With President Obama reportedly digging in his heels on nominating embattled U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as the next secretary of State, environmental activists are scouring her past to get a sense of what she will bring to the table on climate change.
The record is thin. Beyond a 2011 speech to the U.N. Security Council and a largely unmemorable stint on a high-level panel charged with preparing for this summer's U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, the issue has not much been on Rice's agenda.
Critics say Rice failed to distinguish herself amid generally lackluster U.S. climate diplomacy. Supporters say that behind the scenes, Rice pushed back against State Department disinterest to take a strong stand on global warming as a security threat. Many argued that Rice's diplomatic skills and longtime work in Africa would help her emerge as a leader as secretary of State.
"She doesn't have much of a record on climate change issues because they haven't been really the issues she felt were her job to promote. But she understands the issue, I know from personal conversations, quite well," said Frank Loy, who served as undersecretary of State for global affairs in the Clinton administration.
"My sense is, to the extent that the United States feels it is in a position to lead on that issue, she would be a very good leader," Loy said.
The debate over who will take the reins from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton comes as diplomats from 192 countries meet in Doha, Qatar, for the annual U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change conference. The two weeks of meetings will focus on extending the Kyoto Protocol for Europe and a handful of other countries, as well as starting to shape a new agreement that might force all emitters -- including the United States and China -- to take legal obligations to curb greenhouse gases.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is the favored candidate for secretary of State among many environmental activists for his longtime work and advocacy on climate change (E&E Daily, Nov. 27). But while the opposition to Rice over her handling of the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, remains strong, the White House appears intent on putting her up for the position.
Seeing climate as a security issue
A Stanford University graduate and Rhodes scholar, Rice served on the National Security Council and as assistant secretary of State for African affairs under President Clinton. During the George W. Bush administration, Rice was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where she worked on the Global Economy and Development Research program studying, in part, climate and development policy.
In a 2005 speech before the Woman's National Democratic Club, Rice argued that environmental degradation in poor countries "can have long-term adverse consequences for the U.S.," including loss of biodiversity critical for medical benefits.
Meanwhile, she said, "Global warming is already rendering coastal areas more vulnerable to flooding and expanding the zones in which mosquito-borne and other tropical diseases can reach."
William Antholis, managing director of the Brookings Institution, also pointed to Rice's research on failed and weak states, which does not directly touch on climate change but focuses on sub-Saharan Africa and other regions that do suffer impacts.
He noted that she also worked on a multipart series reviewing a 2007 report by now-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell on the national security implications of climate change. Rice and other reviewers are not listed in the report, but Antholis described her as a "regular participant who brought considerable insights to the project."
The report, a joint project between the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), warned that "the security community must come to grips with these linkages" between rising global temperatures and conflicts "because dealing with only one of these threats in isolation is likely to exacerbate the other."
Antholis said he thinks Rice would bring "two critical perspectives" on climate change if she were appointed to State. "First, as someone who has been a leading scholar on the full range of weak and failing states, she knows how critical a role climate change stresses pose to governments around the world. Second, as our top diplomat to the United Nations, she knows well both the importance and the limits that the U.N. brings to this issue," he said.
'Commitment to the politically possible'?
After serving as Obama's senior foreign policy adviser during the 2008 election, Rice was tapped to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when it was considering her nomination, Rice mentioned climate change only in passing, saying that along with terrorism, genocide, extreme poverty and disease, the world faces "global challenges that no single nation can defeat alone."
She also promised that the United States under Obama would "engage vigorously in U.N.-sponsored climate negotiations while we pursue progress in sub-global, regional and bilateral settings" and argued that the United States must help vulnerable countries adapt to disasters even as the government pushes fast-growing economies like China and India to take binding commitments.
"If confirmed, I look forward to advancing the diplomatic and development elements of the president's climate change agenda," she said.
In practice, though, analysts say Rice has played a modest role on climate change, since the bulk of the policy and diplomacy work is run through the White House and State Department. In general, the team has come under intense fire from activists who say the United States is so focused on China that it has failed to do enough domestically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, tried to block the European Union from charging foreign airlines for emissions and done little to ensure a strong new global agreement.
"This commitment to the politically possible is morally bankrupt. It's killing people," said Michael Dorsey, a professor in Wesleyan University's College of the Environment. "People get killed yearly because of this low-level, dangerous diplomacy."
A hero, when told not to be
But some say Rice had a shining climate moment in 2011 when the U.N. Security Council agreed to debate the threat of climate change. Just getting the debate required a good deal of political heavy lifting, diplomats said. Russia, China and India questioned why the council should be involved in the issue and were dead set against any kind of concrete outcome, like an appointed special adviser on climate or a presidential statement.
When it came time to speak before the Security Council, Rice did not mince words.
"This week, we have been unable to reach consensus on even a simple presidential statement that climate change has the potential to impact peace and security in the face of the manifest evidence that it does.
"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," she said.
One diplomat involved in the discussions said the State Department had advised Rice's office to be supportive but not to push the issue too hard, a recommendation Rice evidently dismissed.
"The lower levels and climate-specific levels said 'Don't be the hero on this,' and she absolutely was the hero on this," the diplomat said. "That was important leadership. That made significant difference."
Last year, Rice served on the U.N. secretary-general's High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, charged with doing preparatory work for a major environmental summit this past summer in Rio de Janeiro.
Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations at the Nature Conservancy, followed the panel. He said the United Nations neither structured nor supported it well, and said that in general, the panel "really didn't distinguish itself with any great ideas about the future of sustainable development." But Deutz said he had met with Rice during her Brookings years to talk about environmental degradation as a driver of conflict in Africa and elsewhere and praised her work in that arena.
"If you're at all paying attention to Africa and at all paying attention to development issues in Africa, climate change and development are all part of one conversation," Deutz said.
Loy described Rice as "very good at marshalling facts and arguments and making them into a very good case." He recalled working with Rice when she was assistant secretary of State to implement new regulations to give trade privileges to poor countries with strong or improving records on human rights.
Loy called Rice a "powerful advocate" for countries she believed deserved aid. He argued that not having an extensive background on climate change would not hold Rice back from acting forcefully on the issue.
"It's not necessary. The specifics of the issue may be complicated, but basically, the case is so strong and the consequences of inaction so strong that once a person understands that, and I don't consider it to be nuclear science, that person is quite equipped to move forward. How to move forward is the art of diplomacy," Loy said.
If the White House sent a clear signal about prioritizing climate, he said, "it would become her priority, and she would become a powerful and effective advocate."
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