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Foreign Policy is Climate Policy: New Modes of Multilateralism & the Call for a More Equitable and Just World

How can the foreign policy community harness the transformative power of the new leadership coalitions that have emerged to strengthen the UNFCCC process—an indispensable mode of diplomacy? And as decision-makers push forward on climate action, how can they incorporate the increasingly compelling calls for social and racial justice into efforts to address climate change? 

Date & Time

Dec. 16, 2020
3:30pm – 5:00pm ET


“Climate change will upend the 21st century world order. From financial systems, migration patterns, and great power competition, to the potential unintended consequences of climate responses, and issues of inequity and the future of democracy, climate change will penetrate our systems, our relationships, and our lives in ways that we have yet to fully understand,” said Lauren Risi, Director of the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, at a recent event co-hosted by the Wilson Center and adelphi. The panel discussion focused on two topics addressed in the recently launched 21st Century Diplomacy project—how efforts to address climate change will engage new modes of multilateralism and how to incorporate the increasingly urgent calls for a more equitable and just world.

“Climate is the multilateral challenge of the moment”

As the world continues to struggle with the spread of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic turmoil, panelists agreed that addressing the climate crisis will remain at the top of the global foreign policy agenda. President-elect Biden has said that climate change is one of four historic crises, said Jennifer Austin, Director of Policy and Strategy for COP26 High Level Champions for Climate Action, and it is intertwined with all the other elements on that list. In fact, said David Lammy, Member of Parliament for Tottenham and UK Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, this is a catalytic moment, because of the pandemic and where the global economy now finds itself as a result.

With the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the United States, following a period of Populist nationalist leaders, like President Trump, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, all of who struggled with high death rates and weakened economies, “Multilateralism is back, and climate is the multilateral challenge of the moment,” said Lammy. The world needs [multilateralism] to come back and there are reasons to believe that its time has come, said Austin.

The multilateral climate efforts of the future may not look like those of the past, though. For example, cities throughout the world, like the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, are taking action on climate change. “In a space in which many nation-states have absented themselves from serious action, it is the cities that have led,” said Lammy. While the pandemic and recession are top priorities for our governors, said Julie Cerqueira, Executive Director of the U.S. Climate Alliance, they recognize that, “By taking action on climate change, you can address the triple crises of the economic crisis, the health crisis, [and] the climate crisis.”

In the economic transition, governments in danger of being left behind

The best way to put people to work right now is to transform the economy from one that’s dependent on fossil fuels to one that’s clean and renewable, said Elan Strait, Director of U.S. Climate Campaigns for the World Wildlife Fund and Manager of the We Are Still In Campaign. “For subnational and non-state actors, there’s no better place to look than at what the private sector is doing right now.”

Strait referred to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) as an example of businesses addressing the climate crisis in order to stay profitable. “The private sector itself is so motivated to act that it’s not even waiting for the government anymore, and in fact, in many cases, the government is getting left behind.”

You cannot be serious about climate action and climate aid when the sixth richest economy in the world says that we are going to step back from that commitment to the Global South, said Lammy, referencing the UK’s decision to decrease their commitment of spending 0.7 percent of their gross national income on foreign aid to 0.5 percent in 2021.  

Under the Paris Agreement, developed countries pledged US$100 billion per year by 2020 for climate action in developing countries. “We’re nowhere near that $100 billion target for climate aid for developing countries to make the changes that they’ve made,” said Lammy. “Just 20 percent of what’s been spent—about 78 billion—has come in the form of grants. The rest has come in the form of loans, increasing the debt for the Global South. How is this fair?”

Putting equity at the center of climate action

Globally, when we look at all of the consequences of the climate emergency, it’s Black and Brown people suffering, and that is a call to arms, said Lammy. The climate movement feels elite to Black and Brown communities, he said. He called on non-profits and NGOs to question where they are headquartered; who is on their board; what their targets are for equality within their organizations; and how they are building alliances with movements like Black Lives Matter. Not only do businesses have a lot of work to do to make their c-suites more diverse, said Austin, they need to involve a more diverse range of people in the climate conversation. 

For member states of the U.S. Climate Alliance, “equity is increasingly becoming the core of their climate policies,” said Cerqueira. To ensure an equitable transition away from fossil fuels, she recommended that state leaders hold sustained dialogues with local communities of color and create worthwhile and lasting jobs. If you close a coal plant or convert a plant focused on producing gas vehicles, she said, what is the strategy for diversifying local economies? “Because it’s not easy to just replace what ends up being the core economic driver in those places.”

At United Nations negotiations, countries slip into a North-South dynamic, said Strait. It happens automatically and infects the process. The United States often focuses on federal policy, especially concerning climate, he said, but the truth is that most decisions are actually taking place at the local level. “To fix the way that we approach our foreign policy, in terms of the way that the United States views developing countries, it needs to start with the way that the government views vulnerable Black and Brown communities in the United States.”

Drawing a connection between ongoing movements for global racial equity and justice, like the Black Lives Matter movement, to climate movements, like the Extinction Rebellion, Lammy said, “Let us be absolutely clear that the fact of enslavement of Black people taken from the continent of Africa to the Americas, the fact of colonialism, is the beginning of this climate story.”

“If members of the G7 raised decolonization that would be profound…It would change the nature of the conversation, and then link that to repair and equity,” he said. Such progress would require “understanding where this extractive and colonial mindset began and what it’s left us with. And it’s left us with a climate emergency.”

Sources: Black Lives Matter, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, CNN, Extinction Rebellion, Investopedia, Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UK Parliament, U.S. Climate Alliance, and We Are Still In.

Written by Amanda King, edited by Lauren Risi and Rachel Waugh. 

This event is part of “21st Century Diplomacy: Foreign Policy is Climate Policy,” a project co-led by the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program and adelphi, and supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.

Continue the conversation on Twitter by following @NewSecurityBeat using the hashtag #Diplomacy21. Find related coverage of these issues on our blog,

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

China Environment Forum

Since 1997, the China Environment Forum's mission has been to forge US-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges. We play a unique nonpartisan role in creating multi-stakeholder dialogues around these issues.  Read more

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more

Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

Polar Institute

Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.  Read more

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