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Does the Biden Administration Have a Global Climate Change Plan?

Four recent reports from the administration suggest not.
October 26, 2021
Does the Biden Administration Have a Global Climate Change Plan?
Vice President Kamala Harris looks out at Lake Mead where water levels have dramatically dropped, during a visit to Southern Nevada on October 18, 2021, in Boulder City, Nevada. - Harris visited Southern Nevada to speak about climate change and the importance of water. (Photo by Ronda Churchill / AFP) (Photo by RONDA CHURCHILL/AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration recently released four reports on climate change published separately by the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the White House. The reports focus on the national security implications of climate change, especially mass migration. Much of the information and analysis in the reports is useful and astute, but they leave the tough questions of how the administration plans to address climate change at the international level—the only level that really matters—unasked, and therefore unanswered.

The NIC report can’t be criticized for eschewing policy recommendations—the intelligence community traditionally and rightly focused on facts, not proposals. But the intelligence agencies are allowed to prognosticate about the likely implications of a given policy or course of action, and the fact that the NIC didn’t do so could indicate that there’s no policy for them to evaluate. For example, the report notes that “Competition [among countries] will grow to acquire and process minerals and resources used in key renewable energy technologies,” which could increase international tensions, and that “We judge that cross-border migration probably will increase as climate effects put added stress on internally displaced populations already struggling under poor governance, violent conflict, and environmental degradation.” In other words, the effects of climate change will exacerbate dissatisfaction in places where problems of poor governance already exist.

These are interesting, though not groundbreaking, observations, but none of the reports indicates specifically what the administration intends to do about these problems. Most of the recommendations come down to better interagency processes or providing support for other countries. Fair enough.

Notably absent is a companion report from the State Department—especially considering that, for the first time ever, the State Department includes a special presidential envoy for climate change, who happens to be former major-party presidential nominee and Secretary of State John Kerry, in addition to the Office of Global Change (read: climate change) within the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. How could the State Department possibly have missed the climate report memo?

One possible reason for Kerry and co. to have sat this one out might be because of the sensitive international politics involved—which is exactly the reason the State Department should be involved. Fossil fuel use is driving anthropogenic climate change. Much of that use comes from the developing world, especially China, India, as well as the United States. Climate change is not at the top of the American agenda in its relations with either country.

But European and Asia-Pacific partners and allies of the United States also rely on fossil fuels for economic growth. Along with the United States, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France all rank in the top consumers of fossil fuels per capita.

America’s European allies present a special challenge. The United States is asking the Europeans to do a lot in return for very little. The administration is rightly asking Europe to weaken ties with China, which will harm their economies. In return, the administration is not offering greater security assurance to Europe. Instead of resuming talks over Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations, the administration has kept the Trump-era tariffs on European goods. Can the administration reasonably expect to ask the Euroepans to give up more economic growth (they didn’t have that much to begin with) by giving up fossil fuels? Climate change and energy politics are perilous in Europe: Climate-friendly policies in France caused the Yellow Vests Protests a few years ago, and Germany, the largest European economy, has phased out brown coal and gave up nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, but it is already facing challenges in relying on weather-dependent green energy, and this looks to be a cold winter. If there’s a deal to be struck that would be good for the Europeans, good for the United States, and good for the global environment, it probably won’t be found without the State Department’s help.

Of course, where the fossil fuels come from is also a delicate matter. Much of it comes from hostile countries: not just Russia and Iran, but also Venezuela and Syria. Other fossil fuel producers are decidedly more friendly: The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia rely on oil money to sustain themselves, of course. Qatar, which is a difficult partner but also home to a major American airbase, the geopolitical importance of which has only grown since the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Combating climate change provides many challenges and opportunities in geopolitics. The opportunities are quite clear. China is the largest emitter in the world. Russia, Iran, and Venezuela rely on fossil fuel money. To the degree we can reduce global reliance on fossil fuels (including our own), we take money out of the hands of some of the world’s most evil regimes.

But, to the same degree, curbing the use of fossil fuels would, if done too abruptly (and maybe even if not), generate the same kind of instability which climate change is now causing. The White House report points to the sociopolitical disruption that mass migration causes, noting,

Anti-immigration political actors may seize on both real and perceived challenges of uncontrolled or large migration flows to improve political standing, inflaming existing tensions and undermining efforts to appropriately respond to acute migration or refugee crises, such as those caused by the Syrian civil war or extreme weather and violence in Central America.

Is the United States prepared to deal with state fragility in ethnically divided countries like Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, and others like the United Arab Emirates, when their oil revenues dry up? What about Mexico? Losing oil money will impoverish the peoples of these countries, which could lead to political turmoil. As the NIC reports points out, climate change exacerbates existing problems in countries with bad governments, but so does a drop in welfare stemming from oil money.

The administration is right to think about climate change and its real and serious effects on national security. But without a plan to navigate the complicated, precarious international politics of carbon consumption, they’re just, in Washington parlance, admiring the problem. The four reports published by the administration are good, but not nearly enough.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Special Envoy John Kerry is a cabinet-level official. He is a principal on the National Security Council, but not in the cabinet.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.