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Regional themes > Environment and climate change Last update: 2020-11-27  

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International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Denmark

Climate change and foreign policy: An exploration of options for greater integration

John Drexhage, Deborah Murphy, Oli Brown, Aaron Cosbey, Peter Dickey, Jo-Ellen Parry and John Van Ham, Richard Tarasofsky and Beverley Darkin

International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Denmark


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There is an increasing realization within the international community that achieving the consensus and commitment needed to take stronger action on climate change,with all major emitting countries participating in the solution, requires positioning climate change in a broader policy context. The climate change negotiations do not take place in isolation from other developments on the global agenda, and actions in other areas of foreign policy will have impacts on climate change and influence negotiations in the climate change sphere.

The ostensible goal of Western foreign policy is to provide stability and security as a foundation for human well-being, global freedom and prosperity. However, in today’s increasingly inter-connected world, the traditional instruments of diplomacy are no longer always helpful in tackling global threats. Traditional alliances struggle to act effectively against a threat, such as climate change, when the cause (greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions) is not the ambition of any one “hostile” power. A new foreign policy is required to effectively tackle issues that transcend national frontiers and are more diverse, less visible and less predictable in nature.

At the same time, the milieu of international diplomacy and foreign relations is dynamic, offering new opportunities for negotiating agreements that can meet foreign policy objectives and deepen commitments to tackle the global threat of climate change. To tackle climate change effectively requires a number of pre-conditions that cannot be met purely through the pursuit of environmental goals, such as:

  • an effective multilateral system, a strong international society, well-functioning international institutions and a rules-based international order;
  • a coherent approach to foreign policy-making to promote strong collective action;
  • integration of climate change into trade and economic policy, so that trade and investment regimes do not point relentlessly towards everincreasing emissions, but rather create incentives for low-carbon investment; and
  • incorporation of climate change measures into ambitious development assistance, including adaptation.
The purpose of this paper is to identify the opportunities presented by foreign policy to further climate change objectives. This is important because climate change is not just an environmental issue, but one intimately connected with a wider social, economic and geopolitical agenda.Many of the decisions critical for the global climate and effective transition to a low-carbon economy will take place outside the climate policy community in the fields of energy, security, trade and investment, and development cooperation. By re-framing climate change and seeking opportunities for alignment of goals, it may be possible to create greater traction in order to tackle the problem more effectively.

This report addresses how conducting a more climate-sensitive foreign policy might improve prospects for a more effective global effort to address the challenge of climate change, including actions to mitigate or adapt to climate change in the near and long term and reaching a broad international post-2012 agreement. A number of foreign policy areas—diplomacy and foreign relations, energy security, peace and security initiatives, trade and investment, and development cooperation—involve domestic and international policies and decisions that could fundamentally alter (for better or for worse) the ability and willingness of nations and the international community to meet the challenges of climate change. The paper concludes with a review of options through which new dynamics might be brought into the climate change process. It is important to note that the report is an initial exercise in a challenging area; to further develop these options will require entering into a dialogue with relevant actors in the identified areas to ensure the recommendations made in this paper are feasible and workable.

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