On Thursday, The Brookings Institution released a Briefing Book addressed to President Obama, Big Bets & Black Swans, laying out foreign policy priorities for 2014. The report has a wide geographic and thematic focus, with an overall argument for American engagement in the world.
The climate change section, written by Brooking’s foreign policy senior fellow Elizabeth Ferris, recommends that the president follow-up his climate change rhetoric with practical action to mandate reductions in carbon in the United States and engage developing world nations in reduction and adaptation measures.
The focus on the developing world is a much-needed priority, as newly industrializing nations, especially in East Asia, rise up in the pollution league tables. President Obama articulated this viewpoint in an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick:
This is why I’m putting a big priority on our carbon action plan here. It’s not because I’m ignorant of the fact that these emerging countries are going to be a bigger problem than us. It’s because it’s very hard for me to get in that conversation if we’re making no effort. And it’s not an answer for us to say, Well, since the Chinese and the Indians are the bigger problem, we might as well not even bother.
While the president has correctly directed that the United States oppose the financing of coal plants through multilateral donor institutions, he is a realist about the energy choices facing countries like India and China. He bemoans his arguments with environmentalists over carbon capture and sequestration technology and the possibility of exports of natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal in electrical generation, and which the United States has in abundance, thanks to fracking (you can read more analysis of his remakrs in Ben Geman’s National Journal article).
If I could add to Ferris’s specific recommendations, I would suggest three agenda items for President Obama to try to address this year— two domestic and one international—adding to what he has already done on the EPA rules for power plants and the planned cessation of overseas financing for coal plants:
These are only first steps, but they would go a long way to buttressing President Obama’s desire that the United States be seen as tackling climate change head-on, lending credibility to a strong negotiation agenda at the 2015 climate talks in Paris.
- Direct the Environmental Protection Agency to work among individual U.S. states to share best practices in implementation of renewable energy standards (also known as renewable portfolio standards). These standards are legally binding levels for how much of a state’s energy is generated from renewables. As of September 2013, twenty-nine states had them, and the percentages vary from state to state. Each state uses different mixes of policies to aid in the transition, and it would be beneficial if “lessons learned” could be more widely shared. It may also accelerate a bandwagon effect if states without the standards, many of whom are increasing their use of renewables but could stand to deepen that transition, would also experiment with binding efforts.
- While greens like Bill McKibben would prefer fossil fuels stay in the ground, the economics and politics around resource extraction in the United States render that an impractical strategy. Thus, the overwhelming responsibility would be for the federal government to ensure that such extraction is done in the safest way possible. As TCF Fellow Charlie Morris has previously argued, the industry needs to get serious about environmental safeguards, especially regarding water and chemical use. While the European Union is begging off regulations on fracking, Obama can lead the way by proposing stricter oversight measures.
- Align the interagency process so that the U.S. foreign policy apparatus is focused on regional priorities. While climate change is definitionally a global problem, there are regions that will face acute effects before others. East Asia, dominated by China’s struggles with overcoming pollution, is an obvious one. South Asia, as well, is one area where immediate action may be needed. As I have written previously, this fact is recognized by a significant percentage of the population in question. For too long, our focus on the region has been dominated by a perspective that makes counterterrorism the principal priority. While still important, part of a positive vision of engagement with the region should be encouraging cross-border cooperation on clean energy generation and responsible water management.