A Climate of Peace? The role of Climate Change in International Diplomacy


The Paris climate agreement represents so much more than a commitment to limit rising global temperatures; climate change poses an equal threat to all nations, and efforts to tackle it signify a worldwide community united in its shared goal to ‘protect all of creation’, in the words of Chancellor Merkel. In a world so fragmented by currents of racism, xenophobia, nationalism and the likes, the role of climate change in ascribing a dynamic of commonality to international diplomacy and foreign policy is often overlooked. The 2015 Paris agreement commits the United States and 194 other countries to ‘holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change’.


In signalling America’s exit from the accord on June 1st, Trump not only crystallises his blatant disregard for the sustainability of our planet, but he consciously withdraws America from a worldwide endeavour which surpasses borders and dissonances so that we may communicate with one another and work together towards finding solutions to an environmental crisis that impacts us all. Michael Brune, from US environmentalists, the Sierra Club, said the expected withdrawal was a "historic mistake which our grandchildren will look back on with stunned dismay at how a world leader could be so divorced from reality and morality”. The only other countries in the global community which have not signed up to the Paris climate accord are Syria and Nicaragua.


The powerful link between climate change and international diplomacy is brought to the fore when we examine the origins of the agreement itself and the reactions of the international community in the wake of Trump’s recent decision. The key relationship that brokered the Paris accord was that of the United States and China, as President Obama and President Xi Jinping collaborated to build a so-called “coalition of high ambition”. On June 2nd, an EU-China Summit took place in Brussels, whereby leaders from both parties reaffirmed their commitment to implementing the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change and, as major energy consumers and importers, highlighted the importance of fostering cooperation in their energy policies. EU and Chinese leaders also look forward to co-hosting, along with Canada, a major ministerial gathering in September to advance the implementation of the Paris agreement and accelerate the clean energy transition. At the joint press conference following the Summit, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said: "As far as the European side is concerned, we were happy to see that China is agreeing to our unhappiness about the American climate decision. This is helpful, this is responsible, and this is about inviting both, China and the European Union, to proceed with the implementation of the Paris agreement.” The news that a US pullout is on the cards represents so much more than Trump’s obvious ignorance; it signals a move towards American isolationism, as the president seeks to raise yet more barriers between the United States and the rest of the world, following from his decision earlier this year to implement a Muslim travel ban.


External to the Paris climate accord are other international schemes and programmes designed to protect the environment. The Copenhagen Agreement was drafted by the United States and the BASIC countries (a bloc of four newly industrialised countries - Brazil, South Africa, India and China) who committed to act jointly at the Copenhagen climate summit of 2009, whereby a fund was created dictating that high income countries would give 100 billion USD each year to developing countries by 2020 to ensure they could invest in renewable energy without sacrificing economic growth. “Climate finance” is thus indicative of the way in which climate change has driven foreign policy and international cooperation, uniting HICs, MICs and LICs, whilst also partially responding to the claim that developed countries should make a more concerted effort to tackle environmental issues given that they have up until recently been responsible for the lion’s share of emissions. A similar multilateral scheme is the Kyoto protocol which went into force in 2005. Ratified by nearly all nations, this agreement was the first of its kind to mandate country-by-country reductions in yearly emissions of carbon.


The Clean Development Mechanism was introduced to help achieve these targets, and allows emission-reduction projects in developing countries to earn certified emission reduction (CER) credits, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2. These may be traded in emissions trading schemes, with developed countries having the ability to purchase CERs from developing countries, thus investing in emission reductions and green technologies where it is cheapest globally. This work, driven primarily by the demand for low-cost emissions reduction credits from the EU Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS), has resulted in the creation of a burgeoning global market for greenhouse gas emission offsets. Similar to a domestic cap-and-trade programme between companies, international emissions trading enables the transfer of emissions allowances, each worth one ton of greenhouse gases, from one country to another while keeping the total amount of allowable emissions constant.


These strategies are not without their flaws, but it is what they represent - the coming together of nations to protect our shared future through economic and environmental ventures - that is so critical to the shaping of a more sustainable and harmonious international global community. The CDM has made a considerable contribution to the development and transfer of knowledge and technology in developing countries, and has positively impacted on local communities through the creation of jobs and infrastructure. This process of cross-cultural dialogue and interaction, combined with the transfer of knowledge, international trading schemes and foreign investment represents the opening up of our borders and the shared values of humanity that Trump’s decision last week so strongly undermines.


Developed countries are subsequently recognising and accepting responsibility for their contribution to global warming, and are making concerted efforts to devise innovative means by which less developed countries can undergo the same process of economic growth whilst using renewable technologies, rendering them less dependent on fossil fuels such as coal. The UN World Meteorological Organisation said that in the worst scenario, the US pullout could add 0.3°C to global temperatures by the end of the century. I view Trump’s decision as not only entirely selfish (he argued that the agreement “punished” the US and would cost millions of American jobs), but as a provocation of joint diplomatic efforts to overcome one of our generation’s greatest challenges.


Reactions both within and outside the United States testify to the moral obligation we all share topreserve this planet for future generations. Democratic former US Secretary of State John Kerry branded this an ‘extraordinary moment of self-destruction’ which ‘isolates the United States after we had united the world.’ Mayors across the country have stood firm against Trump’s explosive revelation that he would withdraw America from the 2015 Paris climate accord, with the Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, asserting: "This decision is an immoral assault on the public health, safety and security of everyone on this planet. On behalf of the people of New York City, and alongside mayors across the country, I am committing to honour the goals of the Paris agreement with an executive order in the coming days, so our city can remain a home for generations to come."


One link that has yet to be researched further but which bears great relevance to the role of climate change in foreign affairs is that between climate-fragility risks and non-state armed groups (NSAGs). A Climate Diplomacy report entitled ‘Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate: Analysing the Links Between Climate Change and Non-State Armed Groups’ published in 2016 highlights how the complex risks presented by conflicts, climate change and increasingly fragile geophysical and socio-political conditions can contribute to the emergence and growth of NSAGs. Climate change is thus inextricably linked with matters of security, since the former acts as a risks multiplier in regards to NSAGs. Large-scale environmental and climatic change contributes to creating an environment in which NSAGs can thrive and opens spaces that facilitate the pursuit of their strategies. Climate change increasingly contributes to fragility, namely by initiating conflicts surrounding natural resources and livelihood insecurity. NSAGs proliferate and can operate more easily in these environments where the state has little to no authority (‘ungoverned space’) and lacks legitimacy.


Sometimes, NSAGs also try to fill the vacuum left by the state by providing basic services in order to gain legitimacy and secure trust and support among the local population. Food insecurity and water/land scarcities render the affected population groups more vulnerable to recruitment by NSAGs, since these groups can offer alternative livelihoods and economic incentives, responding to political and socio-economic grievances. The report comprises four case studies to highlight this point: Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, ISIS in Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and urban violence and organised crime in Guatemala. 

 Environmental history emerged in the United States out of the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Having only recently assumed prominence as a methodology and discipline of historiographical literature, it emphasises the active role nature plays in influencing human affairs. A study of environmental history documents the transition over time from an ancient and medieval worldview which interpreted environmental catastrophes as orchestrated by God, to a modern-day global acceptance of the impact of human beings on their environment. A unified effort on behalf of the global community to tackle climate change offers opportunity for integration, the transfer of knowledge, cross-cultural exchange, international trade and foreign investment, which bring with them open dialogue and communication, as well as a diplomatic attitude which prizes community and the vision of a shared future over division and barriers. Trump’s signal to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord resembles so much more than an abandonment of America’s commitment to reduce its carbon emissions; it represents an undermining of the values we should be pressing so hard to maintain and reinforce in light of the contemporary tensions and challenges we face.