The Doorstep: Climate Statecraft & the Race to Net Zero, with Dr. Carolyn Kissane

March 11, 2021

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, Nick Gvosdev, a senior fellow here at the Carnegie Council.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, senior fellow at Carnegie Council and journalism professor at Marymount Manhattan College.

I am so excited today to welcome Dr. Carolyn Kissane, who serves as New York University's academic director of the graduate program in global affairs at the Center for Global Affairs and is a clinical associate professor where she teaches graduate-level courses examining the geopolitics of energy, comparative energy politics, energy, environment and resource security, and a regional course focusing on Central Asia.

After that introduction, you may know that we are going to talk about energy, climate, and Carolyn's recent article in Foreign Policy on "climate statecraft," which I think is an important new term in foreign policy and, hey, in domestic policy, because here at The Doorstep we make sure that we convert and help you, our listeners, understand what is going on around the world, what is important to you, and how what policymakers up high are doing to affect your everyday life.

Thank you so much, Dr. Kissane, for coming to The Doorstep. We will just start straightaway: What is climate statecraft?

CAROLYN KISSANE: First of all, I just want to thank you both, Tatiana and Nick. I appreciate the opportunity to be on The Doorstep podcast. I am a big fan, so it is a real treat to be in conversation with you both. So, thank you, and thank you for the generous introduction as well.

In terms of following this area for many years now it has felt like a—forgive maybe the term—"sea-level change." There was a pretty dramatic change, especially over the last year, which I think was also propelled by the horrific global pandemic that we are all continuing to live with, but there seemed to be this kind of catapulting of climate into the agendas of many countries in a way that maybe we didn't see to the same extent. We have seen it in Europe, which I see as very much the global leader.

I don't need to tell either of you or your audience that the last four years in the United States was not exactly the best four years for policy and action to address climate change. We had a president who simply denied climate change, who called it a hoax, and who very much prioritized fossil fuels in the United States, and energy dominance, and that dominance was very much driven by hydrocarbons and not by renewable energy. What I started to recognize and wanted to look at more closely is the way that statecraft, in terms of both domestic as well as foreign policy statecraft, was integrating climate, climate change, and action.

The idea behind climate statecraft is the instruments that are available to the state and how they are being used and implemented to address climate change. I think as we will discuss depending on the country we are seeing different uses of climate statecraft.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it is so interesting. As you mention, in the last year it has gotten a lot more press, but I think the dial started to be moved even earlier by non-policymakers, by people like, oh, I don't know, Greta Thunberg, maybe. We talk and have often spoken at The Doorstep on this movement from the bottom up, especially of Gen Z, and climate change is their issue. Do you think that they have moved the dial here to create this climate statecraft? It does not seem like it came from the top down, from my angle.

CAROLYN KISSANE: Tatiana, that is a great question. Absolutely, and I think if we discount the role that young people have had and as an individual what Greta Thunberg has done for the climate movement, we would be doing a disservice.

If we go back to 2014, when the United States and China came together and said, "We're going to go to Paris in 2015, and we are going to go with commitments in place," that we won't repeat what many identified as the failure of Copenhagen, that Paris would be a success because the two largest carbon emitters—what I call the "carbon hegemons"— would be taking action and showing the rest of the world that they as the largest emitters were going to really implement change.

It's interesting because Greta Thunberg's movement came between the Paris Agreement and what we are seeing now. Again, maybe because of the retreat of the United States from climate talks, from the Paris Agreement, in terms of Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement, that took on a level of meaning globally. The way that she was able to speak from such a place of authenticity—I think anyone who has listened to Greta and is not moved by—she is not using political jargon and she is not necessarily speaking to policymakers. She is speaking to us as humans to say: "We are degrading our environment. We are not managing our planet, and young people are going to bear the brunt of the impacts." I think it is quite an extraordinary story as a social movement that has inspired.

One area I think it is super-important to also emphasize is that the corporate landscape is dramatically changing. She was invited to Davos. Davos is where global chief executive officers (CEOs) and political leaders gather. She did not just have a place at the table; she was a keynoter. She was calling out, a little bit of shaming and blaming, and saying: "Listen, you have a stake here. You have to take action."

I think what we have seen, even before this last year, where you have seen a lot of countries—and the United States, of course—pushing their own agenda, but across the corporate landscape you have commitments to net zero and you have carbon disclosure requirements. You have it happening across central banks. You have it coming out of now the insurance companies. There is a reckoning that climate change is a threat and is a huge financial risk. It is also a political risk, and I think that is part of what has been driving and is driving what we are seeing with what I call climate statecraft.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: If I could just follow up on that a bit, because I think this point about the sea-level change that you have noted, which I think is very real, occurring within the last several years and talking a bit now about what companies are doing. We have seen this rise in the corporate world of companies' environmental, social, and governance (ESG) scores and that shareholders seem to be concerned about it but also that governments seem to be changing how they are approaching this.

One of the things that I was struck by was a report that S&P Global Platts president Martin Fraenkel wrote earlier in the year about when we are looking at climate and energy these are not simply aspirational things anymore, but that there are large amounts of money—governments are creating funds, companies are shifting, and so it seems that it is not just about making a better future, but there are also going to be concrete economic dividends. Jobs are going to be created. Goods and services are going to be purchased.

To what extent do you think that moving forward climate statecraft can be presented not just simply as "We are doing good by the planet," but "We will do good by your pocketbook," in essence, that this is something that is not just a few activists who are calling for change, but that in fact people's livelihoods will depend on this shift? Do you think that is also going to be a motivating factor, particularly when you see the amounts of money in the United States, the European Union, and China that governments seem to be setting aside for green energy, climate, hardening of infrastructure, and so on?

CAROLYN KISSANE: Nick, that is a fantastic question. There is so much happening. Again, if I separate it in terms of the corporate side, in fact yesterday the Council on Foreign Relations held a call with Larry Fink, who chairs BlackRock and has $7 trillion in assets. It is the world's largest fund. This was pretty much at the heart of everything that he said yesterday. He said, "This is, one, about what we need to do because we need to be addressing the risks," but he also said that there are tremendous economic gains to be had, and the companies that are going to take the lead will be the companies that reap the benefits, benefits being profits, and those that are the laggards, who do not take action, might cease to exist because there is a whole consumer side.

We were talking earlier about Greta Thunberg. Young people are big consumers, and if they don't align with a company's values and what a company is actually doing, they will turn. They may not want to buy those products. I think that is a real issue.

When you look at 2020, 2020 was devastating for a lot of oil and gas companies in terms of stock values, but renewable energy companies did quite well. If you compare what happened in the stock market, the renewable energy sector did much better than the hydrocarbon sector, and now we also see—it would have been hard to imagine five years ago—that Tesla or renewable energy companies might compete with and actually be more valuable than ExxonMobil, and yet we have seen that happen.

When you think about the magnitude of the changes that we are undergoing and those that we have to make in terms—Nick, you spoke of infrastructure—— of there is so much work that has to be done, and there are also I think significant employment opportunities here. This is a growing space for workforce development and for opportunities. We have seen that the hydrocarbon space is diminishing and getting smaller, and the renewable energy space broadly is getting much larger. Already now the renewable energy workforce is larger than the oil, gas, and coal workforce, and that is not going to shift. It is only to get bigger.

I absolutely believe that as much as the emphasis needs to be on "We have to do this because it is the climate and it is the world that we live in," but the other side is that, if you are doing it well, you are doing it strategically, and the infrastructure and everything that has to happen will build out to make net zero a reality will be an economic boon. I do believe that is part of the economic statecraft that goes under climate statecraft.

Countries, and I would also argue companies, see that this is the new business as usual. It is not the old way of doing business but a moving forward that we cannot ignore. Today we are talking a lot about the E in environment, social, and governance (ESG), but I think the last year has also put into Technicolor the issue of S—racial equity and justice. These are important issues for companies to confront and to address within their internal operations but also in terms of their external face as well.

Again, we are seeing that it is quite dramatic in terms of how quickly it is changing. I was listening last week to Gillian Tett, who is with the Financial Times. About two years ago she started a newsletter called Moral Money, and Moral Money very much looks at the environmental, social, and governance space. I think when she started it, it didn't feel like it had taken hold. Just last week she said that in two years it is rare to talk to a company CEO, it is rare to talk to someone who is in the corporate space, who is not writing ESG into their operations because they know that they have to. Now there are instruments and requirements, so it is becoming more part of the regulatory environment as well.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is so interesting that you say that. You mentioned Tesla, and I was looking at what Elon Musk has been saying. I think his voice carries a lot of weight, especially with the younger generation. I am completely obsessed with Elon Musk.

What do you think of this idea of him throwing $100 million at this X Prize for a carbon capture competition? Jeff Bezos is doing the same thing. Is that enough?

Even some of these reporting structures that have been set up, is it just paperwork and not action? I am just wondering where we are in the cycle of this. I know the pandemic has accelerated consumer demands for economic justice, social justice, and environmental justice, but is it talk, or is it real? What sense do you have?

CAROLYN KISSANE: Tatiana, you guys ask great questions.

I definitely think it's real. Carbon capture is somewhat controversial and contentious depending on how you look at it. Some people see it as when we talk about net zero by 2050 and net neutrality with China by 2060—there are a lot of targets that are out there—carbon capture needs to be part of the many technologies that we need to have in place in order to get to that very ambitious target.

Those on the opposite side of it, though, ask if it is in some ways just perpetuating the use of hydrocarbons. If you continue to use oil and gas and you can take the carbon out, you are still producing oil and gas. I think some people—and again, this is why it is somewhat contentious—see that these carbon capture technologies are not addressing the problem that we are still a very fossil fuel-based global economy, and are we doing enough to move away from oil and gas?

That said, I do think that we are not going to go to zero oil demand anytime soon. We are already seeing the rebound effect. It is only March of 2021. We are still technically in COVID-19, and we are already seeing oil demand back where it was in December of 2019, which was about 101 million barrels a day. That is a lot of energy, and some countries are still in lockdown. When the world is reopened again, we are going to see an even bigger uptick in demand, and I think that will continue for some time, maybe four or five years, until we see actual peak demand.

With these realities in place do we put the technologies out there that we need? And it is not just one. It is not going to be one instrument or one technology. It is very much an "all of the above" that I think we need to be thinking about and doing because again the enormity of reducing carbon emissions so that we meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement is a huge challenge.

I think it is interesting, though, the way that someone like Musk, who Tatiana, as you pointed out, has got a lot of sway. He has that swagger that he can bring into the conversation, and he also brings money, which helps a lot in terms of moving forward with the innovative technologies and then saying, "Hey, if we can get these created, then we can work on scaling them," because scale and dissemination are important.

Like you I am also a big fan of Musk. Again many people would not have imagined the proliferation of electric vehicles (EVs). In the United States we are definitely moving forward, but China installed more charging stations last month than the rest of the world did. China has built into their transportation and energy policy that there are going to be a lot of EVs on the road. They are doing it with state policies and also more corporate policies in terms of how they are supporting a lot of these EV companies.

In Norway already over 50 percent of all the cars sold are electric vehicles, and they have the infrastructure in place. We are still very much I would argue more at the early stage. We still have a lot of work to do in terms of building out the infrastructure.

If you think about wind and solar, the prices have come down to the degree that they are competitive and sometimes cheaper than coal and gas. Ten years ago, it would be: "Well, I can't buy an EV because I would have to be really wealthy to buy an electric vehicle." That is no longer the story. They are very much in line with the internal combustion engine vehicles, and they are also electric, cool, and people like them. Anyone I know who has been in a Tesla—once you drive one, you will never forget it. There is something about the experience. It's like: "I don't want to go back. I want to go forward." So Tesla is representative more of the today's car but also the car of the future.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We get to China because you mentioned it, the elephant in the room. China is our main competitor in this climate statecraft. You just mentioned their advances in EV vehicles and their real attention to wanting to be the leaders in green technology. They have the ability to mobilize resources in a much more systematic way, I would say, than the United States.

I just read—and if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend—Peter Hessler's article in The New Yorker this week called "The Rise of Made-in-China Diplomacy," where he takes us through Chengdu in China and all of the manufacturing that is continuing without any major lockdown at all. So from managing the pandemic to managing green technology China is way ahead of us.

Can we learn from them? Are they going to be our main competitor? Secretary of State Blinken said we have to cooperate when we can and compete when we can. What does that mean?

CAROLYN KISSANE: Again, another fantastic question, and it's hard to answer because I think there are lots of different answers. Some of it we are going to discover. In the Biden administration I think there is this cautious approach to China, to saying we are not going to completely go soft on our stance toward China, so you see some of what was implemented under the Trump administration that is not necessarily changing under the Biden administration. They have a tough stance on Hong Kong, a tough stance on Xinjiang and the Uyghurs, addressing human rights concerns and potential strategies China has toward Taiwan and competition in the South China Sea.

But at the same time, you have someone like former Secretary John Kerry, who is the U.S. climate envoy, who knows that if China is not in the room, if China does not get to the table, and if there is not some level of cooperation around this, then it is going to be hard for the world to get anywhere near where it has to go.

So China's "soup" is really important, and China is the largest emitter. I think there is a really interesting story in China because unlike the United States, China is not a big oil and gas producer. China imports the majority of its fossil fuels that it uses. I think the Chinese government recognizes that they are somewhat at the mercy of the global energy markets in terms of trade.

I think what we have seen over the last 10 years is that China has been building out its renewable energy production capacities. Whether it be wind, solar, electric vehicles, you name it, China has a robust market. China installed more wind in 2020 than the rest of the world combined. They are adding a lot of wind and solar to their own system, but even by 2025 it will be about 20 percent of its overall consumption, and they will still be heavy users of coal. That is where I call China a little bit of a "Jekyll and Hyde" because they are still very dependent on coal, and they will probably keep coal until somewhere between 2025 and 2030; 2030 is their target date.

But I think they also recognize this. It goes back to Nick's earlier question about the profit motivation. The world is almost racing to net zero. We have over a hundred countries that have committed. It happens because of the infrastructure build-out, it happens because you are installing more wind, you are installing more solar, you are doing carbon capture, and you are having high-voltage transmission lines. A lot of that stuff will be part of that move toward net zero. China is saying, "We're the manufacturers of it, and we can do it cheaper maybe than anyone else, so we will export it." It is part of a climate export market to say, "We're going to manufacture the technologies that the world needs, and that is going to give us an opportunity to be a global leader."

With regards to where China will be, if you look at the 14th Five-Year Plan that they just wrapped up, I think a lot of people were hoping that climate would be all over the 14th Five-Year Plan. Some analysts—at least that I have spoken to—are a little surprised by the fact that it didn't take up a stronger position.

However, China has said that they are going to have a separate climate plan. If you think about timing, the question is: When are they going to do this? It wouldn't surprise me based on their thinking about global positioning in this space. The United States is holding the climate summit in April. I think it is scheduled for Earth Day. The United States is also supposed to come out with revised targets going into Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in the fall. I think we can probably expect that China will come out with its own new targets and ambitions that I think will be very competitive with the United States, and that will show: "Listen, we are very much in this game." Everyone knows that if China doesn't talk about, is it just on paper? China is the linchpin country because of how big they are and how large their emissions are.

I remember when I was in China in 2017. I had a group of students, and we were looking at energy security and environmental policy. We met with someone, and he said: "You have to understand. The Chinese government confronts many existential risks. The health of the environment is very, very important, and they recognize that." You remember the pictures of the poor air quality. Kids couldn't go to school. People couldn't go to work. The government saw that as a definitive threat. If people don't trust the government, it is a big risk. The person described it as a sword over the head of Chinese leaders, Xi Jinping being at the helm.

We have seen China's air quality improve significantly in a relatively short period of time. If you look between 2013 and today, big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are much cleaner today than they were anytime in the last probably 50 years. So I think the Chinese government, both in terms of domestically as well as internationally, sees this as an opportunity to do some global positioning so they can be an export model for EVs, for wind turbines, or solar, the whole slew of different technologies that China will be a strong exporter.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Can I bring in the geopolitics side of your work and tie this with the China question? I was struck by your comment by this Chinese interlocutor that you were referring to in your meeting saying that there is a sword dangling over the head of the Chinese leadership and how this plays back in the United States, because we have seen within the Biden-Harris administration in its first several months two schools of thought about China. One is that China, as you said, is the linchpin. There is so much that we could be doing with China in terms of shifting the world towards clean energy, climate resilience, and the like.

But then there is another group that has a high degree of continuity intellectually at least with some elements from its predecessor administration, which says: "Great. China has these existential threats, so let's use this to pressure them. Climate and energy are vulnerabilities to pressure Beijing; let's use climate and energy as tools in great-power competition."

Where do you think this may end up? How do you think this is going to get resolved if you have John Kerry on one end and the Asia-Pacific hands that seem to be populating particularly the National Security Council and to a lesser extent the Defense Department on the other? How do you think this may work itself out, because I think as Tatiana said we have seen this with regard to Russia policy. This "cooperate where we can, compete where we must" idea never seems to lead to effective policy. It's a good bumper sticker, and then it doesn't seem to deliver.

I myself am skeptical of that phrase because having seen it in use with Russia for the last 15 years with not perhaps a lot of effectiveness I doubt that it is a guide for engaging or competing with China in the 2020s, but I would be interested in your thoughts, tying together your climate and energy side with your geopolitics hat. Where do you think this is going to go?

CAROLYN KISSANE: Again, I think it is complicated. Not to simplify everything down to being complex and complicated, but I think in this regard it is because it is a bit of a tightrope that the United States walks here. In my piece, when I'm talking about climate statecraft, it's like great-power competition between the United States and China and climate, addressing climate change in terms of each are racing to achieve these targets that they have set, and how they are going to do that, and how they could also use it to build their alliances and also potentially be technologically competitive because there is some decoupling that we have seen happening between the two countries.

China has also put in place a climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, who was also the climate envoy that Kerry worked with for the agreement that was made in 2014 that went into 2015, and he is recognized as an esteemed, very astute negotiator. So I think there is an opportunity with climate for Kerry to go in and find some points and say the United States and China are going to cooperate here.

But I think there is also that other side: "Hey, but wait a second. Are we putting climate in its own box and discounting the human rights violations and discounting some of the spying and stealing and all this kind of stuff?" How do you get that balance so that the two countries can be working together or be seen as being more cooperative? At the same time I think many in the Biden administration also want to make sure that they retain a firm stance towards China.

If you are China, you might be a little apprehensive to trust the United States. We have already seen out of the gate that the Biden administration has done a lot. They have only been in office for a very short period of time, but I think they have set agendas. They are very much out of the gate setting the climate agenda with a whole slew of cabinet positions and just the way it is being threaded throughout many of the departments and agencies.

China may take a "Hey, we'll cooperate if it suits us" attitude. There is no great love between China and the United States, so I think they would go into any kind of cooperative agreement that maybe gets set in April during the global climate summit, but I think it is going to be a pretty fragile cooperation because I think both sides are going to be pretty cautious. Kerry said something—I don't want to misquote—that he would not discount human rights but that climate can be its own issue. I think then people in the human rights community and many others are saying: "But wait a second. You can't disassociate."

I think it is hard. A few weeks ago, Ali Wyne, who was your guest, said something about the regenerative capacity of the United States. I remember I was walking my dog when I was listening, and I was like: "Yes, yes!" I think this is what we are seeing in the climate space, this idea that the United States is regenerating. It is coming back into its power as a leader. There are some important opportunities here for the United States to "build back better"—a term we are hearing a lot—its relationships with allies, including Europe, the United Kingdom, and in Asia.

Trump did an awful job with giving confidence to Asian allies that the United States would be there. That is something that the Biden administration is doing. I think that we are going to see great-power competition and geopolitics play out in this climate space in an interesting way, where I do think it can be used as a potent form of foreign policy.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is so fascinating. I want to invite you to come back to The Doorstep to see if we are building back better, especially after the April summit and after some policies can gain a little of traction because right now it is a little bit of paper. Things are getting passed. People were just appointed. We have a new Environmental Protection Agency head. Maybe we will have you back hopefully in a couple of months to see what grade does the Biden-Harris administration gets on implementation.

CAROLYN KISSANE: I heard that last week, and I loved it. What is the grade? That's excellent.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What is the grade? Some of us say it is a little bit too early, so let's wait a little bit, but I think we have to start grading pretty soon. Finals are coming up.

Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Kissane. I appreciate it. This was wonderful.

CAROLYN KISSANE: Thank you, Tatiana and Nick. Thank you so much for having me. And thank you for the work that you are doing and the service to all of us, in terms of bringing conversations and taking education out.

I have been a huge fan, I have to tell you, of the Carnegie Council. It was my first fellowship when I finished my Ph.D., so I have spent many an afternoon at the conference table in the beautiful townhouse that is the home of the Carnegie Council, so I am looking forward to getting back in person one day soon.

But thank you both.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you very much. Just as we close off, for people on The Doorstep who have not yet read Dr. Kissane's Foreign Policy piece on climate statecraft, I think it is a very important piece, also because in many ways you might be defining what could become the central organizing principle for foreign policy. If democratic enlargement was the theme of the 1990s and then we had the Global War on Terror, climate statecraft in fact could be what it looks like we are beginning to coalesce around. That means you were present at the creation. It is a piece that I know is being read and is being debated by policymakers and by analysts. Again, I am commending that.

Thank you for coming on and talking about it with us further for this time we had today.

CAROLYN KISSANE: Thank you so much. Take care. I appreciate it.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less