Remarks at the International Politics, Economics and Foreign Policy Implications of Climate Change Event

Acting Assistant Secretary Judith Garber, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
Santa Fe, New Mexico
April 20, 2015

Remarks as Prepared

Good afternoon everyone. I am absolutely delighted to be here in Santa Fe with all of you today. Secretary of State John Kerry has called climate change “the defining challenge of our generation.”Climate change is one of those issues that transcends political borders, respects neither social nor economic class, and is an equal opportunity threat that puts all nations at risk. The policy choices that we make today to combat climate change are likely to affect our well-being and the well-being of the planet for generations to come.

So today I’ll be talking about policy choices, the policy choices that the United States has taken on climate change, and the political, economic and foreign policy drivers behind those choices.

Along the way I’m going to keep coming back to two fundamental points:

First, climate change is a global problem, and finding a solution is going to require global cooperation;

Second, climate change is going to require leadership, because without leadership there can be no global cooperation.

U.S. policy on climate change, as we proceed down the road toward a critical climate conference this December in Paris, has everything to do with global cooperation and global leadership. Let me explain.

Global Cooperation: The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

We are now negotiating a new international agreement that will guide global efforts to respond to climate change in the post-2020 era. These negotiations, which are scheduled to conclude in Paris in December of this year, take place under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty signed in 1992 under the Bush Administration and ratified by the U.S. Senate. Today, almost every country in the world is a party to the Convention. The United States has been an active force in shaping the debate over the future climate change regime, and our international standing on climate change is stronger than it has been in many years due to the robust actions that we are taking at home to reduce carbon emissions. The centerpiece of that effort has been the U.S. Climate Action Plan (CAP). Under the CAP we have:

  • More than tripled electricity generation from wind.
  • Increased solar energy generation ten times;
  • Established the toughest fuel economy standards in U.S. history for cars and trucks, nearly doubling average fuel efficiency from 27 to 54 miles per gallon by 2025;
  • Proposed groundbreaking regulations to cut carbon pollution by 30% from U.S. power plants, which account for a third of U.S. carbon pollution;
  • Set energy conservation standards for 29 categories of appliances and equipment;
  • Developed a strategy to reduce emissions of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, from the oil and gas sector by 40-45 percent by 2025;
  • And invested in renewable energy technologies, including by making $4 billion available in loan guarantees for innovative renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

These actions have put us on the path to meeting our current goal of reducing carbon emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020. 

Global Cooperation Beyond the UNFCCC

As much as we have worked to make the UN climate regime ambitious and effective, we have also strived to make progress on climate change outside the international negotiations with partners prepared to act. These bilateral and multilateral efforts encourage greater action from partner countries and complement our effort in international negotiations. The Secretary of State has initiated such partnerships with key countries, including major carbon emitters like China and India. We are also working with international partners on a multilateral basis outside the UNFCC through:

  • Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC): We have joined forces with 41 country partners and 52 non-state partners (including the World Bank, UN Development Programme, UN Environment Programme and the World Health Organization) to reduce climate pollutants such as methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – short-lived pollutants that contribute significantly to current global warming.
  • Montreal Protocol: The U.S. has partnered with many countries to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Due largely to our diplomatic efforts, roughly 110 countries have signed on to our call for an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which could eliminate the equivalent of 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2050.
  • Major Economies Forum (MEF): Launched by President Obama in 2009, the Major Economies Forum (MEF) brings together the world’s 17 largest economies to advance concrete initiatives to cut GHG emissions, while working to achieve successful outcomes in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
  • Arctic Council: The United States takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council later this week (April 24, 2015). The Council has already begun to address the impacts of climate change in the Arctic, e.g. launching the Arctic Council Task Force on Black Carbon and Methane. We will work to heighten its efforts on climate change.
  • Low Emission Development Strategies (LEDS) Global Partnership: Here the United States partners with developing countries around the world to help them advance economic growth in a way that reduces their long-term greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. provides bilateral technical assistance to 25 partner countries to advance LEDS.

To summarize, the United States is seeking global cooperation on climate change through negotiations within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and through discussions and actions with a broad variety of bilateral and multilateral partners.

U.S. Leadership and the Road to Paris

U.S. policy to address climate change is rooted in sound science. The leading international body for the assessment of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has produced a series of authoritative reports laying out clear and compelling scientific evidence for climate change:

  • 14 of the 15 warmest years on record (since reliable thermometer records became available around 1880) have occurred since 2000.
  • 2014 was the warmest year on record world-wide.
  • Warming of the climate system is unequivocal. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished and sea levels have risen.
  • 97 percent of peer-reviewed climate studies over the past 20-plus years confirm that climate change is happening and that human activity is largely responsible.

An overwhelming scientific consensus tells us that our climate is changing and that without decisive action now, future impacts will only worsen. We have already seen evidence of those worsening impacts, both here and abroad. In 2012 super storm Sandy ravaged the eastern seaboard of the U.S., flooding Manhattan subways and destroying homes, businesses and lives. In 2014, there were eight weather and climate disaster events across the U.S. with losses exceeding $1 billion each. And, closer to home, the once-mighty Rio Grande has run so low that I understand that some folks here in New Mexico refer to it as the "Rio Sand." And I don’t have to tell you that back in the summer of 2013, most of New Mexico was in severe drought, water reservoir storage was down to 17% of normal, and wildlife officials feared that ecosystems were collapsing. While we of course cannot say whether one specific storm or one specific drought is due to climate change, the growing number of extreme weather events around the world sends a clear signal that we need to move decisively toward low-carbon, climate-resilient economies.  

For example, when Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines in early November 2013, it was the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded. It was also one of the deadliest, taking at least 6,300 lives in the Philippines alone and costing on the order of $10 billion in damages. When prolonged droughts and killer cyclones hit, not only are lives and property threatened, but agriculture is disrupted. That undermines food security, which can exacerbate existing political, economic, ideological or sectarian tensions, particularly in developing countries.So, in this increasingly inter-connected and globalized planet, the United States clearly has an interest in the continued stability and prosperity of our partners around the world. It is therefore no surprise to see that both the State Department and the Department of Defense recognize climate change as a global security threat, and calls the “danger from climate change real, urgent and severe.”

U.S. Leadership and Clean Energy

So, what do we do? Unlike some of the global challenges we face, climate change has a ready- made solution. It’s called clean energy. We can prevent the worst effects of climate change by switching to a global, clean-energy economy. That is of course easier said than done. Fossil fuel-based energy production accounts for about 60 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Transforming the world’s energy systems from fossil fuels to renewables is not simple, especially when you consider that 1.3 billion people – almost 20 percent of the world’s population – currently lack access to electricity.How do you go about providing electricity to 1.3 billion people without dramatically increasing GHG emissions? The answer to that question for the United States has been to play a leadership role – leadership in reducing carbon pollution; leadership in moving to cleaner fuels and energy efficiency; and leadership in transitioning to renewable sources of energy. The economic incentives to do so are both persuasive and powerful. And as Secretary Kerry likes to stress, clean energy is not only the solution to climate change, it is also one of the greatest economic opportunities of all time. The International Energy Agency estimates that over the next 25 years, investment in the global energy sector is expected to reach nearly $20 trillion by 2040. That exceeds the current gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States ($17.7 trillion). Those figures represent huge opportunities for American businesses and American jobs, and you can see some of those opportunities materializing right here in New Mexico.

I understand that New Mexico has made significant progress in developing its wind and solar capacity over the past decade, and that the key to this development has been tax incentives. Those incentives have spurred industry, businesses and homeowners to take advantage of your abundant, renewable energy resources. I learned too, that you now have a total renewable generation capacity of over one million kilowatts, a milestone made possible by your Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit (REPTC). That tax credit has made wind and solar attractive investments in New Mexico, leading to the development of 10 wind and 21 solar projects that have created about $2 billion in construction activity over the past 10 years and at the same time provided a supplemental source of income for rural communities. A wind turbine, for example, typically generates about $20,000 in annual income to farmers and ranchers who lease out their land. These are terrific examples of how promoting clean energy investments can advance our local, state, national, and global interests, all at the same time. And projects like that of former Senator Bingaman and former Secretary Shultz – a cookbook for states – can help.

Mobilizing Financial Resources

Replicating and scaling up projects like you are doing here around the rest of the world, and helping to prepare that world, especially developing countries, to better cope with climate change is not going to be done on the cheap. The United States is committed to supporting a wide range of projects in developing countries to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or better adapt to rising emissions, thereby increasing their resiliency to climate change. Under President Obama, the United States has significantly increased financial support for developing countries in their efforts to reduce emissions and increase adaptation to climate change. The United States is an active supporter of the new Green Climate Fund to support climate action in developing countries. Current pledges to the Green Climate Fund total more than $10 billion, of which the United States has pledged $3 billion. We have also spearheaded donor coordination efforts to help meet our collective commitment to mobilize $100 billion a year of public and private climate finance by 2020, in the context of meaningful mitigation and transparency by developing countries. And we are committed to ensuring a strong, ongoing program of financial and technical assistance in the post-2020 regime.

Global Cooperation + Leadership = Success in Paris

Looking ahead, we believe we have a significant opportunity to conclude a successful international climate agreement this December in Paris. Indeed it is one of President Obama’s highest priorities. Our goal is to conclude an agreement that is ambitious, durable and inclusive of all countries, in particular the major greenhouse gas emitters. We also seek an agreement that is fair; focuses both on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience; includes strong accountability measures; and ensures ongoing financial and technical assistance to those in need. An agreement like that would send a potent signal to the markets and civil society that the nations of the world are tackling climate change and that there is no going back.

 This is a huge opportunity. We have to seize it.  The United States is helping lead the effort to deliver a strong agreement in Paris.  We recognize that these negotiations, while crucial, are far from the whole answer. But they can help get us there.

On March 31, 2015, the U.S. announced a target or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, to reduce climate pollution 26-28% below 2005 levels in 2025. This goal is both ambitious and achievable, grounded in an intensive analysis of what can be done under existing law and consistent with achieving deep, economy-wide reductions of over 80 percent by 2050. This new target roughly doubles the pace of emission reductions for the period 2020-2025 as compared to 2005-2020.

In addition to the United States, many other countries have announced post-2020 targets, including China, the EU countries, Switzerland, Norway and Mexico. In fact, some of you may recall that last November, President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China made an historic Joint Announcement of our intended post-2020 targets. China agreed for the first time to peaking its CO2 emissions around the year 2030 – and importantly to make best efforts to peak early – and announced an ambitious target of achieving 20 percent non-fossil energy in its energy mix by 2030, and both Presidents committed themselves to working together to deliver a successful agreement in Paris.

As the world’s two biggest economies and two biggest emitters of carbon pollution, the Joint Announcement has helped to provide momentum to conclude a new international climate agreement this December.

Vision for Paris

So we’re off to a good start. We have post-2020 emissions targets on the table from the three largest emitters, the United States, China, and the EU. We have more than $10 billion pledged to the Green Climate Fund.  All countries have been asked to submit clear and ambitious targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions well before the start of the Paris Conference.

Our vision for Paris is a final agreement that will have to reflect a number of key elements:

First, the outcome needs to be ambitious. The mission of the 1992 Framework Convention is to avoid dangerous climate change, so we must reduce emissions as quickly and effectively as possible. That means countries must come forward with strong and timely targets and with solid accountability measures so all can see how the targets are being implemented.

Second, and just as important, we need to elevate the importance of adaptation. Countries need to do sound adaptation planning and to implement those plans to build resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Third, the agreement needs to be fair to all and relevant to a dynamically evolving world. The expectations for countries should be differentiated to capture their varying circumstances and capabilities, but an agreement for the 2020s and beyond should not be bifurcated on the basis of the fixed 1992 categories or an equivalent such as developed and developing countries.

Fourth, the outcome needs to ensure strong, ongoing financial assistance consistent with the robust measures that have already been taken in recent years.

Building on the progress we are making at home and abroad, we are actively working to ensure a strong climate agreement is reached in Paris, an agreement that can help set all nations on a path of low-carbon, climate-resilient economic growth. We are working to seize the opportunity to build a path toward global cooperation, because in climate change, as in so many areas, we find American commitment is indispensable to effective international action.

Thank you, and now I would like to play an Earth Day message from Secretary Kerry, and then I will be happy to take any questions.