Kerry directs State Dept. to make climate change a top priority

Source: Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Secretary of State John Kerry doubled down Friday on comments that climate change is “the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction” and instructed the agency’s nearly 50,000 employees globally to make the issue a “top tier” diplomatic priority.In a policy directive — Kerry’s first since taking the helm of the State Department last year — he told all bureaus to put climate change at the center of their daily work and set establishing a new global climate deal in 2015 as a top priority.”We’re talking about the future of our earth and of humanity,” Kerry said in a personal message to employees released by the State Department. “We need to elevate the environment in everything that we do.”

The document encourages the United States to “lead by example” by attacking climate change domestically;, to work more closely with other countries both in bilateral and multilateral partnerships, and to help mobilize “billions of dollars” to enable low-carbon energy development worldwide.

A larger 15-page memo to staff described to ClimateWire goes into even more detail, encouraging embassies to raise awareness about climate change by hosting speakers and holding student competitions. It also establishes a new Environmental Public Diplomacy Fund under the office of the undersecretary for public diplomacy to “counteract the narrative that Americans are unconcerned about climate change.” The amount of money expected to go into that public relations effort is unclear.

Environmental groups praised the policy directive, saying it underscores the administration’s commitment to climate change. But it faced criticism from conservatives and others who ridiculed the directive and said Kerry couldn’t have picked a worse time to issue it.

“I think it’s unwise at this time to take the resources of the administration away from real, pressing issues like Ukraine and Syria and other things like that,” said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP.

Some Republicans denounce the move

In a sweeping climate change speech in Indonesia last month, Kerry said the threat of rising global temperatures ranks among the globe’s most pressing problems, like poverty, disease and the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weaons, challenging countries to all take action. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called on Kerry to resign, denouncing him as “delusional” and prompting Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to ask what planet Kerry lives on.

“I think that after he made a silly statement about how [climate change] is worse than global terrorism and was chided for that … he might have realized that there is a lot more going on that has a much higher priority,” Maisano said.

Policy directives of the type Kerry issued are rare. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued one on women’s issues that agency officials said helped establish it as a top-level topic.

“The issues that concern women’s rights … were never something that weren’t on the agenda here at the department. They’ve always been there, just like the environment and climate change,” said Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman. But, she said, “In the midst of everything going on in the Ukraine, in the midst of trying to achieve Middle East peace, this is a priority for the United States.”