The Huge Shift in US Foreign Policy That No One Seemed to Notice

Last week, with little fanfare, or media attention, the White House released its report on National Security Implications of Climate Change. The report outlines the risks and threats posed to both the homeland and foreign policy interests from climate change.  A week before that, the State Department released its Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Report (QDDR), which is the State Department’s major stock taking project that happens every four years. The QDDR elevated Climate Change to one of the State Department’s four “strategic priorities” —  featuring it alongside Countering Violent Extremism, Open Democratic Societies, and Inclusive Economic Growth. In other words, climate change is to be considered as important a priority as, say, fighting terrorism. 

Taken together, these two reports provide the framework for one of the most significant shifts in U.S. foreign policy in recent memory — and one that so far has been unceremoniously ignored by most of the media.

National Security Implications of Climate Change comes as the culmination of a series of similar reports released by U.S. federal agencies and think tanks over the past decade assessing preparedness, vulnerability, and national security threats to a changing climate and its compounding effects. But unlike other reports that detail the national security challenges posed by climate change, this one comes directly from the White House. And, for the first time it appears that there are concrete measures in the works to develop “climate resiliency” as a foreign policy objective. This is a country’s ability to prepare, cope, and adjust to the adverse impacts of accelerating and increasingly uncertain climate changes. 

The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review takes this idea even further, and for the first time, outlines key directives for ensuring climate change considerations become ingrained deep into the foreign policy bureaucracy.  This includes taking long term measures to ensure that the foreign policy bureaucracy — the women and men who design and implement US foreign policy —  integrate of climate issues into all development and diplomacy policies and programing. It also includes instructions to increase climate competency and literacy in hires and current employees. 

Another important innovation of the QDDR is a new way to classify countries based on their relationship with climate change. These countries will be divided into three categories: those most vulnerable to climate change and its effects, emerging big carbon emitter including the BRICs, and those that garner influence with big emitter countries. This is a key innovation in US foreign policy, and has the potential to fundamentally influence America’s relationship with other countries around the world in two key ways.

First, by engaging top emitters and their friends, through enhanced climate diplomacy, the mechanisms and systems that gave rise to the historic joint U.S.-China agreement to cut emissions together will be strengthened. Institutionalizing such mechanisms and platforms will ensure that such agreements become more commonplace and provide opportunities for international cooperation, trust-building, and joint prosperity. Agreements can be presented as safeguards for risk-averse countries providing reassurance that reducing emissions won’t translate to incurred economic losses at the hands of competitors in the global economy that can produce the same goods through cheaper and dirtier means.

Second, by focusing on countries that are plagued with particularly harsh climate challenges, the U.S. is prioritizing engagement more often than not with states that are characterized by fragility and conflict. These states often go neglected by the international community either because they are not perceived as a strategic security partner country or have limited potential for natural resource exploitation. This directive may change that by re-focusing US foreign policy on these countries, and doing so in a way that could help address some of the underlying causes of conflict.  The climate-conflict nexus is well documented.  If implemented wisely, US policies focused on climate resilience may be part of a long-term conflict prevention strategy.  

A new era of climate diplomacy is a welcomed one. What remains to be seen is if the current Administration and its successor will have the political will and urgency to commit fully to this initiative. If, as President Obama declared that climate change “constitutes a serious threat to global security…[and] no challenge poses greater a threat to future generations than climate change”, the foreign policy prioritization of climate resiliency is not only long overdue, but one that will be seen as a historical moment when the U.S. removed its head from its comfortable climate-indifferent sand dune, albeit a little late, to shift from a strategy of crisis response and treatment of climate symptoms to one of upstream climate-related conflict mitigation.