With a Feminist Foreign Policy, Biden Could Get Climate Change Right

At this week’s summit, the United States will need to think bigger. Here’s how.

By Bridget Burns, the director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, and Mara Dolan, a program and advocacy associate at the Women’s Environment and Development Organization.
A woman holds a sign during a climate protest in Cali, Colombia, on Sept. 20, 2019.
A woman holds a sign during a climate protest in Cali, Colombia, on Sept. 20, 2019. Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

This week, representatives from 40 countries will join U.S. President Joe Biden to discuss raising ambitions around the world to address climate change. Biden’s own ambitions though will be under close scrutiny by climate, human rights, and gender equality advocates, who will be looking to see if the administration’s actions match his domestic rhetoric.

The Biden administration has made fighting climate change one of its key priorities, which was signaled through many of the president’s high-level appointments and by his move to rejoin the Paris Agreement on his first day in office. But for effective global action on climate change, the Paris Agreement is just the starting line. As the science makes clear, to truly meet the moment, the Biden administration will need a full-scale reimagining of climate-compatible foreign policy. That will need to start with the new U.S. nationally determined contribution (NDC)—its specific commitments for meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement—which Biden will be announcing in the lead up to the summit

For the United States to truly play its part in global climate efforts, the U.S. NDC will have to reflect ambitions to do its fair share and strongly commit to human rights and gender equality. In turn, it could serve as a key entry point for a wholesale embrace of a feminist U.S. foreign policy.

Rejoining the Paris Agreement is a first step, but much of the heavy lifting that will make the agreement successful should be outlined in a country’s NDC. These non-binding contributions are the blueprints that are meant to drive national-level action on climate change. Signatories to the Paris Agreement are required to “prepare, communicate and maintain” these national plans, which lay out the goals and pathways for reducing national emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change. NDC steps are ultimately at the complete discretion of each country, and unsurprisingly, they have varied widely in ambition, breadth, and mechanisms for accountability. That is particularly salient given the outsized role some countries, especially the United States, have played in creating this crisis.

The United States is—by significant measure—the world’s largest historical carbon emitter. Despite also being the world’s wealthiest nation, it has failed to meet global financial commitments to funds meant to support adaptation and mitigation efforts of countries already on the front lines of climate change. On the heels of an administration that rolled back significant environmental regulations and undermined global progress on climate, the United States has a lot of ground to make up.

In this context, a “fair share” foreign policy would recognize the United States must make a commitment to global climate efforts that reaches beyond domestic convenience and is reflective of the United States’ enormous historical emissions and its differentiated impacts around the world. Many people are already facing the devastating impact of climate change—from worsening hurricanes, typhoons, and droughts; to the displacement of the most economically marginalized people, who are disproportionately women, during disasters; to Indigenous peoples seeing their land and water rights eroded.

Climate change impacts those already marginalized by gender, racial, and economic inequality, and the countries that are most responsible for creating that reality—first and foremost, the United States—must reorient their foreign policy toward global solidarity and protecting human rights.

In 2020, 50 foreign-policy, humanitarian, and gender equality advocates and organizations unveiled a blueprint for the Coalition for a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States. More than 30 additional members have since joined. The effort followed the lead of countries like France, Mexico, and Sweden, which have each launched their own models, varying in scope and ambition, of a feminist foreign policy, ranging from extensive policy guidelines, shifts in aid allocation to promote gender equality, and pledges toward gender parity in foreign-policy positions. The U.S. blueprint articulates a framework for foreign policy that “prioritizes peace, gender equality, and environmental integrity; enshrines, promotes, and protects the human rights of all; seeks to disrupt colonial, racist, patriarchal, and male-dominated power structures; and allocates significant resources, including research, to achieve that vision.”

The pillars of the feminist foreign policy pave the way for a more climate-compatible foreign policy.

To see how, consider trade. As governments struggle to address the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is witnessing in real time the ways the global crises demand a reorientation toward trade for the benefit of all. For example, although all countries share the goal of combatting the pandemic, they are still using protectionist trade systems that weaken coordinated efforts, marginalize the poorest countries, and inhibit any progress toward interconnectedness. These nationalistic trade systems create injustice in public health crises just as they do in the climate crisis. Like a pandemic, climate change has no borders, and zero-sum protectionism and a damaging focus on protection of intellectual property will only entrench inequality and worsen the crisis for all.

As outlined in feminist foreign policy, trade must be harnessed toward just and climate-compatible production and consumption; a focus on intellectual property rights cannot be preserved at the expense of human rights. Just as pressure mounts on the Biden administration to weaken corporate control over vaccine production to allow more equitable global access, the world will see the same around climate technologies. Long viewed as a key sticking point in global cooperation, access to green technologies is inhibited by stringent intellectual property rights and protectionist trade systems. And to add on to that is the outsized roles of private sector actors, which are far too prevalent in investor-state dispute settlements and have weakened countries’ ability to implement policies in the public interest based on environmental integrity, gender equality, and human rights. In the words of the U.S. feminist foreign-policy vision, “all trade agreements should include a gender analysis, as well as a strategy for energy democracy, emissions reduction and climate change mitigation.”

Next comes defense. Although some attention has been paid to the U.S. military’s massive role in emissions, recommendations to “green the military” fall short of the changes needed in this arena of foreign policy. Rather than challenging the scope, scale, and activities of the U.S. military perpetuating high emissions, these conversations tend to emphasize the need to integrate climate preparations within security concerns.

That’s the wrong focus. A securitized response to climate change is incompatible with the protection of human rights, especially for those most impacted around the world. To play its part in global climate action, U.S. foreign policy must reduce military spending—advocates have proposed a minimum $200 billion annual decrease—freeing up hundreds of billions of dollars for climate investments. As a feminist foreign policy recognizes, there simply is no path to climate action without pursuing demilitarization as the ultimate goal.

Last, there’s climate finance. Feminist foreign policy calls for a full-scale recommitment to the provision of climate finance, reflective of the United States’ capacity and responsibility. Financing is needed to help poorer countries adapt to, and mitigate the impacts of, a warming climate as well as address existing loss and damage. There’s also the question of compensation for countries facing the worst impacts. So far, the United States has only contributed $1 billion of its $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund. (Even that pledge was far too low to represent the United States’ fair share.)

A feminist foreign policy called for, at minimum, the United States contributing a sizeable portion to the global goal of $100 billion per year by 2020 and ensuring gender-responsive financing. A “fair shares” accounting, for example, calls for U.S. contributions of at least $800 billion in international climate finance between 2021 and 2030, equally split among finance for mitigation, adaptation, and the loss and damage caused by irreversible climate change.

This week’s Leaders Summit will set the tone for the United States’ return to the United Nations’ climate negotiations, and the need for bold and united ambition is clear. This moment should serve as a spark to ramp up U.S. commitments and step into a more climate-compatible foreign policy that responds to the world’s interlocking challenges of environmental degradation, gender and economic inequality, and protection of human rights.

If Biden is ready to act on climate change, look no further than the vision laid out by a feminist foreign policy.

Bridget Burns is the director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization. She specializes in policy advocacy, research, and movement building at the intersection of gender equality, women’s rights, and environment/climate justice.

Mara Dolan is a program and advocacy associate at the Women’s Environment and Development Organization. She works on policy research, advocacy, and coalition building among feminist and climate justice movements.