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Compartmentalizing International Climate Policy
Why insulating climate issues from wider foreign policy concerns is probably for the best
A strange thing happened after the acrimonious meeting between top American and Chinese foreign policy officials in Alaska earlier this month: Chinese state media proclaimed Beijing’s willingness to cooperate with the United States on issues related to climate change. While America and China remain, in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s words, “fundamentally at odds” on issues related to human rights, cyberattacks, and Chinese attempts to coerce other nations, both governments appear ready to set their severe differences aside when it comes to cooperation on climate change.
Indeed, President Biden appears intent on insulating America’s international climate policy from its broader foreign policy. A week after he called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer,” for instance, Biden invited Putin to the big climate summit the White House plans to host on April 22 and 23. Also invited were Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – all leaders and governments at odds with the values and interests of the United States and Biden administration policy in one way or another.
As elsewhere in its foreign policy, the Biden administration looks set to steer a pragmatic course when it comes to international climate policy. It’s not putting climate change “at the center” of U.S. foreign policy, as some advocates and activists demanded. That doesn’t mean the Biden team doesn’t take climate change seriously – on the contrary, it’s probably best to keep international climate policy separate from other foreign policy issues important to the United States.
Take China – calls to make the bilateral relationship between Washington and Beijing all about climate policy remain persistent. The case for subordinating America’s policy toward China to climate issues rests primarily on catastrophism: according to this outlook, little else matters beyond averting the inevitable apocalypse that will result if the United States and China fail to cooperate closely on climate change. From a different perspective, other foreign policy observers worried that John Kerry, the former secretary of state and now President Biden’s international climate envoy, would run his own separate China policy and focus on climate issues to the exclusion of other important American interests and values.
The trouble with putting climate change at the center of America’s relationship with China is two-fold: first, it cultivates the perception that China can use climate cooperation as a diplomatic bargaining chip against the United States. In this scenario, Beijing will be sorely tempted to threaten to curtail or end climate cooperation unless the United States, say, lays off human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang or soft-peddles its objections to Chinese bullying of U.S. allies like Australia. That would put American diplomats and climate negotiators in an impossible position – either sacrifice core American values and interests or accede to Chinese demands on important questions largely unrelated to climate change.
Second, it probably underestimates the Beijing’s own interest in combatting climate change. It sees the Chinese government as reluctant to make progress on climate issues and in need of coaxing by the United States to do so. But if the economic historian Adam Tooze is right, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has come to see action against climate change as a matter of its own self-interest. The action on offer may not be enough for either the Biden administration or climate activists, but it doesn’t require the United States to place climate change at the center of its China policy. To put it another way, American negotiators don’t need to offer Beijing incentives to do what they’d been planning to do in any case.
Fortunately, the United States doesn’t have to choose between ignoring climate change altogether and allowing it to override all other foreign policy considerations. Compartmentalizing international climate policy and insulating it from wider foreign policy concerns likely represents the best and most constructive way forward for the United States and the world. The Biden administration appears to recognize the benefits of such an approach, as does the Chinese government (at least for now). It remains to be seen if Putin, Erdogan, and other autocrats will accept Biden’s invitation to attend his climate summit later this month, but the invitations themselves reflect the administration’s intent to keep international climate policy separate from other important foreign policy issues.
Insulating international climate policy in this way sends a clear signal that the Biden administration sees climate change as a vitally important issue. This formulation sees climate issues as too consequential to either let enduring disputes prevent necessary progress or let international climate policy itself become entangled with existing disagreements. It’s a sort of reverse or anti-linkage, decoupling international action on climate change from profound but otherwise normal differences between nations when it comes to interests and values. That’s all the more critical since climate diplomacy requires significant engagement with autocratic countries like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
It also reflects the fact that international climate policy is as much about domestic policies as it is about wide-ranging international agreements or binding global targets for carbon emissions. Even proposals to create an international “climate club” to curb climate change recognize that international agreements work best if they help change domestic policies. For their part, national governments – including the United States –need to recognize that the fight against climate change is in their own concrete national interests. An abstract planetary interest has so far failed to motivate international cooperation on climate change, but the potential gains in technological development, domestic employment, and international prestige may prove to be a more compelling spur to action. In that respect, too, insulating international climate policy from wider foreign policy concerns makes sense as a matter of coordination, persuasion, and competition rather than coercion .
In the end, American climate diplomacy is more likely to be effective – and the world more likely to make progress against climate change – if the United States doesn’t put climate at the center of its foreign policy. To do so would be to ensnare this vital issue in a wide variety of important but extraneous international disputes and foreign policy priorities. Of course, perfect insulation of international climate policy will prove impossible. But American diplomats and negotiators should look for potential positive spillovers from climate diplomacy in addition to looking out for possible pitfalls and complications.
If the Biden administration is serious about climate change, it’d do well to keep its international climate diplomacy separate from America’s broader foreign policy concerns. It’s too important an issue to make into a bargaining chip that can be traded away to the detriment of America’s other important interests and core values.