America Must Reclaim the Global Lead on Climate Change

Five places to start undoing the Trump administration’s damage and rebuilding U.S. leadership.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

President-elect Joe Biden announces key climate and energy appointments at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, on Dec. 19.
President-elect Joe Biden announces key climate and energy appointments at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, on Dec. 19. Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Sometimes seismic change has an unlikely beginning. Back in 2007, American diplomats stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing were worried about the air they were breathing. It was no secret that Beijing had truly abysmal air quality, but few trusted the Chinese government’s publicly available pollution reports. So the embassy staff did something that seemed innocuous at the time: They installed a pollution monitor on the roof of the embassy to measure the local air quality and started tweeting the results. All the Twitter account was meant to do was help U.S. citizens based in Beijing figure out when it was safe for their children to be outdoors. It ended up pushing a superpower to the table to collaborate with the United States on climate policy.

Chinese citizens quickly noticed that the measurements tweeted by the U.S. Embassy didn’t match the rosier figures published by the Chinese government. Pollution was off the charts in Beijing, caused mainly by the power plants and heavy industry driving the Chinese economy. At first, Chinese officials complained about the account and blocked access to Twitter throughout China, but the embassy continued to publish the air-quality measurements. Many Chinese now had public proof that the air they were breathing was deeply unsafe.

The public outcry sparked by a trustworthy, fact-based U.S. Twitter account helped pave the way for the United States and China to begin working together to address climate issues. China’s government pledged to dramatically cut down on the air pollution choking its cities and pursue a regional carbon-capping system. In 2013, China made its first set of climate commitments in tandem with the United States, followed by another set of pledges in 2014 to peak its emissions and help land an international climate accord. Although China is still responsible for almost 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, these breakthroughs set the stage for a global coalition to fight climate change culminating in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Of course, outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned this agreement, and the United States officially pulled out on Nov. 4, 2020. Fortunately, President-elect Joe Biden will rejoin as soon as he takes office.

The landmark Paris Agreement was made possible, in part, because the United States installed a few thousand dollars’ worth of air-monitoring equipment on the roof of a building in Beijing and shared the information freely. That small action helped bring the world’s largest emitter of carbon pollution into the fight against climate change, which had long been a goal of the United States. It’s a reminder that U.S. influence, when deployed smartly, can be a force for global change. And there are few areas right now where principled U.S. leadership is needed more urgently than on climate change.

Since I arrived in the U.S. Senate, I have been arguing for the need to reconfigure the U.S. foreign-policy toolkit to match the actual security threats our nation faces today. The United States is not likely to be subject to a conventional military attack. Though we still need to manage the rise of China and counter the Kremlin’s provocations, the modern threats to our security will not likely come from a foreign army. The most menacing 21st-century enemies won’t be nation-states, but propaganda artists, hackers, pandemic diseases, shadowy and ever-changing non-state extremist groups, and—yes—the droughts, storms, and rising seas caused by a rapidly changing climate.

There are few areas right now where principled U.S. leadership is needed more urgently than on climate change.

Rebuilding the U.S. foreign-policy toolkit to equip the Biden administration with the resources to meet these threats will be a major endeavor. Our prior obsession with conventional military buildup must be matched by a new obsession for creating a more diverse set of cards—beyond military deployments and arms sales—that a U.S. president can play to protect our interests. This buildup of smart power can—and must—begin by giving the Biden administration the ability to rebuild the global consensus around the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Climate change is one of the few existential global security issues, and thus Congress must act quickly to put the new president in a position to quickly reverse the damage done to worldwide carbon-emission reductions by the Trump administration.

Here are five places we can start.

First, Congress can restore the United States’ commitment to the Green Climate Fund, providing the funding to meet the nation’s original 2014 pledge of $3 billion, and then putting us on a schedule to double that amount by the end of the administration. The United States helped create the Green Climate Fund in order to help poorer countries invest in climate solutions, and it’s the best way for us to both drive climate action overseas and leverage substantial additional dollars from other partner governments. After the trauma of the last four years, the world is rightly wary of following the United States’ lead on climate policy, afraid of having the rug pulled out once again. The full funding of the Green Climate Fund will serve as a highly visible and tangible signal that the United States is back in the game.

Second, Congress should ensure that, from now on, foreign policy is climate policy. Whether we’re talking about national defense, promoting U.S. exports, or alleviating global poverty, climate considerations should play a role in every policy and spending decision the United States makes overseas. We cannot indefinitely afford to be promoting fossil-fuel development and green energy overseas at the same time. This would be a big shift that Congress can help make a reality by mandating that our foreign-policy agencies adopt climate as a central, guiding principle—and by keeping a close eye on the process.
Congress can help make this shift a reality by mandating that our foreign-policy agencies adopt climate as a central, guiding principle.

No domain is larger than that of the Department of Defense. The nation’s military accounted for over three-quarters of all U.S. government carbon emissions. If it were a country, the U.S. military would be the 55th-largest carbon emitter on the planet. Fortunately, the Pentagon already recognizes climate change as a catastrophic national security threat. Sober assessments predict mass migration, more complex emergencies, new wars over water resources, and chaos brought on by state collapse in places such as Nigeria and Pakistan. Climate change also threatens military readiness; a 2019 Pentagon report raised several alarms, including that wildfires, sea-level rise, desertification, and storms are increasingly damaging defense installations across the country.

Military leaders have taken some steps in the right direction. The Navy invested in fuel cell parks to save money and energy, while the Air Force is developing deployable, self-sustaining power systems that could revolutionize combat logistics. But to no one’s surprise, Trump muzzled these efforts and ended U.S. leadership on greening the military. Congress can get things back on track by including language in the annual Defense Authorization Act directing the Department of Defense to invest heavily in energy savings and renewable energy sources for domestic military installations, massively expand research into energy technologies that would reduce vulnerable logistics chains supplying remote forward operating bases, and launch a new military-to-military green cooperation program to train and advise our allies on how they can follow suit. Making the military green is a no-brainer: It saves money, saves our planet, and saves lives.

Similarly, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) need changes both large and small. At the top, both agencies need a senior-level official responsible for coordinating climate policy and ensuring that climate issues are integrated at the upper echelons of strategic decision-making. At the ground level, we need to start regularly training our foreign-service officers on climate policy and building career incentives to encourage diplomats to become climate experts. We also need to change the way USAID missions work so that we’re not spending foreign-aid dollars without factoring in climate risks on the front end. Climate should be at the heart of our bilateral outreach to partner countries so that it forms the basis for U.S. cooperation overseas.

Third, economic statecraft needs to be as green as our assistance. We must change climate governance structures in places where most people don’t look when they think of foreign policy—such as the Treasury Department, where much of our financial and economic diplomacy is actually conducted. China is eating our lunch by financing green-energy projects from Argentina to Scotland. The Development Finance Corporation is making inroads in fighting back through investing in solar and has a new authorization to invest in European energy independence projects. We need to supercharge this fund and clarify that energy independence does not just mean divesting from Russia; it means divesting from carbon. Similarly, the Millennium Challenge Corporation is already making headway with climate-sensitive solar projects in Indonesia and Benin. Both agencies must prioritize and fast-track their climate work. As China faces a well-deserved backlash overseas, the United States needs to be there with our diplomacy and dollars.
When Congress passes much needed economic stimulus, let’s make it a green stimulus.

Fourth, in the wake of Trump’s counterproductive trade wars, we need to move in the opposite direction when it comes to clean energy technology. Rather than throwing up trade barriers and tariffs, we should be making it easier for the world to buy green technologies from us. Exporting U.S.-made green technologies will help countries meet global climate goals while creating millions of jobs for Americans in the process. There’s been years’ worth of talk about pursuing an agreement on global environmental goods, but it’s never had strong leadership from the United States. America wins when it leads the world in next-generation technologies—but falling backwards into protectionist policies on clean energy will only make that harder.

We should also double the Export-Import Bank Environment Export Financing, with a focus on helping small and medium-sized companies reach the world’s markets. While the U.S. technology sector is second to none, we need to up our game in industrial green research and development through innovative public-private partnerships—for instance, by expanding the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program.

The fifth and final thing we must do is lead by example every step of the way. During the last four years, as our federal government abandoned our global responsibilities, our cities and states have kept up the fight. Over 300 U.S. cities pledged to maintain our Paris commitments. For years, my home state of Connecticut has led the way with innovation, participating in a multi-state carbon trading program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and creating the nation’s first green bank in 2011, an incredibly successful effort to leverage private financing to reduce carbon emissions that I am seeking to replicate across the country. Let’s continue to take advantage of our federal structure and encourage U.S. cities and states to innovate.

On the federal level, we need to undo the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken emissions standards for power plants and cars, the latter of which major car manufacturers are fighting to maintain. And when Congress finally rises to the moment and passes much needed economic stimulus, let’s make it a green stimulus. The European Union has invested 20 percent of its stimulus in climate-related projects—we can beat that. And yes, the new Congress must take on the Green New Deal. We can’t afford not to be bold: The world is watching. The bottom line is that we can’t expect to lead the world if we don’t pass our own ambitious climate legislation. And we can’t lead the world with green technology if we don’t align market incentives at home to make that leadership possible.

Think back to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and the vast changes wrought by its rooftop pollution monitor. The tables have turned since then, in a rather dispiriting fashion. Now the United States is the global laggard in climate action, while China is getting reams of credit for announcing new climate pledges. It doesn’t have to be this way—and Biden, with support from Congress, needs to make sure it no longer is.

We’ve had four years of head-in-the-sand U.S. foreign policy across the board. This has been particularly dangerous when it comes to the Trump administration’s climate policy, as the window for reducing emissions and averting the most cataclysmic outcome for the planet is shrinking. Biden can now align our moral leadership, trade dollars, and foreign aid to put our country, and the world, back on the right track and restore faith in the United States as a nation whose lead is worth following.

Chris Murphy is a U.S. senator from Connecticut. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Twitter: @ChrisMurphyCT