An effective response to climate change "underpins our security and prosperity"

Foreign Secretary William Hague has delivered a speech titled 'The Diplomacy of Climate Change' to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon William Hague

Thank you Governor Whitman. I am most grateful for your generous introduction.

I am delighted to be here at the Council on Foreign Relations. In the modern networked world, diplomacy is no longer the sole preserve of diplomats. Instead, we all have a stake in global affairs. That is why the work of renowned bodies such as this is more valuable than ever.

Today I want to talk about why I believe we, as foreign policy practitioners, need to up our game in building a credible and effective response to climate change. Climate change is perhaps the twenty-first century’s biggest foreign policy challenge along with such challenges as preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. A world which is failing to respond to climate change is one in which the values embodied in the UN will not be met. It is a world in which competition and conflict will win over collaboration.

We are at a crucial point in the global debate on climate change. Many are questioning, in the wake of Copenhagen, whether we should continue to seek a response to climate change through the UN and whether we can ever hope to deal with this enormous challenge.

I will first argue that an effective response to climate change underpins our security and prosperity. Second, our response should be to strive for a binding global deal, whatever the setbacks. And third, I will set out why effective deployment of foreign policy assets is crucial to mobilising the political will needed if we are to shape an effective response.

Interconnected challenges in a networked world

Ban Ki-moon is right to have made climate change his top priority. Two weeks ago I talked of Britain’s values in a networked world. I said then that a successful response to climate change must be a central objective of British foreign policy. I said this not only because I believe action against climate change is in line with a values-based foreign policy, but because it underpins our prosperity and security.

You cannot have food, water, or energy security without climate security. They are interconnected and inseparable. They form four resource pillars on which global security, prosperity and equity stand. Each depends on the others. Plentiful, affordable food requires reliable and affordable access to water and energy. Increasing dependence on coal, oil, and gas threatens climate security, increasing the severity of floods and droughts, damaging food production, exacerbating the loss of biodiversity and, in countries that rely on hydropower, undermining energy security through the impact on water availability. As the world becomes more networked, the impacts of climate change in one country or region will affect the prosperity and security of others around the world.

No-one can have failed to be appalled by the devastating floods in Pakistan. They overwhelmed the capacity of government to respond, and opened political space for extremists. While Pakistan has borne the brunt of the human impact, China too has been hit on a vast scale by a seemingly endless sequence of droughts, floods and deadly mudslides. The Russian drought last month damaged the wheat harvest, leading to an export ban. World prices surged, hitting the poorest hardest and sparking riots over bread prices in Mozambique.

While no one weather event can ever be linked with certainty to climate change, the broad patterns of abnormality seen this year are consistent with climate change models. They provide a vivid illustration of the events we will be encountering increasingly in the future.

The clock is ticking. The time to act is now.

We must all take responsibility for this threat. We must take robust action. But we must also be clear-headed about the difficulties of reaching agreement and not lose heart when the going gets tough.

The post-war leaders set up the United Nations in the aftermath of conflagration. They saw the pressing need for global solutions to global problems; cooperation not conflict, through frameworks and institutions embedded in the rule of law; and an international system that is fair and offers everyone a realistic prospect of security and prosperity.

Failure to respond to climate change is inimical to all these values, undermining trust between nations, intensifying competition for resources, and shrinking the political space available for cooperation. It is an affront to fairness, since it puts the greatest burden on those who have done least to cause the problem and are least able to deal with its consequences. It is incompatible with the values and aspirations that the UN embodies. It is incompatible with the values and aspirations of British foreign policy.

Shaping an effective response

For more than twenty years we have been striving to build an effective international response to climate change. But we have lacked the collective ambition required.

We need to shift investment urgently from high carbon business as usual to the low carbon economy - this means building an essentially decarbonised global economy by mid century. At the same time we must ensure development is climate resilient: otherwise the changes in climate that are already unavoidable will block the path for hundreds of millions of people from poverty to prosperity. These changes also threaten to sweep away the investments in development we have made – and just as the bridges and schools in Pakistan were swept away.

To drive that shift in investment from high to low carbon we need a global climate change deal under the UN.

Some have argued that we should abandon hope of doing so. They say Copenhagen proved it is all too difficult. We should focus instead on less inclusive and less demanding responses, such as coalitions of the willing. This would be a strategic error. It mistakes the nature of the task, which is to expand the realm of the possible, not to lower our ambition by accepting its current limits.

We must recognise this at Cancun. One thing Copenhagen did give us was a set of political commitments, captured in the Copenhagen Accord, on which we can build. More than 120 countries have now associated themselves with that Accord. That represents a broad and growing consensus. We now need to ensure that we live up to the commitments we made to each other in the Accord and reach out even more widely.

Copenhagen was a strategic setback. But it was not by any means the end of the road. We need to be clear on why Copenhagen failed to live up to high expectations and why it did not deliver a legally binding deal.

Many say that Copenhagen failed because of process. The diplomats and the politicians had created a negotiation that was too difficult and too complex. This misses the point. International treaties are an outcome - not an input - of political bargains. If you have made the political commitment to deliver, you can make the process work to deliver.

The real reason Copenhagen did not deliver on high expectations was a lack of political will. Many in developing countries saw a gap between the words and the deeds of the industrialised economies. They questioned whether we really believed our own rhetoric.

To answer those questions we need to start at home.

That is why the coalition to which I belong has committed itself to being the greenest government ever in the UK; and why with others in Europe we are calling on the EU to commit to a 30% cut in emissions by 2020 without waiting for the rest of the world to act. The UK is already the world leader in offshore wind with more projects installed, in planning and in construction than any other country in the world. We are undertaking the most radical transformation of our electricity sector ever. We aim to provide over 30% of our domestic electricity from renewables by 2020. We have committed to build no new coal-fired power stations without carbon capture and storage technology - CCS - and we have announced our intention to continue with four CCS demonstration projects.

And because it is imperative that foreign and domestic policies are mutually reinforcing we must ensure that our approach is coherent. That is why we established the UK’s National Security Council to ensure this happens across the full range of issues, including climate change. And that is why I work hand in glove with Chris Huhne, the British Energy and Climate Change Secretary, and Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, to ensure that our domestic action reflects our level of international ambition.

But we will not succeed if we act alone. We must aim for a framework that is global and binding. It needs to be global because climate change affects everyone. Only a response that allows everyone a voice will generate a sense of common purpose and legitimacy. Only a response that is binding will convince investors that we intend to keep the promises we make to each other. Businesses need clear political signals. Let us show them an unequivocal green light.

The importance of foreign policy

We are now a few weeks away from the sixteenth Conference of Parties on climate change in Cancun. I commend the consultative and collaborative approach Mexico has taken ahead of this meeting. Thanks to their determination and foresight, we have a chance in Cancun to regain momentum and make progress on key issues such as forests, technology, finance and transparency of commitments. Cancun may not get us all the way to a full agreement. But it can put us back on track to one.

That said, the negotiations cannot succeed inside a bubble. The negotiators in the UN process cannot themselves build political will. They have to operate on the basis of current political realities in the countries they represent. It is those realities that limit the ambition we can set in the negotiations. It is those realities that we need to shift.

There is no global consensus on what climate change puts at risk, geopolitically and for the global economy, and thus on the scale and urgency of the response we need. We must build a global consensus if we are to guarantee our citizens security and prosperity. That is a job for foreign policy. The fundamental purpose of foreign policy is to shift the political debate, to create the political space for leaders and negotiators to reach agreement. We did not get that right before Copenhagen. We must get it right now.

So we urgently need to mobilise Foreign Ministers and the diplomats they lead, as well as institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations, to put climate change at the heart of foreign policy.

When I became Foreign Secretary in May, I said the core goals of our foreign policy were to guarantee Britain’s security and prosperity. Robust global action on climate change is essential to that agenda. That is why the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, under my leadership, is a vocal advocate for climate diplomacy. All British Ambassadors carry the argument for a global low carbon transition in their breast pocket or their handbag. Climate change is part of their daily vocabulary, alongside the traditional themes of foreign policy. They are supported by our unique network of climate attaches throughout the world.

The core assets of foreign policy are its networks and its convening power. Foreign policy can build political impulses to overcome barriers between sectors and cultures. In a networked world, diplomacy builds partnerships beyond government. Nowhere are those partnerships more vital than on climate.

We must mobilise all our networks - not just across government but between governments, using organisations such as the Commonwealth. And we must also reach out beyond, to NGOs, faith groups and business. Of all these, perhaps business engagement is key to making a difference. It is business that will lead the low-carbon transition. It is business which best understands the incentives needed to help us all prosper.

We must also harness scientific expertise in cutting edge low carbon technologies. The scientific community will develop the goods which will power the low carbon economy and drive global ambition on climate change. That is why the British Government has a science and innovation network, which fosters collaborative research in the UK and other countries.

It’s time for change

What can the UK and the European Union do to make that fundamental shift and shape a global consensus on climate change? The most serious problem at Copenhagen, and the strongest brake on political will was and is a lack of confidence in the low carbon economy. Too few people in too few countries are yet convinced that a rapid move to low carbon is compatible with economic recovery and growth. They see the short term economic and domestic stability risks before the opportunities and the longer term risks of inaction.

There should only be one European response to the confidence gap. The EU must accelerate its own progress and demonstrate that a low carbon growth path makes us more competitive. I am convinced that this is in the long-term interests of Europe’s economy. We have learned painful lessons from the oil price shock. We must modernise our infrastructure. The opportunities are out there. The global industry in low carbon and environmental goods and services is already estimated to be worth up to 3.2 trillion pounds a year. Britain’s own share of this is valued at up to 112 billion pounds. Nearly a million British people are employed in the sector. That is why we are creating a Green Investment Bank to ensure that we can properly support and develop low carbon industry.

But we need to redouble our efforts both in the EU itself and in our engagement with partners. Each of us as Member States will be better able to accelerate if we are doing so together as the world’s largest single market. And by opening up this effort through partnerships with others, we can make it easier for them to accelerate too. We will be at the forefront in pushing for low carbon modernisation of Europe’s infrastructure and energy policy to meet tomorrow’s needs. The European Union’s budget until 2013 is set out in the current “financial perspective”. We will soon need to agree the financial perspective for 2014-2021, the period including our 2020 climate goals. As ever, it is right that the EU budget should reflect the prevailing economic circumstances. It is also right that we direct the budget to today’s challenges, not those of yesterday. A budget for prosperity and security is one which supports the transition to a low carbon economy.

Action in Europe alone will not be enough. We need both the developed and developing world to take action. This week Guido Westerwelle and I have tasked our teams to come together to shape a coordinated diplomacy-led effort on climate change, combining the strengths of our respective foreign services. I have just put the case for bringing a new urgency for low carbon transition within the EU. Together we should carry that urgency in external dialogues whether they are with the US, China or India.

The transition to low carbon will happen faster and maximise the benefits for all if the US - historically the world’s largest emitter - is at the leading edge. I recognise the political challenges that the US administration faces and welcome President Obama’s commitment to combat climate change. As he said in his State of the Union speech, “the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy”. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming mid-term elections in the US, there is scope for political unity around an economic agenda that targets new energy opportunities and new jobs. American business understands this new market and wants to lead it. But to make these new clean energy investments at the required pace and at sufficient scale they need the right incentives.

On climate, as in so many areas, the world looks to the US for leadership because it has the economic clout and diplomatic leverage to shift the global debate. I look forward to working with the US administration and the Council on Foreign Relations to raise global ambitions and put us back on the path to sustainable growth.

A key challenge for Europe is to build an economic partnership with China that reinforces the steps China is taking towards a low carbon economy. These steps include its recent announcement of the five provinces and eight cities that have been designated as China’s Low Carbon Pilots. Together these pilots cover 350 million people - so an ambitious approach to these schemes, tenaciously implemented, could provide a critical boost to global confidence in the concept of low carbon development and help put China on the path to sustainable prosperity. It could also produce huge two-way investment and partnership opportunities. Europe should place itself at the heart of these, working with China to maximise the ambition and the opportunities and to build the shared technology standards that will shape the global low-carbon market. In China’s case, low-carbon opportunity is matched by urgent low-carbon need. The pace of growth in China means average Chinese per capita emissions could soon eclipse those of the EU. So while China has taken some very welcome steps, without a commitment from China to further decisive action, the efforts of others will be in vain.

The emerging economies face a dilemma. Often they are the most vulnerable to the direct effects of climate change. But they are concerned that action against climate change will adversely affect their development. The challenge to all countries is to have a high growth low carbon economy. Some, like Brazil, which derives nearly half its energy from clean and renewable sources, are rising to that challenge. India is another, embodying in microcosm the challenge that climate change poses to us all. Threatened by food, water and energy insecurity, India has responded with ambitious plans to generate 20 Gigawatts of solar power by 2022. South Africa, a coal dependent economy the success of which is so important to growth and prosperity within the continent, has made a significant offer to deviate their emissions from the business as usual development pathway.

The opportunity is for the emerging economies is to make a direct leap to low carbon, avoiding the “high carbon lock-in” we see in the developed world: a new sustainable pathway to prosperity and security. A global low-carbon economy is not an idealist’s pipe-dream but a 21st century realist’s imperative. Countries that adapt quickly to a carbon constrained world will be better able to deliver lasting prosperity for their citizens. As a P5 member, I am determined that the UK will play its full part in that, not least by supporting climate finance for the poorest.

Collectively we share a responsibility to those most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Bangladesh, with its densely populated coastal region, is particularly susceptible to rising sea levels. Glacial melt, sea level rises and El Niño-type events threaten the lives of millions across South America. And the very existence of many small islands states is under threat. We have a shared vision to meet the millennium development goals. But in a world without action on climate change, that vision will remain a dream. The effort of the last ten years will be wasted.


Climate change is one of the gravest threats to our security and prosperity. Unless we take robust and timely action to deal with it, no country will be immune to its effects. However difficult it might seem now, a global deal under the UN is the only response to this threat which will create the necessary confidence to drive a low carbon transition. We must be undaunted by the scale of the challenge. We must continue to strive for agreement. We must not accept that because there is no consensus on a way forward now that there will never be one. And to change the debate, we must imaginatively deploy all of the foreign policy assets in our armoury until we have shaped that global consensus.

A successful response to climate change will not only stabilise the climate but open the way to a future in which we can meet our needs through cooperation, in accordance with the ideals of the UN. Failure will enhance competitive tendencies and make the world more dangerous. This is not a hard choice. We have to get this right. If we do, we can still shape our world. If we do not, our world will determine our destiny.


Updates to this page

Published 27 September 2010