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21st Century Diplomacy: Foreign Policy is Climate Policy

The virtual launch of “21st Century Diplomacy: Foreign Policy is Climate Policy” a series of op-eds, interviews, and in-depth articles focused on seven central climate-related challenges for foreign policy. Panelists discussed how climate risks and climate policy are affecting global and regional balances of power – and the political opportunities to raise ambition and new leadership coalitions. As the world enters a new era of great power competition, how will climate change tip the balance?

Date & Time

Oct. 2, 2020
8:00am – 9:15am ET


“Climate change has the potential to be a very important confidence-building measure between the United States and China,” said Sharon Burke, Senior Advisor of the International Security Program and Resource Security Program at New America. “Because no matter what else is happening in our relationship, we can succeed together on climate change.” She spoke at the launch for a project co-led by the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program and adelphi, “21st Century Diplomacy: Foreign Policy is Climate Policy.” Hosted as part of the Berlin Climate and Security Conference, the discussion focused on the “climate superpowers” section of the project.

Emerging Leaders in a Decarbonized World

The actions of top emitters—the United States, India, and China—will play a leading role in determining climate’s impact on the world. In fact, climate change is already altering global power dynamics and the geopolitical landscape. Even so, basic definitions are still in flux. A “climate superpower” in the 21st century could be a country or region that contributes a large amount of global CO2 emissions, said Ambassador Hinrich Thölken, Director of Climate and Energy Policy and Digital Transformation for the German Federal Foreign Office. But perhaps “climate super polluter” would be a more apt term. Climate superpowers could be defined by the type of positive contributions they make, he said, such as how many megatons of CO2 a country has actively prevented through reduced emissions.

While emerging climate leaders might change the bipolar landscape of global climate action in coming decades, the United States, China, and Europe continue to take center stage as leading emitters, said Alexander Carius, Director of adelphi.

Even with the current polarization found in U.S. policy, our economy’s getting bigger and our emissions are getting smaller, said Burke. We’re going to see a green recovery plan in the United States that looks at investments in innovation and clean energy research and development, she said.

In September, President Xi Jinping of China announced China’s target for peak CO2 emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. “Don’t underestimate China,” said Huiyao Wang, Founder and President of the Center for China and Globalization, citing the country’s quick construction of a high-speed train network and its pledge and success on achieving 5G network coverage. When it sets a target, it’s likely to reach it, he said.

“I do think that China, the U.S., and EU need to work together on this,” said Wang, mentioning the recent China-EU virtual summit in which the two parties established a “green dialogue” and realized that the EU and China have something in common worth exploring further.

There is broad consensus in Europe on the need for climate protection, said Thölken, citing policy initiatives like the European Green Deal. But the UN Security Council needs to look at climate change as a key driver of conflict and as a key reinforcer of conflict. Then the Security Council should prepare itself to take a better look at this issue and take action, he said. We can all agree that climate change serves as a “stress multiplier,” he said. Because of this, climate change and security are closely linked.

Competition vs. Cooperation

The EU’s status as the “moral center” of climate action will continue to be important, not only for a revived U.S.-European partnership, but also for how the United States and China work together given their increasingly adversarial relationship, said Burke. Both countries seem to be girding for a fight. But until both countries share a vision for coexistence that includes the success of each other, and our collective success, then I think we’re in a very dangerous place, she said. We can’t succeed fully on climate change as two superpowers, Burke said, unless we face the bigger problem—that we’re not in a good place relative to each other.

Climate change presents opportunities for cooperation that would be mutually beneficial, such as collaboration on investments. “The rest of the world cannot succeed in this unless we succeed, the United States and China, on our own terms and also together,” said Burke.

Creative Partnerships

“In a 21st [century] diplomacy setting, we need to be creative and flexible, so we will have to look around for new alliances,” said Thölken. As a general rule, I would appeal to colleagues, to foreign policy decision-makers, and diplomatic services to be as creative as possible here, to look beyond the usual box of diplomatic tools and consider what can be the best forum, the best platform, and the best-suited partner to make progress internationally, he said.

Nontraditional partnerships could include engaging with leaders at the subnational level. Beyond the state level, other actors play a leading role, said Thölken. Cities and states, he said, are strong actors that have not been fully taken into account as serious partners for us, for governments, and for countries. Such partnerships are already underway, said Wang. He mentioned a partnership between China and the University of California at Berkeley that’s exploring low-carbon technology to combat climate change. Even as the United States has experienced environmental rollbacks, we’ve had a lot of activity at the subnational level, in our cities and states, both in terms of improving our resilience to disasters and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, said Burke.

Panelists agreed that it is time for governments to set aside their differences and join forces to address the global crises. “Let’s fight with the pandemic, let’s fight with climate change,” said Wang. “Why don’t we have a climate G10? G7 plus China, India, and also Russia,” he said. There would also be much to gain from working with non-governmental actors, including civil society and the private sector, as seen at the Paris Peace Forum. “Let’s get all the big companies to be responsible and work on the climate change new rules and the new standards,” said Wang.

While global cooperation will continue to be key to combating climate change, individual countries and their commitments remain critical. “All of our success in global negotiations and global action are going to be built on domestic success and on local success,” said Burke. Collective action to reduce emissions and increase resilience will involve integrating climate change into foreign and domestic policies. “Who are you at home and who are you in the world?” said Burke. Such questions, she said, will continue to highlight the No. 1 distinguishing characteristic about how we succeed together.

Sources: California-China Climate Institute, Council of the European Union, European Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, Paris Peace Forum.

Written by Amanda King and Cindy Zhou, edited by Sandra Yin. 

21st Century Diplomacy: Foreign Policy is Climate Policy” is jointly led by adelphi’s Climate Diplomacy Programme and the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program. 

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Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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