President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to use heavy-handed climate diplomacy and incorporate climate debate into the national security apparatus could prompt a new round of geopolitical friction—to the detriment of the environmental justice movement at home and abroad, experts warn.  

Biden’s “Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice” lays out the policy and implementation pathways for his administration to advance the global climate agenda. One of these measures is to “name and shame global climate outlaws”—countries that don’t live up to their climate commitments under the Paris Agreement. 

According to Biden’s plan, the State Department will publish a new Global Climate Change Report that rates and ranks countries according to whether they are adhering to their commitments under the Paris climate agreement. This State Department-led initiative is meant “to hold countries to account for meeting, or failing to meet, their Paris commitments and for other steps that promote or undermine global climate solutions,” Biden’s plan states. 

Duncan McLaren, professor in practice at Lancaster University’s Environment Centre, said the Biden administration should tread carefully on its climate diplomacy plan.

“As the biggest cumulative emitter, the U.S. owes a huge climate debt to the world, and it won’t be a good look to lecture other countries—especially those with non-white majority populations,” McLaren said in an interview with The Real News. “It will be very easy to heighten tensions in climate diplomacy that way.”

For Biden’s climate diplomacy to work, McLaren explained, Washington will need to acknowledge its own faults before pointing fingers at other countries, and need to put justice at the heart of its national and global efforts. 

“The U.S. can and should increase its nationally determined contributions (NDC),” McLaren said. “The second big tool available to the U.S. is to increase dramatically its contributions to adaptation finance for the world’s poorest countries. That would provide help for countries facing sea level rise, water scarcity, heat stress, and so forth.”

While experts debate the merits of Biden’s climate diplomacy, his proposed plan to call out the “climate outlaws” has already met its first diplomatic setback. During the September presidential debate, Biden threatened Brazil with “economic consequences” if Amazon deforestation didn’t stop. In response, Bolsonaro tweeted that Brazil would not accept bribes or heed threats. “Our sovereignty is non-negotiable,” he tweeted. 

On Nov. 10, days after Biden won the presidential election, Bolsonaro took another swipe at Biden, referring to him as “candidate” and criticizing Biden’s Amazon remarks. 

The Biden administration will need to rely more on diplomatic tact than naming and shaming countries if his global climate diplomacy is to bear fruit in days ahead: “It will be good to see the U.S. adding its voice to calls for effective action, but to be influential, will be really quite tricky,” McLaren said.  

McLaren added that without some degree of diplomacy, Biden’s plan to restore the U.S. to global climate leader status will be met with resistance as countries such as Brazil refuse to cooperate with the United States and look for more compatible partners elsewhere.  

Experts warn that an even bigger challenge to domestic and global struggle for environmental justice is likely to come from pushing climate change as a national security issue. Biden’s plan says “he will fully integrate climate change into our foreign policy and national security strategies, as well as our approach to trade.” The plan calls climate change a “threat multiplier” that magnifies existing geopolitical and weather-related risks, and goes on to say that “Biden will add climate change as a national security priority” to address the challenges it poses to global stability and security. 

John Kerry, Biden’s pick for climate envoy, has also been given a seat on the National Security Council (NSC).

According to Kevin Surprise, visiting lecturer in environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College, climate security has been ingrained in the thinking of the defense and security establishment since 2003. 

“The first time climate change was formally put on the U.S. security agenda in a serious way was 2003, when the Pentagon commissioned a report titled An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for United States National Security,” Surprise told the Real News.

Under Obama, Surprise explained, the CIA established a Climate Intelligence Unit. In 2016, Obama issued an executive order mandating that security and intelligence agencies incorporate assessments of climate threats to national security into their operations and analyses. Even under the Trump administration’s climate denialism, the military continued to focus on climate change as a security threat.

To McLaren, a security narrative runs the risk of distracting from questions of justice, and the fundamental need for reparations for past harms done by the U.S., both internally and internationally. 

“I can see why this framing might be useful in the USA. You have a high degree of respect for the military—especially on the political right, which is also the home of climate denialism,” McLaren said. “Turning the climate into a question of national security might be a good way to get Republicans on board.”

Narrowing the climate issue to security means neglecting the complex political and economic questions that animate the climate conversation while also expanding the role of the military in climate policy.

“The Pentagon and the wider security community expanded into ‘environmental’ and ‘climate’ security because, framed that way, myriad environmental issues around the world became part of the military purview. It expands the domain of operation,” Surprise said. “Securitizing the climate or environment opens more space for military intervention.” 

Biden’s plan to securitize climate issues also tends to favor geoengineering approaches such as carbon dioxide removal technologies, which are widely seen as the means to keep the fossil fuel industry in business for decades: “It is in the U.S. interest to push models and agreements that place primacy on large-scale carbon drawdown through carbon dioxide removal technologies after 2050. This pushes the problem down the road, minimizes action in the present, and relies on new, unproven technologies that play into the rhetoric of American ‘innovation,’” Surprise said.

The security narrative also allows dubious geoengineering approaches to be deployed without proper scrutiny.  

“Some scientists have speculated that countries might try to use stratospheric aerosol injection [SAI] to establish climate conditions that they prefer,” McLaren said. 

SAI refers to blocking a fraction of solar radiation by continually spraying megatons of sulfur dioxide into the lower stratosphere, theoretically cooling the planet quickly and cheaply. 

This rhetoric could also very easily play into the hands of ecofascists concerned with “national territory,” and justify violence against climate-displaced persons. 

“National security in its modern sense has always been about expanding the realm of imperialism and protecting elite members of society. It’s linkage to climate change does not change that,” Surprise said.

Studio: Tunde Ogunfolaju
Post-Production: Oscar Leon

Aman Azhar

Climate Change Reporter (former)

Aman is an experienced broadcast journalist with multimedia skills and has more than a decade of international reporting experience. He has previously worked with globally recognized news media brands, including BBC World Service and VOA. Aman brings with him several years of reporting experience covering political, and diplomatic affairs.