Secretary of State John Kerry highlights climate change as a top diplomatic issue for the State Department.

Climate Change Joins Terrorism, the Economy as a Top Diplomatic Issue

Climate Change Joins Terrorism, the Economy as a Top Diplomatic Issue

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 30 2015 4:51 PM

Climate Change Joins Terrorism, the Economy as a Top Diplomatic Issue

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Erratic weather is increasingly a core diplomatic issue for the United States as global warming intensifies. Here, an Indian man draws water from a well near the India-Pakistan border on November 13, 2010.

Photo by SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/GettyImages

For the first time, climate change has received full treatment in an important State Department planning document, joining terrorism, democracy, and the global economy among the nation’s top diplomatic priorities. It’s the clearest sign yet that the warming climate has the full attention of the Obama administration.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry released the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, the once-every-four-years strategic planning document for America’s diplomatic corps. The QDDR is a wonky initiative begun by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State and modeled off a similar process that the Defense Department uses. At that time, her team prioritized energy diplomacy and frequently mentioned climate change in a list of complex challenges, but this week’s document ups the ante significantly.

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In the latest QDDR, climate change is used as a centerpiece of a 21st-century rethink of the entirety of American foreign policy. In an op-ed for the Hill coinciding with the document’s launch, Kerry referred to the administration’s climate change strategy as “a model for ‘next generation’ diplomacy.” That could mean a subtle shift toward de-emphasizing tough-to-negotiate global treaties, which in the climate context have squandered decades of precious time. Instead, Kerry said the U.S. would focus efforts on “Congress, mayors, CEOs, faith leaders, and civil society to address this existential issue.” Recent bilateral agreements with China and India on climate are good examples of this new “think globally, act locally” strategy.

This is a very smart move from Kerry, who’s shown repeatedly that he understands how important climate change is, not only to the United States and its interests, but also to humanity as a whole. If the world is going to halt the business-as-usual slow boil toward climate apocalypse, it’ll have to do it at the city level, where most of the world’s population lives. To help with this effort, Kerry instructed his cadre of diplomats to recruit new staff with climate as a “core competency.”

It’s easy enough for the State Department to put into words a greater emphasis on global warming, which is already destabilizing fragile nation-states like Iraq and Syria. It’s another matter entirely to act like it. Though America’s steady efforts on climate change are gradually starting to pay off, we’re still far from leading the world.

To get a sense as to what a full-fledged American diplomatic strategy on climate might (someday) look like, I spoke with Frank Femia, founding director of the Center for Climate and Security, who also co-wrote a longer response to the new document on his center’s website. Femia said the new QDDR “clearly and unambiguously demonstrates what the secretary’s priorities are.”

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To illustrate this point, Femia pointed to a single word in the 87-page document: all. In the chapter on climate change, the QDDR says the State Department will begin to “integrate climate change into all of our diplomacy and development efforts.” Femia thinks that’s a sign that the days of thinking of climate as a separate, largely environmental issue are over.

Take Pakistan, for example. Femia believes it’s an example of a place where climate change is complicating an already messy situation:

Pakistan is a country that’s fed primarily by glacial waters, as are many of the other countries in that region. It’s already a very volatile place for a number of reasons: You have international terrorist organizations that operate out of Pakistan, you have nuclear materials that have proliferated throughout Pakistan, and on top of that, you have significant climate and environmental stress in the region.

What’s more, “climate change might create additional security risks in places we might not be paying enough attention to today,” Femia said. “This is not an issue you deal with with low-level ministers.”

Femia pointed out that this is a “planning” document, not an official policy document. Still, “I think it’s a door-opener,” he said.

Given that the QDDR process was started by Hillary Clinton, Femia speculated that a Hillary administration would likely continue to prioritize climate change at the highest level. Indeed, Clinton tweeted a congratulatory note to Kerry earlier this week:

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and a contributing writer at Grist. Follow him on Twitter.