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