With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaving the State Department, speculation around who will become America’s top diplomat continues. News outlets are now reporting that Susan Rice, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, is likely to be nominated for the position.
Rice is will assuredly face stiff resistance from Congressional Republicans who are have criticized her statements about the attacks on a U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Repeating what intelligence officials told her before making public appearances on television news programs, Rice initially said the attacks were part of a spontaneous demonstration, not a coordinated attack.
If Rice is nominated, expect the Benghazi affair to take center stage. But there’s much more to Rice’s diplomatic career to consider — particularly her stance on climate change, a geopolitical and military threat that Hillary Clinton has called “one of the defining issues of the 21st century.”
At this point, we don’t know a lot of specifics about how Rice would direct the State Department’s climate policy. However, if her climate-related statements as UN ambassador are any indication, she will likely come out strong on the issue. This comes at a particularly important time for international climate talks, as the U.S. begins new negotiations with China, India, and other large emerging economies on establishing binding carbon reduction commitments after 2015.
New leadership at the State Department would also determine how the agency’s climate office is structured. Under her tenure, Secretary Clinton created a devoted climate negotiating team for the first time. The next Secretary of State could either keep that position in place, or roll climate back into a more generic roll within the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
Rice is known as a tough talker who brings a “pugnacious” style to diplomacy. And her only major speech on climate change as UN Ambassador illustrates how she might bring that upfront style to the issue. In July of last year, Rice chastised China and Russia for blocking the UN security council from adopting language linking the threat of climate change to international security. She called it “pathetic.”
“We have dozens of countries in this body and in this very room whose very existence is threatened. They’ve asked this Council to demonstrate our understanding that their security is profoundly threatened. Instead, because of the refusal of a few to accept our responsibility, this Council is saying, by its silence, in effect, ‘Tough luck.’ This is more than disappointing. It’s pathetic. It’s shortsighted, and frankly it’s a dereliction of duty.“
Watch the video of her comments (hat tip to Brad Johnson):
Rice’s speech reflects an aggressive, forward-thinking approach to climate diplomacy. Below is an excerpt from the transcript of that speech, which you can read in full here.
Climate change has very real implications for peace and security. They are as powerful as they are complex, and many of them are already upon us. In many regions, climate change is already reducing the availability of food and water, threatening biodiversity, and disrupting sea levels and weather patterns. As more powerful and frequent storms and floods lash coastlines and uproot populations, climatic changes can put even more pressure on scarce resources and expose vulnerable communities to greater instability.
As too often happens, the most vulnerable will be the hardest hit. Post-conflict countries already struggle to rebuild their infrastructure, strengthen their institutions, and overcome instability.
Now they must often grapple with extreme weather and protracted drought, which can drive already strained systems to buckle. Climate change can also slow or even reverse crucial development gains for ordinary citizens trying to break free of the shackles of poverty. Climate change can further erode state capacity, especially in fragile states already vulnerable from past conflict, poverty, upheaval, or disaster.
And as sea levels rise, small island states may well see their territory quite literally drowned, raising the specter of new and previously unimagined forms of statelessness.
We have just witnessed the birth of the world’s newest nation, the Republic of South Sudan, where South Sudanese leaders now tell us that agricultural production is one of their highest priorities as they work to consolidate peace. Yet that challenge is magnified by the unfolding humanitarian disaster caused by severe drought in the wider Horn of Africa.
Let us remember that in Sudan, a decade ago, drought and rapid desertification are widely thought to have contributed to the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Darfur—as they did a decade earlier in Somalia, where drought contributed to the crisis that eventually prompted the deployment of UN forces, with results we all recall.
To be sure, the mechanisms are complex, and some of climate change’s effects are long term. But the Security Council needs to start now—today and in the days to come— to act on the understanding that climate change exacerbates the risks and dynamics of conflict, and we need to sharpen and adapt our instruments to prevent and respond to such conflicts.
In the lead-up to the presidential election, international climate experts expressed deep concerns about the future of negotiations if Mitt Romney had won. While there are still questions about how the State Department will approach climate after Secretary Clinton leaves, many are surely breathing a sigh of relief that the leading candidate for the position sees climate action as a “responsibility.”