ECC Platform Library


Climate Action and Climate Diplomacy: The Search for Consensus in a Time of Crisis - Letter from Washington

21 September, 2020
Paul Joffe

united states washington capitol building caution warning crisis

United States of America, Washington, DC, Capitol Building, caution, warning, crisis, climate diplomacy
United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. | © Andy Feliciotti/

The pandemic and racial justice protests call for justice and crisis preparedness – an opportunity also to act on climate change. Successfully taking advantage of this momentum, however, requires a climate strategy that ensures everyone has a voice and a stake. Here, Paul Joffe builds on a previous correspondence about how to begin that effort in this time of crisis.

[Paul Joffe is Sr. Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and former Sr. Foreign Policy Counsel at the World Resources Institute. The views stated here are solely those of the author.]


Dear Colleagues,

The coronavirus storm has blown away a lot of business as usual. This brought discussion about whether climate action can be part of addressing fallout from the pandemic and how the pandemic might affect the approach to climate action and climate diplomacy. Then protests across the country against police misconduct have elevated justice issues on the national agenda. 

Before the pandemic, something was stirring on climate action. Unexpected voices like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were saying that something should be done about climate change. Some red states were breaking ranks with orthodoxy and pushing clean energy. And conservative Millennials, who have more of a personal stake than the old guard, were saying it is time for action.

So the American system for dealing with big problems was rousing itself from deep sleep. In the House of Representatives, in one party, there were the Green New Dealers who want to transform the economy, and there were also the more focused clean energy proponents. In the other party, there were people saying you can't just be against everything, supporting things like carbon capture and tree planting.

At this rate, in forty or fifty years, after many false starts, the problem might be addressed with some half-a-loaf remedy.  Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of time to avoid catastrophe. So what to do? The American people recognize the problem, are concerned about it, and want the problem addressed. Technically, we know how to shift to clean energy. But special interests are committed to resisting change, political system dysfunctions, and partisan polarization enhance paralysis. Moreover, the debate over climate action takes place against a background debate over economic upheaval and racial and social justice.

The Pandemic Hurricane and the Climate Crisis – the Perfect Storm

The pandemic could fuel upheavals in politics and the economy that will feed conflict and stall constructive policy, including climate action. It could, however, provide a breakthrough that shatters the old complacency, through strategies that build security and opportunities which can provide a foundation for consensus to confront the climate crisis.

Unless we act, climate impacts could disrupt our lives in ways that will eclipse even the pandemic. Commentators have remarked that the pandemic reminds us to plan ahead, to listen to science, and to remember the importance of cooperation, and of capable, active governments.

But the status quo is challenging. Prospects for long-term conflict over economic issues, identity politics, and racial and social justice are evident in the United States and other industrialized countries. A successful strategy for climate action should be part of a broad effort to turn from social conflict to solidarity.

Strategy for Consensus – Establishing Justice, Ensuring Everyone a Stake and Everyone a Voice

Climate strategy can help create opportunities and security. As part of a broader commitment to the unfinished work of establishing justice and addressing economic crisis, it will draw support.  Such a strategy can help provide a basis for consensus by ensuring everyone a stake and a voice in confronting climate change. A few examples illustrate this.

Confronting climate change requires ambitious emissions reductions. Various approaches are possible. An example is the fee and dividend campaign with a rising fee on carbon, funding payments to consumers and stimulating clean energy enterprise. Others advocate sector-specific policies that create local business opportunities and jobs.

New progress on justice for workers is also increasingly needed because of industrial change and changes in the nature of work across many industries, including energy. The pandemic crisis has highlighted the need for creating a new system of job security as well as new efforts on infrastructure, community development and worker rights. Climate action can contribute to this effort, while simultaneously reducing climate damage. Support for climate action will grow when it is a key element of a broad economic program where employment is a priority and there is as much of a national commitment to job security as to social security. I have previously suggested that much as the auto industry "Treaty of Detroit" in the 1950s created security and opportunity for the industrial expansion of that time, we need a new and even stronger pact among business, labor and government to confront climate change and the economic crisis.

In a signal that such an approach may be emerging, a major U.S. labor federation and a former Secretary of Energy announced on Earth Day a partnership promoting a framework for the energy system “that creates and preserves quality jobs while addressing the climate crisis.” This partnership could help address issues that otherwise could slow action, such as the role of nuclear energy and carbon capture.

Moreover, reawakening concern for racial justice adds momentum to strengthening joint efforts by the climate movement and the environmental justice movement, which has long decried the impact of pollution and climate damage on low income and minority communities. From power plants causing far-reaching health problems in poor, high density Chicago neighborhoods, to environmental injustice in contaminated, post-Katrina New Orleans, examples are widespread. As one activist says, systemic racism has led to unjust housing, urban, and other policies, increasing the vulnerability of minority communities to climate impacts. As a result, communities of color “are in the crosshairs” of damage caused by storms such as Katrina, Maria, Harvey and Superstorm Sandy. Here again, climate action should help establish justice and address economic crisis. Examples include prioritizing clean investments for vulnerable communities and marshalling permitting, housing, health and other policies to remedy historic environmental injustices.

With new possibilities to engage these movements, as well as new initiatives on Capitol Hill and in the presidential campaign, there are signs that a powerful climate coalition may be in reach, with a broader range of stakeholders than in the past.  Hard work remains, but the outlines of climate action consensus based on justice and economic renewal are becoming visible.

Climate strategy will also have to address the dysfunctional elements of the political system. As environmentalists increasingly recognize, success in strengthening climate action depends on strengthening democracy. To succeed, climate strategy should help grassroots and other efforts to ensure that everyone has a voice.

Climate Diplomacy in the Shadow of the Future

While all of this is needed for the United States to take climate action at home, climate change is a global problem. The United States cannot save itself alone. As the United States approaches a new era of global leadership, it is important to recognize that the likelihood of leadership in climate diplomacy abroad also depends on consolidating consensus at home. 

There is a longstanding myth in Washington that the public does not recognize the importance of global engagement by the United States in its own interests. Even today, global engagement is sometimes simplistically seen as a charitable undertaking. Rather, in today’s world, it is firmly grounded in enlightened self-interest. In fact, in the coming era, strong climate action is likely to be a major tool for developing economic competitiveness, technological innovation, building alliances, and maintaining a strategic edge.

The pandemic is teaching us a hard lesson in nature’s iron law of interdependence. Just as people have seen the consequences of failing to look ahead and to cooperate, they can see the fires and floods and economic upheaval in the building climate storm. Thus, foregoing the benefits of cooperation to address what the future holds in store, what a leading game theorist called “the shadow of the future,” looks even less attractive. But awareness has to be translated into international collaboration. Climate action can drive these results as it helps promote a clean energy industrial recovery at home and worldwide. To accomplish this, the United States must resume its seat at the table under the Paris climate agreement to achieve its full promise.

The historian, Margaret MacMillan, said that the failure one hundred years ago of the parties at the troubled Versailles settlement of the Great War and afterwards to see past short term interests turned into "the disillusionment, division, and aggression of the 1930s." That they could not see the shadow of the future seems incredible now. Or perhaps they could see it but had no effective strategy to overcome the social and economic crisis of those days and so drifted toward calamity.

We can foresee the crises ahead. We also have the tools to cope with them and to create better lives now and for today’s and tomorrow’s children. Our biggest challenge lies in ourselves, in the divisions--often fomented by an interested few--that are holding us back. Perhaps the hard experience of these times will encourage us to overcome those divisions, if we employ a strategy that is part of a broader, renewed effort to establish justice and that ensures everyone a voice and everyone a stake in confronting climate change, both at home and abroad.

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Climate Diplomacy

North America


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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