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March 07, 2023
Institutionalizing Climate Diplomacy in the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service
This commentary piece is part of CNAS' The Pitch: A Competition of New Ideas. The author, Jacqueline White Menchaca, won the People’s Choice Award at the 2022 competition. The Pitch is CNAS’ annual premier event to elevate emerging and diverse voices in national security. Selected applicants will make their pitch for innovative policy ideas to meet new challenges in U.S. national security policy in front of a distinguished panel of judges.
The climate catastrophe is one of the most pressing and consequential challenges of the 21st century. Its impacts will extend beyond the immediate environmental consequences that are already unfolding. As it is, 80 percent of the world’s land mass has experienced climate change, and 85 percent of the world’s population has experienced weather events exacerbated by climate change.1 The climate crisis will unleash sweeping social, political, and economic consequences, critically impacting the United States’ national interests. It will exacerbate myriad challenges facing the country and its partners, including food insecurity, refugee crises, and great-power competition as the United States strives to shape international norms and practices. To meet these challenges and maintain global leadership, the United States needs a diverse, nuanced, and data-driven approach to climate resiliency. U.S. foreign policy should prioritize climate diplomacy with an urgency that is comparable to any other U.S. national security interest.
The United States can no longer afford to pursue its climate agenda on an ad hoc basis, responding to each crisis in isolation and mainly committing to climate resiliency in name but not in practice. Instead, the United States should institutionalize its commitment to climate diplomacy by establishing a climate cone, or specialized track, in the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service that is dedicated to tackling climate change, its security and economic risks, and the challenges of global coordination. Creating this cone will ensure that U.S. Foreign Service officers are trained on the issues and science behind climate change while building U.S. capacity to mitigate the impacts of climate change and restoring leadership in an arena in which the country’s dedication has been inconsistent.
Why Does the U.S. State Department Need Climate Diplomats?
U.S. diplomats and the State Department are well positioned to play a central role in driving global climate action. For example, John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, is housed in the State Department and works with key partners on climate mitigation commitments and resiliency. While Foreign Service officers’ work on the front lines of the global fight against the climate crisis may not be well known, U.S. diplomats have worked on everything from negotiating the Paris Agreement and Conference of the Parties (COP) commitments to working to conserve 30 percent of the world’s water and natural habitats.2
Diplomats work to increase understanding of these issues on an ad hoc and bilateral basis with limited institutional support. Essentially, U.S. diplomats are tasked with tackling one of today’s most daunting and existential threats with little to no training on the scientific or technical aspects of this threat.
The United States can no longer afford to pursue its climate agenda on an ad hoc basis, responding to each crisis in isolation and mainly committing to climate resiliency in name but not in practice.
For the United States to effectively implement climate action, it needs foreign affairs practitioners who can navigate climate diplomacy with foreign policy knowledge and an understanding of the science behind climate change. The United States can bolster its leadership in fighting the ticking clock of irreversible damage and the ever-increasing need for international cooperation. The United States can strengthen its capacity to lead on this issue by equipping specialized Foreign Service officers with the ability to coordinate U.S. climate change policy through diplomacy informed by a baseline technical understanding of the climate crisis.
What’s Next? An Institutional Commitment to Climate Diplomats
For the United States to restore its climate leadership and drive global action, it must commit the necessary resources to make this leadership possible. Fortunately, the State Department previously had a cone encompassing the work of environment, science, technology, and health, referred to as the ESTH cone. Given this precedent, the State Department can revive its ESTH cone and build off existing structures to make this work possible. Additionally, it can use current fellowships such as the Charles B. Rangel, Thomas R. Pickering, and Presidential Management Fellowships along with mid-career programs to recruit new Foreign Service officers with relevant backgrounds.
For the United States to restore its climate leadership and drive global action, it must commit the necessary resources to make this leadership possible.
These climate diplomats should be strategically placed in embassies where host countries place climate change at the forefront of economic and security stability. By dedicating in-country officers to climate diplomacy, the Department can work to specifically address the security and economic challenges of climate change with host countries by offering technical expertise and mobilizing climate resiliency through diplomacy. As governments develop pathways to mitigate climate change in their countries, climate Foreign Service officers can also use climate assistance and strategies that support emissions reductions, protection of critical ecosystems, and promotion of capital toward climate investments to advance U.S. foreign policy interests and create a more secure world.
Ultimately, institutionalizing the U.S. commitment to climate diplomacy through the formal development of a climate cone for the State Department will strengthen U.S. foreign policy and support global climate resilience. It will also prioritize climate change as a critical U.S. interest and fortify the United States’ ability to mobilize climate action through the confluence of technical literacy and soft-power diplomacy.
Why Does U.S. Climate Diplomacy Matter?
Climate change will disrupt every aspect of the world as we know it, including those critical to U.S. national security, trade, and prosperity. These impacts increasingly intersect and have already transformed the geopolitical landscape. For example, the war in Ukraine sent the world into a grain shortage, intensifying starvation and food insecurity worldwide, including in Africa, which depends on Russia and Ukraine for 40 percent of the continent’s wheat supply amid their struggle against desertification.3
U.S. diplomats need to understand climate concerns to transform them into programmatic deliverables and country plans rooted in science and understanding of the situation that we face. The United States will position itself as a leader on this issue by empowering the next generation of Foreign Service officers with the resources and training necessary to create global solutions to climate change. U.S. diplomats need to answer questions like, “How we will feed the future?” “How will our geopolitics adapt in a world where nations struggle to survive?” “How will we use data to drive our solutions and understand long-term trends when urgency and imminent crisis challenge us?”
As a future Foreign Service officer, I do not have the answers to these questions, but my colleagues and I will need to find them. This work will be difficult, but with the resources and training that a climate cone will provide, our diplomats and experts will find the answers.
About the Author
Jacqueline White Menchaca is a master in public policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she is the diplomacy chair for Women in Defense, Development, and Diplomacy and a graduate researcher for the Cambridge Project, which works with graduate students to augment the Defense Innovation Unit’s mission of accelerating commercial technology for national security. She also serves as the co-editor-in-chief of the Harvard Journal for Hispanic Policy. She is a U.S. Department of State Rangel fellow and a student fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center, where she researches for the Korea Project and Cyber Project. Formerly, she was a member of the civil service in the Department of State’s Consular Affairs Seattle Passport Agency and a U.S. Department of Defense Boren scholar in Tanzania. She previously served as a staff assistant and fellow for Congressman Ruben Gallego and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, respectively. Upon graduation, she will join the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat. White Menchaca aspires to continue a lifelong career in the Foreign Service, working on human rights, security, and conflict stabilization. She speaks Spanish and Swahili and earned her bachelor of science degree in public policy from Arizona State University and her associate of art degree from Mesa Community College.
Thank you to Neil Bhatiya, former Adjunct Fellow in the Energy, Economics, and Security Program, for his instrumental feedback. Special thanks to Bethan Saunders for sharing this opportunity with me and uplifting other women in the field of international affairs. I would also like to express my deepest gratitude to my Harvard Kennedy School cohort, the Delta ’23 family, for supporting me during the pitch competition and undoubtedly contributing to my People’s Choice Award. I would also like to thank Jamie Wu, Marissa Taylor, and Audrey White for their generosity in editing and providing invaluable support.
Thank you to Maura McCarthy, Center for a New American Security’s (CNAS’) Publications and Editorial Director, for her instrumental feedback. Finally, I am particularly grateful to Emma Swislow, Associate Editor, and Nathalie Grogan, former Research Associate for the Military, Veterans, and Society Program, for so kindly tracking me down to meet my deadlines and providing key support.
About the Pitch
CNAS began its annual premier event, The Pitch: A Competition of New Ideas, in 2020 to elevate emerging and diverse voices in national security. Students and early-career professionals from across a variety of sectors submit innovative policy ideas to meet new challenges in U.S. national security policy. Selected applicants pitch their ideas in front of a distinguished panel of judges and a live audience. The judges and audience select heat winners, the audience choice winner, and best in show. Competitors will also have their ideas featured in official CNAS products and social media.
- Max Callaghan, et al., “Machine-Learning-Based Evidence and Attribution Mapping of 100,000 Climate Impact Studies,” Nature Climate Change, 11 (November 2022): 966–72, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01168-6. ↩
- Antony J. Blinken, “World Water Day,” U.S. Department of State, press statement, March 22, 2022, https://www.state.gov/world-water-day-2/. ↩
- “Ukraine/Russia: As War Continues, Africa Food Crisis Looms,” Human Rights Watch, April 28, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/04/28/ukraine/russia-war-continues-africa-food-crisis-looms. ↩