An International Climate Agenda for the Biden Administration

By: Jake Schmidt, NRDC; Brendan Guy, NRDC; Alan Yu, Center for American Progress; and Carla Frisch, Rocky Mountain Institute

The U.S. and the world are at a critical inflection point for tackling the climate crisis. The last four years have been tough for the international community who has carried the weight of a U.S. federal government going in the wrong direction on climate change.

A Biden-Harris Administration takes office with the stark reality that we would have been in a better position if the world had a stronger U.S. partner. We must be bolder, more innovative, and deliver action more widely and effectively if we are going to bend the curve of emissions quickly enough to prevent the most severe impacts of climate change to people and the planet. Only a focused and ambitious global response can avert the worst impacts and build sustainable economies.

We are now seeing the consequences of decades of inadequate action by the international community. Climate change now poses a clear and imminent threat to our prosperity, security, and well-being.

And as the last four years have demonstrated, American global leadership is an essential element to mobilize action at the required scale and pace. To rise to this unprecedented challenge, President-elect Biden and his administration must elevate climate change to the first rank of America’s international priorities and make addressing the climate crisis a central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. It is clear he is committed to prioritizing climate action in his approach to foreign policy, given he has addressed climate change in all of his congratulatory calls with foreign leaders.

President-elect Biden has recognized that the U.S. must act aggressively at home while also driving faster global action on climate change. His plan acknowledges that effectively advancing global action will require a robust domestic agenda, stating: “The United States must have a bold plan to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050 here at home.”

And he recognizes that U.S. global leadership is essential to help “rally the rest of the world.” Biden has restated his intention to rejoin the Paris Agreement on day one. President-elect Biden also recognizes that rejoining the Paris Agreement is the minimum step that is needed. As his plan states: “Biden will use every tool of American foreign policy to push the rest of the world to raise their ambitions alongside the United States.” So how would his administration operationalize that vision?

A new report—which we contributed to along with over 60 other experts—lays out a vision and blueprint to help deliver on President-elect Biden’s plan to “use every tool of American foreign policy.” The blueprint—An International Climate Agenda for the Next U.S. Administration—details how to position climate change as a central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy.

A climate-centered U.S. foreign policy priority will require leadership in four key areas:

  1. Organizing, acting, and executing on climate change in a similar manner to other top priorities. For any of our top foreign policy priorities (e.g., Cold War, counter-terrorism strategy), the U.S. government was organized to deliver on its overarching strategy through every interaction, tactic, or tool. The U.S. had an agreed and strategic vision that set the pathway for how the White House and agency staff addressed the priority issue in a coherent and coordinated way. And those foreign policy priorities were at the top of the agenda with every country, in every forum, and through every strategy. Now is the time to center climate change in the same manner. That will mean having structure, personnel, tools, and priorities that drive the climate action agenda throughout the entire U.S. foreign policy apparatus. And that means that all key foreign policy decisions should be taken with full consideration of their climate implications.
  2. Driving the international climate agenda through the “non-traditional” avenues, not just in the normal channels. In the lead-in to the Paris Agreement, most political attention was focused on securing the agreement and national level commitments to reduce emissions, deliver financial support, and transparently track progress. While those will remain key elements of the international climate agenda for the Biden Administration, the focus is now on execution. The Biden Administration will have to take a more concerted focus at the country level, and toward on-the-ground implementation of the Paris Agreement, national actions, sectoral policies, and financial tools to deliver on existing commitments and enhance them in the coming years. Therefore, it is essential that the U.S. international climate agenda not just by driven by the climate or environment arms of U.S. foreign policy, but also powerfully by the diplomatic, finance, trade, security, development, and other “non-traditional” arms of the U.S. government. This means staffing the senior leadership of these “non-traditional” teams with principals who embrace the Administration’s focus on driving a clear climate agenda and integrating climate change in the work of non-climate teams as a top priority—not as an optional add-on or when it makes sense in particular cases.
  3. Leveraging expanded and more assertive tools (e.g., sticks as well as carrots). The toolkit for tackling traditional foreign policy challenges include measures such as tariffs, sanctions, supply-chain requirements, and other forms of “sticks” to incentivize action. To date, the majority of the international climate toolkit has centered around using “carrots” such as financial investments and technical assistance to spur greater action or positive diplomatic relations for countries that are acting ambitiously. In many areas, the US must dig deeper into its foreign policy toolkit to identify and use both carrots and sticks to drive climate action internationally. That means the Biden administration should not only leverage positive incentives for countries to enhance their actions, but also, where necessary, exert pressure and impose consequences on countries that refuse to do their part—even where doing so may come at some diplomatic cost. And it means considering and deploying tools that seemed unpalatable in previous administrations but may now be necessary given the urgency of the challenge (e.g., carbon border adjustments or restrictions on commodities driving deforestation).
  4. Implementing a wide and deep agenda. All leaders must establish priorities—a lack of prioritization can often mean that nothing is accomplished. But a foreign policy with climate change as a central priority requires executing on an agenda that engages significantly more critical countries, venues, sectors, and strategies. Because driving the kind of international agenda needed over the next decade will require executing on multiple strategies at once. That would mean having a China agenda and an India, Europe, Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil, Southeast Asia, and Canada agenda. It would suggest deploying a renewable energy strategy, but also an electric vehicle, deforestation, green supply-chain, and other deeper and more targeted sectoral strategies. And it would imply engaging in promoting implementation and transparency through the climate negotiations as well as through energy, security, biodiversity, trade, and other bilateral and multilateral venues.

Our international climate agenda, starting from the position that climate change action should be a central organizing principle to U.S. foreign policy, proposes an ambitious yet achievable agenda. We offer a set of prioritized recommendations the Biden administration can pursue to chart a course towards greater climate stability. This agenda was developed by a diverse group of over 60 leading experts who have worked to advance international climate policy across various government agencies, environmental and development non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and think tanks, business, and national security groups, as well as other priority foreign policy venues.

The agenda details priority recommendations across four key areas for international climate action (you can read more about the agenda, including commentary from other participants in the process here):

  1. organize for effective global leadership;
  2. deploy diplomacy and other tools bilaterally and multilaterally to pressure and incentivize countries to take stronger action;
  3. shift investments and key economic sectors decisively toward net-zero emissions; and
  4. promote national security and resilience in the face of a changing climate.

Of course, global climate leadership starts at home. U.S. credibility as a global leader depends on setting a strong example by substantially reducing its own emissions. The administration must simultaneously marshal a “whole-of-government approach on steroids” for domestic and international climate action. As Biden puts it: “I believe at our best America is a beacon for the globe. And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example”.

Now is the time for bold U.S. leadership and action internationally. The urgency of addressing the climate and nature crises has become even more starkly evident over the last four years. At the same time, the solutions have become cheaper, more readily available, and more urgently needed to address the impacts that hit the most vulnerable and marginalized populations around the world first and hardest.

Our generation and our kids and grandkids depend on us rising to this unprecedented challenge and marshalling the full weight of U.S. foreign policy to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon and resilient economy. Seizing that opportunity will simultaneously protect us from the ravages of climate change, reduce the fossil fuel pollution that is harming our health, create good-paying jobs, and secure the well-being of our communities and the natural world.

It’s time to get to work!

About the Authors

Brendan Guy

Lead Strategist, International Climate, International Program

Jake Schmidt

Senior Strategic Director, International Climate, International Program
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