Opening Photo: Ambassadors, diplomatic officials, and the Bangkok governor pose on stage with joined hands at a pledge signing ceremony to symbolize the partnership of the Eco Capitals Forum, June 6, 2016. State Department photo
By Peter Brukx
In August 2021, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a stark warning that a warmer climate is no longer hypothetical—it is certain. Human-made emissions have already increased global temperatures by more than 1 degree Celsius since the 19th century, contributing to record heat waves in the United States and Canada, devastating floods in Germany and Nigeria, and massive wildfires from Australia to Greece. But this is only the beginning. The report warned that if countries do not take drastic measures to reduce carbon emissions over the next few decades, the climate impacts will impose serious socioeconomic and humanitarian costs. Another report, produced by the insurance group Swiss Re, estimates that the fallout from the climate crisis could cost up to 14 percent of global gross domestic product by 2050—equivalent to about $23 trillion.
“Climate change poses a significant threat to the Department of State’s mission of advancing the interests, health, safety, and economic prosperity of the American people,” said Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon. “The increasing frequency and severity of climate-related natural disasters disrupt ongoing operations and threaten our ability to advance foreign policy goals.”
With more than 20,000 housing units, buildings, and other properties, and 75,000 personnel in more than 270 countries, the Department has global reach, but also faces a wide range of vulnerabilities. In the 2020 Sustainability Survey, which the Department uses to track posts’ efforts to combat the climate crisis, 44 diplomatic posts answered that their day-to-day operations had been impacted by natural disaster. This number will rise if the Department does not make the changes necessary to increase the resilience of its operations.
Since 2009, the Greening Diplomacy Initiative (GDI), housed within the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions (M/SS), has been driving innovation in the Department’s approach to sustainability. Through cutting-edge programs like EnergyCAP and MeterNet, GDI is able to make U.S. diplomatic posts more energy-efficient. EnergyCAP is an automated system to capture utility bill data, a process which had previously been done manually. This new system, currently integrating data from 214 posts worldwide, will help to develop baseline energy and water usage and costs, evaluate and prioritize locations for conservation projects, and track progress of conservation efforts. MeterNet is the Department’s smart metering program and identifies low- or no-cost interventions staff can take to reduce their energy consumption, like adjusting equipment run times or installing more efficient lighting. Across the 98 posts that have installed MeterNet, the program has identified more than $3.7 million in annual potential cost savings and more than 26.7 million kilowatt hours in energy savings—enough energy to power 2,500 American households for a full year.
The Department’s environmental programs also create opportunities for international cooperation. Through the Department’s air quality program, DOSAir, GDI partners with posts to install air quality monitors and make the air quality data publicly available on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) AirNow website and ZephAir app. This allows American citizens and local communities to access reliable air quality data, catalyzing bilateral diplomatic engagement to improve air quality.
When President Joe Biden issued Executive Order (E.O.) 14008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, he charged all federal agencies to make operations more sustainable and resilient. The E.O. set forth ambitious federal resilience and sustainability targets, including creating a completely electric federal fleet, implementing environmental justice in federal operations, conserving at least 30 percent of America’s land and waters, and requiring agencies to develop strategies and implementation plans that address climate impacts on managed infrastructures, like U.S. diplomatic facilities.
E.O. 14008 requires federal agencies to ensure they can continue to serve the American people effectively in the face of an accelerating climate crisis. To map the way forward, the Department, led by GDI, enhanced its annual Sustainability Plan and developed a new Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan (CARP).
The plans, required by E.O. 14008 to be updated annually, define how the Department will meet the challenges posed by global warming. The Sustainability Plan is focused on how the Department can shift its operations to lessen its environmental impact and move towards meeting ambitious emission reduction goals for the federal government. It defines three overarching priorities for the Department in the coming year: utilizing data, revitalizing sustainability-focused staff, and forging partnerships with foreign governments and other federal agencies.
The two priorities focused on the Department’s own operations—data and sustainability-focused staff—are crucial to making sure the Department is a leader in reducing its carbon footprint. First, without reliable sustainability data, it is difficult to identify where the Department can reduce its carbon footprint and improve its environmental performance. Tools like GDI’s Internet of Things Network provide this data to decision makers. Second, revitalizing the Department’s sustainability-focused staff is critical. The Department will carefully assess its staffing requirements to meet the ambitious climate change mitigation, renewable energy, and energy efficiency targets set forth by President Biden.
The third priority in the Sustainability Plan, partnerships with foreign governments and other federal agencies, is essential to ensuring the Department can continue to advocate for American national interests. By collaborating with other governments and federal agencies, the Department can learn from others’ efforts and amplify the efficacy of policy outcomes. For example, GDI is working with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Canadian government’s Treasury Board Canada to establish the Greening Government Initiative (GGI). The GGI is intended to provide a forum for federal governments around the world to share best practices and identify joint projects, while pursuing their own sustainability measures.
Partnerships are also a key aspect of the Department’s CARP. This plan is focused on how the Department will prepare for climate disasters. Extreme weather events have already impacted Department operations, from disrupting critical supply chains to directly impacting facilities and personnel. Partnering with local communities not only protects the Department’s facilities and personnel, but ensures that when climate disasters strike, host communities are able to withstand and recover from the effects. For example, during the record-breaking drought in South Africa from 2015 to 2018, the U.S. Consulate General in Cape Town worked with premiers from three provinces, the city’s Mayor, and resident Americans to offer assistance in the water crisis and to relay the consulate general’s water reduction efforts. This coordination increased the city of Cape Town’s ability to combat the crisis.
CARP highlights a number of other ways the Department can increase its resilience. It requires that the Department reevaluate its emergency preparedness to include climate risks and incorporate those observations into how facilities are constructed. It also aims to increase the Department’s flexibility by increasing access to remote services for both personnel and American citizens. For example, the Department plans to release an online passport renewal service, which reduces the need for Americans to submit physical applications in order to renew their passports, thereby reducing paper usage, time in transit, and emissions.
The climate crisis poses a serious threat to American diplomacy. The increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes, wildfires, and extreme heat endanger the Department’s ability to advocate for the American people overseas. The Sustainability Plan and CARP commits the Department to key adaptation and mitigation actions that will highlight American diplomacy and demonstrate American leadership in the global effort to combat the climate crisis abroad.
Peter Brukx is an eco-pathways intern at the Greening Diplomacy Initiative located in the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions.