In this piece, the Center for American Progress outlines a set of recommendations to change the regional security strategy into one that mainstreams climate action.* The science clearly states that global emissions must peak by 2025 if the world is to avoid a climate disaster, which experts predict will lead to loss of livelihoods and displacement of peoples in the Americas. The Summit of the Americas is, therefore, a critical moment to make progress on the following:
- Mobilizing commitments and financing to enable a clean energy transition
- Prioritizing climate action in supply chains
- Elevating climate migration and adaptation solutions in the regional security narrative
- Leveraging subnational and non-state support toward climate action
The Summit of the Americas is an opportunity for climate action that ensures safety and prosperity in the Americas. There is no time to waste.
A climate agenda for this year’s summit
The United States hosts this year’s summit at a moment when the Americas face a long list of societal and economic stressors, including a crisis of democratic backsliding; an ongoing pandemic; an uneven economic recovery; and multiple migration crises that have unsettled regional politics and tested the capacity and political will of governments to address large-scale migration flows.
As the need to address these challenges grows, it’s regrettable that attention around the summit in recent weeks centers on boycott threats from some regional leaders over the potential exclusion of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. This political posturing risks wasting the opportunity for Washington to reengage substantively with our hemispheric neighbors after the tumultuous years under the previous U.S. administration and to affirm shared values within the region. In particular, the summit should be a space for leaders to make good on their announced theme of “building a sustainable, resilient, and equitable future” by committing to concerted measures on one of the most pressing challenges in the Americas today—addressing the climate crisis.
Last year’s 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, was mostly full of further pledges and commitments—demonstrating that, while countries have made some progress, there is much left to do to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a timeline that limits global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report, released earlier this year, once again raised the alarm on how climate change will degrade ecosystems, harm human health, and increase the severity of extreme weather events. All of these threats will exacerbate loss of livelihoods and displacement throughout the Americas and hit vulnerable communities the hardest. These accelerating grave impacts of the climate crisis will destabilize regional security and test the limits of individual North American, Central and South American, and Caribbean countries to withstand these effects.
The summit can—and should—serve as a platform to center climate risks in the context of regional security and counter backsliding on climate action by countries that are increasing fossil fuel production or considering new exploration. President Biden must capitalize on the event to change the regional security narrative into one that mainstreams climate change impacts as risks to economic, political, and social stability in the region.
An opportunity to center climate action in regional security
In the lead up to COP26, national governments, states, cities, and companies around the world made climate declarations—albeit, at varying levels of boldness. In the Americas, the United States joined regional heads of states at the High-Level Dialogue on Climate Action in the Americas last September to recommit to the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In particular, Chile and Colombia have distinguished themselves within the region in their respective commitments to lead on climate action and cooperation. One example is Colombia announcing a green taxonomy at the New York Stock Exchange. However, there are still much-needed advances to be made, and some regional partners have lagged behind—and even backtracked—on climate action. Mexico reaffirmed a nationally determined contribution (NDC) that falls short of a 1.5 Celsius trajectory and cannot be achieved with the policies in place now. Brazil, whose climate action or inaction has global implications, backtracked on its existing 2015 NDC—reducing the ambition of Brazil’s pledge after adopting the Paris Agreement—and implemented regressive policies that have resulted in a significant increase in deforestation in the Amazon.
Spurring greater climate ambition and action will be a difficult task after what many in the region perceive as years of U.S. neglect—including in 2018, when the United States failed to attend the regional gathering for the first time ever. Antagonistic rhetoric and actions from the previous U.S. administration; concerns about the strength of democratic institutions in the United States; escalating competition between the United States and China in the Americas; and the increasing presence of other global competitors in the region have unsurprisingly prompted governments throughout the Americas to not only question Washington’s long-term reliability as a strategic partner but to also consider diversifying their political and economic relations.
While the United States can and should do more to improve its regional engagement and recover confidence among its partners, the shared agreement among the majority of the hemisphere’s leaders to prioritize climate action creates an opening for the United States to lead and drive a regional climate security agenda and continue to restore partnerships across the Americas. Doing so would reinforce the United States’ strong social, political, economic, and security linkages with the region and put forth President Biden’s long personal commitment toward a secure and democratic vision for the Americas that enables countries in the region to prosper and grow together. His administration has already broadened its substantive approach toward the region—a drastic adjustment from his predecessor’s regional policy—to include efforts that promote social inclusion; improvements in public health; access to education; economic recovery; inclusive democracy; pandemic-related assistance; humanitarian aid; and climate change cooperation. The summit provides an opportunity for a shift in the regional security strategy that centers climate action as key to safety and prosperity in the Americas.
To ensure that climate action is integrated into the Biden administration’s regional security strategy, the United States should commit to and provide support for the following four efforts.
Mobilizing commitments and financing to enable a clean energy transition
At the summit, President Biden and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry should convene energy, environment, and finance ministers from the region to secure additional and concrete political commitments toward the Renewables in Latin America and the Caribbean (RELAC) goal that at least 70 percent of electricity consumption in Latin America and the Caribbean come from renewable sources by 2030. The United States should also commit to catalyze climate finance at scale for a just energy transition through investment risk-sharing partnerships. An initiative that leverages the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) plan to mobilize $150 billion in public and private climate finance; the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s de-risking tools for investors; and the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) ability to develop a pipeline of bankable projects can lower the barrier to entry for investors and absorb an acceptable rate of failure from local groups.
To fully realize the potential of such a partnership, the United States should maximize its leverage to shape the recapitalization strategy of the IDB, creating a clear role for the bank in climate financing as a capital mobilization bank. While the IDB has incorporated climate change considerations more systematically into its portfolio in recent years—committing to direct at least 30 percent of total approvals to climate—it should continue to focus on scaling up investment, both public and private, and assisting countries in getting access to and deploying international climate finance. The yearly decrease in the cost of renewable technologies means the future of the Americas will be powered by clean energy. An orderly and just transition to clean energy now will ensure that economies of the region can manage stranded assets and workforce planning in the future. The IDB’s energy security portfolio should reflect its own analysis that the gains from mobilizing climate finance will outweigh the costs in economic, social, fiscal, and environmental benefits.
Prioritizing climate action in supply chains
The United States should build on bipartisan consensus around the need to strengthen supply chain resiliency by “friend-shoring” in the Western Hemisphere. In so doing, it can seek out opportunities to center climate in economic partnerships with those that share the same values as the United States. Friend-shoring in the Americas, where the United States has more preferential trade agreements than anywhere else in the world, provides a strategic advantage for U.S. companies to relocate under the protection of those agreements—out of other regions where authoritarian competitors have greater market influence—and invest in meaningful climate projects. Projects should incentivize countries to engage on mitigation and adaptation solutions and align on common environmental standards—not unlike what the United States is pursuing in Asia under the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. In addition, the deep economic linkages and democratic values—albeit under strain—in the Western Hemisphere means the region offers perhaps the best opportunity for the Biden administration to build on the legacy of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and negotiate a new form of trade agreement that addresses 21st-century challenges, above all the climate crisis. It will be important for investors to demand climate and other environmental, social, and governance (ESG) information from companies, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) must complete its proposed rule-making to require public companies to provide investors consistent, comparable, and reliable information on their climate-related risks.
Elevating climate migration and adaptation solutions in the regional security narrative
The 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol do not list climate change or environmental disasters as reasons for people to seek asylum, resulting in a lack of uniformity in the global asylum and refugee system and the way governments protect climate-related displaced peoples nationally and regionally. The summit presents an opportunity to acknowledge the intersectional nature of climate-related migration in which people are forced to move within a country or outside of its borders because of natural disasters and changing weather patterns that adversely impact food, housing, personal safety, and economic security. Climate-fueled natural disasters and changing weather patterns will exacerbate preexisting layered drivers for migration in the region such as political instability, lack of access to health care, extreme inequality, and violence. Western Hemispheric governments, including the United States, should improve regional coordination mechanisms on migration, such as an agreement on standard definitions and minimum policy protocols. They should also expand the definition of refugees and migrants via the Cartagena Declaration—building off regional frameworks such as the 2014 Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action or through offshoots of broader global compacts such as the Global Compact for Migration—to include forced displacement from climate impacts.
Adaptability and resilience will be vital to a robust regional asylum and refugee system that promotes safe, orderly, and humane migration management. President Biden’s PREPARE Climate Initiative can be a vehicle to support vulnerable communities in the Americas—in particular, women, girls, and those experiencing multiple forms of gender-specific inequalities and vulnerabilities—that typically lack the resources to take adaptation measures. Effective development aid that increases local capacity and buy-in to address reliable water access, agricultural sector productivity, and food security—as well as storm and flood resilient housing and infrastructure—can decrease the rate of displacement.
Leveraging subnational and nonstate support for climate action
There is momentum for climate action at the subnational government level, in the private sector, and in civil society throughout the region, including in countries that are not as forward-leaning at the national level. For example, while some countries are not meeting the climate moment in rhetoric or action, there are opportunities to work with youth movements, states, cities, and businesses directly. One example is Brazil, where nine states and one city are members of the Under2 Coalition that commits to the climate mitigation goals set in the Paris Agreement. Also, in July 2021, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry met with seven Brazilian state governors from the Governors for Climate Alliance, who were requesting financial support for their climate action projects. In Mexico, during COP26, the state of Querétaro presented its innovative plan for forest and soil regeneration and creation of carbon sinks. The United States should empower and accelerate these efforts, leveraging the support of more than 8 in 10 adults in Mexico and Central America who believe climate change is a very serious problem for their countries—more than twice the proportion of adults in the United States and Canada. Hispanic diasporas in the United States maintain close social ties with their countries of origin and they mirror some of these climate opinion trends. Most U.S. and foreign-born Latinos in the United States rate climate change as a top concern that impacts their local communities and say they are willing to make lifestyle changes to help.
Climate change is an existential threat. President Biden should capitalize on hosting this year’s Summit of the Americas—and holding the summit presidency until the end of 2022—to galvanize a regional security strategy for the Americas that makes progress on a clean energy transition in the region; climate action in supply chains; climate migration and adaptation solutions; and subnational and nonstate support for climate action.
While some leaders in the region might have lowered their expectations of the United States and the summit itself, a shift in the Biden administration’s regional security strategy that centers climate action can be key to safety and prosperity in the Americas. The Summit of the Americas is an opportunity that the United States cannot waste.
The authors would like to thank Alan Yu, Dan Restrepo, Trevor Sutton, Todd Phillips, Silva Mathema, Carolyn Kenney, Anne Christianson, Sally Hardin, and Cassidy Childs for their contributions to this column.
*Authors’ note: Earlier this year, the Center for American Progress held a closed-door convening with over 20 regional, energy, climate, and development experts. This structured, forward-looking conversation—albeit informed by past experiences—helped shape CAP’s thinking on short- and medium-term public policy recommendations toward developing an integrated climate action strategy for the Americas.