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Playing the Climate Card: Strategy for the New Diplomacy - Letter from Washington

U.S. Capitol in 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,

This letter continues our previous exchange, and responds to “Winning the Blue Sky Battle” and its call for a just energy transition as essential for effective climate action.  I write to suggest a perspective from Washington on this theme.

According to many commentators, the U.S. is contributing to the disintegration of world order. But the global effort to address climate change signals that world order has unexpected sources of resilience.

In the U.S., though public opinion does not support U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, special interests work for inaction. But changes are occurring that could make climate action a driver of the domestic agenda for economic and social progress and for international cooperation. Nature is the dealer, and in a newly realistic diplomacy, every player will have to think about how to play a hand with the climate card. 

“What are we going to do about the United States?”

Aging activists reading this may still have their T-shirts with those words across the front.  In the run-up to the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, a UN official speaking confidentially to another diplomat, was caught on a hot mic wondering how to deal with the foot dragging of the U.S. on climate change and other issues.  It might be thought that we are watching a rerun, but actually the script has changed.

It used to be argued that the major fossil fuels were cheap and environmental action was contrary to economic goals. But it is now evident that climate action is the path to sustainable growth and that the big driver of coal decline in the U.S. has been market forces, including cheaper natural gas and the falling price of renewables.  

If the old, special interests have their way, policies to move forward will be delayed, with increasing damage from climate change and loss of competitiveness in new technologies.  Alternatively, we can use climate action as an instrument of innovation and reindustrialization.  This is where transition strategy comes in, especially the point made in your analysis regarding the need to integrate energy with broader policy.  We need to make the problem bigger in order to solve it.

Employment security and democratic governance as national commitments

Fallout from an energy transition developing over decades is part of a broader industrial transformation across regions and industries driven by far-reaching forces such as changes in technology, trade, finance, and the structure of work. The result has been destruction in the U.S. of the post-war system of employment security. With respect to the decline of the U.S. coal industry, we should address impacts on employment whatever the source, including the impacts of market forces and automation, as well as any impacts of policy. But the focus should also be economy-wide. Industries and employment opportunities are intertwined. Moreover, it will be easier to develop support for climate action if it is understood that job security is as much a national commitment as social security.

A serious commitment to employment security would extend from macroeconomic policy to specific initiatives such as nationwide infrastructure and community development projects, wage insurancetrainingjob guarantees, and worker rights. Innovation and jobs in the industries needed to prevent climate damage would be an important part of this effort. Call it a revived and more ambitious “Treaty of Detroit”, bringing together industry, labor, and government, reenergizing work on the urgent business of the country.

Equally important when it comes to the question of “what are we going to do about the United States,” climate scientist James Hansen argues that strengthening democratic governance is a prerequisite for climate action. There is support for curbing carbon emissionsenthusiasm for renewable energy, and widespread civil society and state and local action. However, to help translate opinion into national action, the country needs to renew its democracy by protecting voting rights, ending gerrymandering, and curbing campaign finance abuses.

The International Order – the end or a new beginning?

There is a lot of worry about the end of the international order that has helped foster peace and prosperity for 70 years.  But climate action may contribute to a return to cooperation.  As is the case domestically, not all the international cards have been played yet.

The late diplomatic historian, Ernest May and his co-author, Zhou Hong, argued that accommodation between the U.S. and China is possible because nations have more to be gained by cooperation on issues like climate change than by returning to the days when great powers fought over territory.  Of course, there is a contest over what view of the national interest will prevail.  Some suggest that the U.S. has switched sides and is working more to promote disruption than multilateral cooperation. But just as the economic tide is moving toward climate action, there are strong forces driving cooperation.

In discussing the American stance, reference is often made to history, whether to periods of leadership in multilateralism after 1945 or isolationism before the war.  It is worth considering an even earlier era.  Jack Rakove, a scholar of the American founding, says that a key argument of James Madison for creating the United States was the need to deal with collective action problems involving cooperation among states. The climate issue is a prime example of today’s collective action challenges, but no one is saying the political problem in the U.S. will be easily solved.  As Charles De Gaulle once said to an American official who tried to explain confusing U.S. policies, “the United States must be a difficult country to govern.”  But today’s collective action problems show the continuing importance of Madison’s project.  Joseph Nye has said, the U.S. may not need permission from abroad, but it often does need help to succeed. 

A new strategy to bridge domestic and international needs

The need for action is more and more evident. The threatened damage from climate impacts is widespread, as evidenced by fires and stormsrising seas, and growing economy-wide risk. The importance of climate change to national security and foreign policy is increasingly recognized. The gains to be had from renewed leadership on clean technology are growing. But whether the U.S. again becomes a leader on domestic and international climate action depends on a strategy that turns the generally favorable public opinion on addressing climate change into forceful national action. This effort will be able to build on the work that has continued among states and cities and civil society. Climate policy can be a driver in a larger industrial renaissance that creates jobs and growth and provides economic security at the same time it confronts the growing damage from climate change.

As climate pressures rise on individual nations, the Paris Agreement could become a source of renewal for international order. Observers are rightly worried that implementation of Paris is not yet strong enough. But Paris will survive because the climate threat is growing. As the U.S. relearns the lessons of the last generation about the value of alliances and of strategy that addresses domestic and international needs together, Paris can be a place to relaunch U.S. leadership with global partners. And Paris is likely to have increasing significance. A combination of market forces, technological innovation, and smart policies can give it traction, and in dealing with energy, the lifeblood of nations, everyone will want to be at the table where the play has wider implications for diplomacy beyond climate change.

Some actors seem tempted to go backward to the troubled international regime of the first decades of the twentieth century. But Paris signals the realistic way forward, following nature’s iron rule of interdependence, which governs the new diplomacy. The situation is still precarious, but strong forces of conscience and interest tell us both the dangers and opportunities are real.