If there were any lingering doubts that the Obama administration is serious in its efforts to institutionalize fighting climate change as a diplomatic and development priority, further evidence was provided in today’s release of the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). Climate change was listed prominently in the report among three other strategic priorities: Conflict and Violent Extremism; Open, Democratic Societies; and Inclusive Economic Growth.
Though relatively new (it is only the second such document published since the inaugural 2010 edition), the QDDR process is meant to serve as the principal review and strategic planning document for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development on emerging diplomatic and development priorities. The implications of a warming planet have taken on a higher degree of urgency in this document than that seen in its 2010 counterpart. In addition to being explicitly named a strategic priority, the report includes an entire chapter on mitigating and adapting to climate change. The chapter embraces conclusions previously put forward by the Department of Defense that climate change represents a challenge to U.S. national security and will require sound and prudent planning to address (the Center on Climate and Security provides an in-depth appraisal of such linkages).
The vision put forward by the QDDR of an American response to climate change was also one full of opportunity. The actions necessary to fight climate change, after all, come with attendant co-benefits that are realized almost immediately. The proliferation of low- and zero-carbon sources of energy mean the retirement of more fossil fuel-fired power plants, which brings down the amount of smog and particulate matter in the atmosphere, resulting in fewer asthma cases and respiratory-related disease. The QDDR did not shy away from noting the potential trade benefits for American companies as fighting climate change takes a more prominent role in U.S. diplomatic and development priorities either. While the Chinese, for example, lead the world in export of solar panels, U.S. firms remain competitive; to sustain that into the future will require U.S. efforts to continue pioneering collaborations with partner nations on climate change goals.
The QDDR similarly touts achievements accomplished by the administration thus far. It mentions bilateral agreements with India and China that start the two countries on what is admittedly a long path toward real decarbonization of their resource-intensive economies. It also highlights the administration’s pledge to put money into the Green Climate Fund, a new multilateral climate finance initiative meant to help build climate-resilient societies in the developing world.
It remains to be seen, though, if the Obama administration can match a sound appraisal of future policy goals with the resources needed to realize them. Paying into the Green Climate Fund, for example, is controversial among some on Capitol Hill, with Senator James Inhofe, Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, dubbing it a “slush fund” for the United Nations. In a larger sense, the budgetary space for expanding diplomatic and development programs is very limited in the context of the current Congressional appetite for spending. A focus specifically on climate change only further complications the matter. What will ultimately be the signature piece of the Obama administration’s climate diplomacy—an international agreement in Paris later this year designed to limit warming as close to under two degrees celsius as possible—is already facing pushback by conservatives. Many either do not see climate change as a significant problem or fear an international agreement will let the developing world off the hook at the expense of the United States.
Those challenges aside, however, the QDDR is a good first step to outlining a vision that fully integrates climate change considerations into U.S. foreign policy. It will be up to this administration and the next to institutionalize those steps.