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Climate Action and Climate Diplomacy: The Search for Consensus in a Time of Crisis - Letter from Washington

United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.

Paul Joffe is Sr. Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and former Sr. Foreign Policy Counsel at the World Resources Institute. The views stated here are solely those of the author.]


Dear Colleagues,

The coronavirus storm has blown away a lot of business as usual. This brought discussion about whether climate action can be part of addressing fallout from the pandemic and how the pandemic might affect the approach to climate action and climate diplomacy. Then protests across the country against police misconduct have elevated justice issues on the national agenda. 

Before the pandemic, something was stirring on climate action. Unexpected voices like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were saying that something should be done about climate change. Some red states were breaking ranks with orthodoxy and pushing clean energy. And conservative Millennials, who have more of a personal stake than the old guard, were saying it is time for action.

So the American system for dealing with big problems was rousing itself from deep sleep. In the House of Representatives, in one party, there were the Green New Dealers who want to transform the economy, and there were also the more focused clean energy proponents. In the other party, there were people saying you can't just be against everything, supporting things like carbon capture and tree planting.

At this rate, in forty or fifty years, after many false starts, the problem might be addressed with some half-a-loaf remedy.  Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of time to avoid catastrophe. So what to do? The American people recognize the problem, are concerned about it, and want the problemaddressed. Technically, we know how to shift to clean energy. But special interests are committed to resisting change, political system dysfunctions, and partisan polarization enhance paralysis. Moreover, the debate over climate action takes place against a background debate over economic upheaval and racial and social justice.

The Pandemic Hurricane and the Climate Crisis – the Perfect Storm

The pandemic could fuel upheavals in politics and the economy that will feed conflict and stall constructive policy, including climate action. It could, however, provide a breakthrough that shatters the old complacency, through strategies that build security and opportunities which can provide a foundation for consensus to confront the climate crisis.

Unless we act, climate impacts could disrupt our lives in ways that will eclipse even the pandemic. Commentators have remarked that the pandemic reminds us to plan ahead, to listen to science, and to remember the importance of cooperation, and of capable, active governments.

But the status quo is challenging. Prospects for long-term conflict over economic issues, identity politics, and racial and social justice are evident in the United States and other industrialized countries. A successful strategy for climate action should be part of a broad effort to turn from social conflict to solidarity.

Strategy for Consensus – Establishing Justice, Ensuring Everyone a Stake and Everyone a Voice

Climate strategy can help create opportunities and security. As part of a broader commitment to the unfinished work of establishing justice and addressing economic crisis, it will draw support.  Such a strategy can help provide a basis for consensus by ensuring everyone a stake and a voice in confronting climate change. A few examples illustrate this.

Confronting climate change requires ambitious emissions reductions. Various approaches are possible. An example is the fee and dividend campaign with a rising fee on carbon, funding payments to consumers and stimulating clean energy enterprise. Others advocate sector-specific policies that create local business opportunities and jobs.

New progress on justice for workers is also increasingly needed because of industrial change and changes in the nature of work across many industries, including energy. The pandemic crisis has highlighted the need for creating a new system of job security as well as new efforts on infrastructure, community development and worker rights. Climate action can contribute to this effort, while simultaneously reducing climate damage. Support for climate action will grow when it is a key element of a broad economic program where employment is a priority and there is as much of a national commitment to job security as to social security. I have previously suggested that much as the auto industry "Treaty of Detroit" in the 1950s created security and opportunity for the industrial expansion of that time, we need a new and even stronger pact among business, labor and government to confront climate change and the economic crisis.

In a signal that such an approach may be emerging, a major U.S. labor federation and a former Secretary of Energy announced on Earth Day a partnership promoting a framework for the energy system “that creates and preserves quality jobs while addressing the climate crisis.” This partnership could help address issues that otherwise could slow action, such as the role of nuclear energy and carbon capture.

Moreover, reawakening concern for racial justice adds momentum to strengthening joint efforts by the climate movement and the environmental justice movement, which has long decried the impact of pollution and climate damage on low income and minority communities. From power plants causing far-reaching health problems in poor, high density Chicago neighborhoods, to environmental injustice in contaminated, post-Katrina New Orleans, examples are widespread. As one activist says, systemic racism has led to unjust housing, urban, and other policies, increasing the vulnerability of minority communities to climate impacts. As a result, communities of color “are in the crosshairs” of damage caused by storms such as Katrina, Maria, Harvey and Superstorm Sandy. Here again, climate action should help establish justice and address economic crisis. Examples include prioritizing clean investments for vulnerable communities and marshalling permitting, housing, health and other policies to remedy historic environmental injustices.

With new possibilities to engage these movements, as well as new initiatives on Capitol Hill and in the presidential campaign, there are signs that a powerful climate coalition may be in reach, with a broader range of stakeholders than in the past.  Hard work remains, but the outlines of climate action consensus based on justice and economic renewal are becoming visible.

Climate strategy will also have to address the dysfunctional elements of the political system. As environmentalists increasingly recognize, success in strengthening climate action depends on strengtheningdemocracy. To succeed, climate strategy should help grassroots and other efforts to ensure that everyone has a voice.

Climate Diplomacy in the Shadow of the Future

While all of this is needed for the United States to take climate action at home, climate change is a global problem. The United States cannot save itself alone. As the United States approaches a new era of global leadership, it is important to recognize that the likelihood of leadership in climate diplomacy abroad also depends on consolidating consensus at home. 

There is a longstanding myth in Washington that the public does not recognize the importance of global engagement by the United States in its own interests. Even today, global engagement is sometimes simplistically seen as a charitable undertaking. Rather, in today’s world, it is firmly grounded in enlightened self-interest. In fact, in the coming era, strong climate action is likely to be a major tool for developing economic competitiveness, technological innovation, building alliances, and maintaining a strategic edge.

The pandemic is teaching us a hard lesson in nature’s iron law of interdependence. Just as people have seen the consequences of failing to look ahead and to cooperate, they can see the fires and floods and economic upheaval in the building climate storm. Thus, foregoing the benefits of cooperation to address what the future holds in store, what a leading game theorist called “the shadow of the future,” looks even less attractive. But awareness has to be translated into international collaboration. Climate action can drive these results as it helps promote a clean energy industrial recovery at home and worldwide. To accomplish this, the United States must resume its seat at the table under the Paris climate agreement to achieve its full promise.

The historian, Margaret MacMillan, said that the failure one hundred years ago of the parties at the troubled Versailles settlement of the Great War and afterwards to see past short term interests turned into "the disillusionment, division, and aggression of the 1930s." That they could not see the shadow of the future seems incredible now. Or perhaps they could see it but had no effective strategy to overcome the social and economic crisis of those days and so drifted toward calamity.

We can foresee the crises ahead. We also have the tools to cope with them and to create better lives now and for today’s and tomorrow’s children. Our biggest challenge lies in ourselves, in the divisions--often fomented by an interested few--that are holding us back. Perhaps the hard experience of these times will encourage us to overcome those divisions, if we employ a strategy that is part of a broader, renewed effort to establish justice and that ensures everyone a voice and everyone a stake in confronting climate change, both at home and abroad.