Climate Leadership Should Include Foreign Assistance

April 22 is Earth Day. It also marks a major opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration to increase U.S. credibility and ambition by hosting the first Leaders Summit on Climate to discuss high-level efforts and strategies. After years of U.S. disengagement and denial on climate issues and disruption and denigration of foreign assistance, the summit is the perfect opportunity for Washington to reengage internationally and build a more climate-centric U.S. foreign assistance apparatus.

President Joe Biden has shown great enthusiasm for tackling climate-related issues. Climate change was one of only four pillars of the Biden-Harris transition. On his first day in office, the president released an executive order “to immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis,” which, as a result, immediately reoriented the priorities of “all executive departments and agencies.” This includes the over 20 departments and agencies that collectively make up U.S. foreign assistance.

To achieve its goals and missions, the U.S. foreign assistance apparatus needs to integrate a climate lens broadly across all its efforts.

Climate issues are cross-cutting and represent a major and ever-growing obstacle on the road to progress on economic growth, fragility, human mobility, and more. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) enshrined this understanding in SDG 13: Climate Action, but climate change is already disproportionately impacting development, humanitarian, and political outcomes across the developing world. Hotter weather and droughts are decreasing agricultural yields. GDP could decrease significantly across the globe, disproportionately affecting vulnerable countries and people least responsible for anthropogenic climate change. The increased frequency of floods and hurricanes is destroying infrastructure and livelihoods, not to mention displacing tens of millions of people annually. By 2030, climate change could push 132 million additional people into extreme poverty. To achieve its goals and missions, the U.S. foreign assistance apparatus needs to integrate a climate lens broadly across all its efforts.

The successful integration of a climate lens hinges on proactively considering climate impacts at every level of foreign assistance and foreign policy decisionmaking. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said, “[climate] change and science diplomacy can never again be ‘add-ons’ in our foreign policy discussions.” However, doing so will not be easy—the government’s leading foreign assistance agencies have historically lacked the political support and organizational infrastructure to integrate a cross-cutting climate lens. Though political support from the highest levels of the Biden-Harris administration is welcome and critical, entrenched bureaucratic structures do not change overnight. Offices focused on climate-related programming and policy have long been siloed or even marginalized. Budget requests for environment-related foreign assistance funds (a broader category of funding under which climate change-related funding typically resides) fell from $1.34 billion in 2017 to $265.85 million in 2018, a reality that has hollowed out institutional knowledge and capacity and will take time to rebuild.

The Leaders Summit on Climate will provide the new administration important momentum. 40 countries are invited, including those disproportionately responsible for carbon emissions, such as China and the United States, and countries facing pressing adaptation challenges, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Marshall Islands. The high-level discussions will cover issues as diverse as limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to transitioning to a “new clean energy economy.” Importantly, the summit will also provide a forum to discuss “opportunities to strengthen capacity to protect lives and livelihoods from the impacts of climate change.” Since climate change is a global issue that disproportionately negatively affects the developing world, it is there where stronger, more climate-centric foreign assistance will be critical. Here are four ways the Biden-Harris administration can move the apparatus in that direction.

1. Go Big and Mainstream

Tackling climate change requires a whole-of-government approach. The Biden-Harris administration should resist the urge to either mainstream a climate lens across U.S. foreign assistance or to elevate it. It can and should do both. The appointment of John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate signals an administration willing to elevate climate change. However, the degree to which the former secretary of state will focus on the role of foreign assistance remains to be seen; major efforts to date have focused almost exclusively on curbing emissions. Nonetheless, presidents have been known to elevate and coordinate federal government responses to preferred issues or crises like malaria, AIDS, and electrifying Africa via standalone initiatives. Such initiatives provide unique advantages in building political will, encouraging interagency coordination, and soliciting diverse financing sources and should be considered in this case.

But thinking big should not come at the expense of mainstreaming climate into everyday foreign assistance practices. This will be hard and will take time. However, this mindset is equally, if not more, important than a splashy presidential initiative. The administration can start by updating the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Climate Change Strategy after a three-year hiatus. A new version could incorporate current practices and lessons learned on issues like climate risk management while also providing a new, more ambitious policy framework that mainstreams a climate lens across the entire agency. Such a strategy could serve as a guiding document for more climate-centric U.S. foreign assistance, especially in the absence of a more interagency-oriented process. Whatever the outlet for such a strategy, its authors should draw lessons and guidance from multilateral organizations (e.g., UN Development Programme [UNDP] efforts for climate-sensitive urban development in 13 countries and the World Bank’s first climate action plan) and friends and allies (e.g., Canada) who have successfully integrated climate change and official development assistance.

2. Decarbonize and Adapt

Climate strategies can generally be grouped into two broad categories: decarbonization (sometimes referred to as “mitigation”) and adaptation. Decarbonization primarily attempts to modify the rate of climate change over a longer period to avoid catastrophic global outcomes. Adaptation focuses on responding to the effects of climate change as they exist now, often at the community level. With limited resources, policymakers may feel pressured to prioritize one over the other. However, they are both important and mutually reinforcing.

With the rise in global temperatures is consistently outpacing even the most ambitious decarbonization plans, it is necessary to prepare vulnerable communities who are already suffering through adaptation efforts. In the words of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, “the point of no return is no longer over the horizon. It is in sight and hurtling toward us.” On the other hand, purely pursuing adaptation does not address the root causes of a changing climate and may spark a never-ending—and ultimately losing—race of climate policy catch-up in the long term. Perhaps most importantly, it is possible to do both.

3. Do Not Forget about Violent Conflict

For many years, climate and peacebuilding have been viewed as entirely separate issues within governments and other public institutions, often divided between different departments with little cooperation or overlap. This must change.

It is no coincidence that two-thirds of states experiencing high fragility levels also have populations facing high climate risks.”

Recent literature on climate and conflict has revealed substantial linkages. While researchers have found inconclusive evidence for direct, causal links between climate change and conflict, there is substantial evidence that climate change exacerbates other important drivers of instability, including poverty, food insecurity, and the breakdown of the rule of law. It is no coincidence that two-thirds of states experiencing high fragility levels also have populations facing high climate risks. With this relationship, even the most effective peacebuilding efforts will be stymied in the long run unless they actively consider the role of climate change.

At the same time, violent conflict can exacerbate climate change and its associated negative impacts. In fact, of the 20 countries deemed most vulnerable to climate change, 12 are mired in conflict. During conflict, the capacity of conflict-affected governments and local leaders to respond to climate shocks is greatly reduced, leaving those communities enduring armed conflict at the frontlines of the climate crisis. Furthermore, conflict tactics themselves can deliberately damage the environment to inflict suffering. Beyond far-ranging and long-lasting environmental impacts, these tactics can also violate international humanitarian law. Even more concerning, malign actors, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, have begun to weaponize ongoing climate concerns and water scarcity to coerce civilians.

The relationship between climate and conflict is neither monocausal nor unidirectional. However, this complex nature provides the exact argument for applying an overall climate-lens to peacebuilding efforts and prioritizing climate action in violent conflict-affected contexts. Helpfully, the USAID Center for Resilience has already emphasized the importance of addressing both climate and conflict, and one key topic of the upcoming Leaders Summit on Climate is to “address the global security challenges posed by climate change and the impact on readiness.” Looking forward, an area of priority for applying a climate lens to conflict could be working with local leaders and humanitarian groups to preemptively forecast and prepare for interactions between climate shocks and outbreaks of conflict

4. Reengage, Reassess, and Rebrand Multilateral Climate Engagement

An early focus of the administration’s climate efforts has been to increase diplomatic engagement, evidenced by the Leaders Summit on Climate and its focus on the upcoming UN climate change conference in November. The Biden-Harris administration should be applauded for these efforts and encouraged to also seek further engagement on climate issues within the multilateral system (beyond rejoining the Group of Friends on Climate and Security at the UN Security Council, which was another good early step). Consistent multilateral engagement provides unmatched opportunities to credibly demonstrate U.S. commitment, humbly contribute to ongoing climate initiatives, and reach a wider range of communities.

Multilateral institutions have provided important leadership on global issues like Covid-19 and climate change, notable over the past four years in the absence of U.S. engagement. However, there are still many opportunities for the United States to encourage these institutions and international partners to further adopt climate-aware perspectives in Covid-19 recovery, fulfilling a global political leadership gap. For example, the United States could provide increased support to UNDP initiatives—especially the “Green Economy” pillar of its Covid-19 response—building on previous collaborations to Power Africa. The United States could also support UNDP efforts to help countries reach their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Climate Agreement through the example of bold domestic action and via concrete resources. Substantial opportunities also exist with the World Bank as it continues to set ambitious climate financing targets for the next five years and launch new projects with the support of state partners. When expanding engagement with multilateral institutions, the United States should address the gap in access to funding for climate action that exists between stable countries and fragile ones.

While reengaging and reassessing, the United States should also make a strong domestic case for multilateral climate engagement.”

For the past five years, contributions to multilateral development banks have represented the largest area of U.S. foreign climate spending, with a substantially smaller percentage dedicated for international organizations and multilateral environment funds. The United States should reflect on how it prioritizes different avenues of international climate action. To be clear, the point in doing so should not be to reassess the impacts of every invested climate finance dollar. Rather, the United States should focus on reassessing the tools multilateral institutions use to allocate resources and political capital.

While reengaging and reassessing, the United States should also make a strong domestic case for multilateral climate engagement, especially with regards to foreign assistance. It is clear to many Americans why the United States should be a party to the Paris Climate Agreement it helped negotiate. It is less clear why increased and more effective foreign assistance dollars are a critical piece of the puzzle. Without broad public support for and understanding of the domestic risks of international climate inaction, it will be difficult to institute a major strategy shift in how the U.S. government crafts international climate policy. President Biden’s calls for a “foreign policy for a middle class” represent opportunities for such rebranding. However, considering the consistent gap between the percentage of U.S. adults who believe protecting the environment and dealing with global climate change should be a policy priority, there must be more intentional policy and messaging efforts to connect how foreign assistance is an important tool to help communities at home and around the world mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Erol Yayboke is deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Christine Li is a research intern with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development.

This commentary was produced in partnership with the CSIS Energy Security and Climate Change Program and is made possible by support from Hewlett Foundation.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program

Christine Li

Research Intern, Project on Prosperity and Development