An Autocrat’s Worst Nightmare? Ramping up Climate Diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere

The autocrat’s worst nightmare is not only a united and unified Europe, but also an American continent that possesses the resources and resolve to push for a common approach to today’s global energy challenges.


Image: U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaking at the OAS in 2013. Source: U.S. State Department. 

On February 4, Russia and China issued a joint statement challenging the post-WWII order in an effort to redistribute global power and usher in a “new era.” What is most telling about the content of the statement and its emphasis on multipolarity is the assumption that democracy operates in a vacuum—that it is a system of governance void of a robust global architecture that helps ensure its survival. This Orwellian approach to redefining democracy and human rights argues that “advocacy of democracy and human rights must not be used to put pressure on other countries” and that the parties “stand ready to work together with all the interested partners to promote genuine democracy.”

Yet genuine democracy has never been so orderly nor has it relied on leaders that remain in power for life—especially leaders that imprison millions in internment camps or that kill pregnant women and children by indiscriminately bombing residential areas. Written prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the joint statement falls flat with little if any merit and represents a chilling message for all that cherish peace and democracy. Most importantly, it raises the stakes of a measured response as Russia seeks support from China to evade the economic fallout of effective and well-coordinated sanctions led by the United States and Europe.

As the calls to arm Ukraine grow louder and the heroic pleas of President Volodymyr Zelensky are heard and considered by Congress, the U.S. and its NATO partners may be better suited to practice restraint and seek alternative pathways that emphasize technological innovation that can further isolate and weaken the prospect of a global autocratic order. Achieving this will increasingly rely on reshaping and drastically altering traditional views concerning the geopolitics of energy in foreign policy circles from Brussels to Washington, and so too in Latin American capitals such as Bogotá, Mexico City, Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Brasília, among others.

As younger generations learn of the immense sacrifice and challenges that previous generations faced during the Second World War, we must not lose sight of the devastation that an increase beyond 1.5° Celsius in global temperature will represent for the planet and the future of young people on it. According to a National Intelligence Council report released last year, a warming planet may likely increase the prospect of greater conflict and instability throughout the world.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is a tragic display of a post-Cold War order that has seen democracy under threat from a rising authoritarian, illiberal club of elites and kleptocratic forces that wish to divide U.S. allies and weaken European as well as American institutions—all built up after the rise and fall of fascism during the twentieth century. Countering such aggression and belligerence abroad, as well as rejecting a Sino-Russian partnership that wishes to weaken the status of democracy worldwide, can include U.S. and European efforts to instill a sense of common purpose and solidarity in confronting the climate crisis.

While nuclear deterrence has always been a top priority for U.S. national security interests, climate change is quickly becoming a more urgent and elusive threat that the world must address this decade to avoid catastrophic outcomes that exacerbate food insecurity and migration. It is worth highlighting that as much as the battle for Kyiv is about Russia’s intent to topple a democratic government elected by the Ukrainian people, it is also about a geopolitical battle to control resources and exert control over Europe and its allies—weaponizing access and supply of oil and natural gas.

Already the response from the European Union has been swift—seeking to cut dependence on Russian gas imports in a year by at least two-thirds while also increasing renewable energy supplies at the same time. European nations must also convince their counterparts in the Western Hemisphere that such a strategy is not only beneficial to global security and long-term stability, but that these efforts will require additional assistance and support from like-minded countries.

Igor Sechin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, who heads energy company Rosneft, allegedly stated last year that carbon taxes could end up hurting the Russian economy more than sanctions. Republican lawmakers, which have been less vocal in supporting environmental and climate legislation in recent years, have come to support border carbon adjustments to counter Putin’s influence in Europe and beyond. Such a development could potentially lead to important negotiations between both parties to increase the competitive advantage of U.S. renewable energy technologies at home and abroad.

While some have argued in favor of the Biden administration’s intent to open a dialogue with Venezuela recently, others have argued that such efforts to counter Russian aggression and its impacts on global energy markets may be off the mark. Indeed, such an approach to Venezuela merits an honest analysis as well as a shared understanding that the global economy is already approaching a bumpy road ahead. With a recession becoming increasingly more probable, the U.S. should avoid short-term policies that contribute to a global climate that will be unforgiving to any long-term economic recovery.

Moreover, as Democratic and Republican politicians argue that the U.S. could increase its domestic capacity and production in oil and gas, a longer-term strategic plan to invest and push the boundaries of technological innovation in the clean energy space is becoming ever more critical to support. Bringing renewable energy to scale could potentially yield benefits that go far beyond any economic indicator—striking at the heart of how Russia and China intend to project power now and into the future.

Oil and gas resources, transmission and electricity generation infrastructure, as well as critical minerals, have all become part of a wider effort by China and Russia to undermine U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere, but also to weaken the idea of democratic governance and institutions that serve the interests of everyday people. The Western Hemisphere is a strategic region beyond the geography and weight of the United States and its economic and military might. Countries throughout the hemisphere are diverse and the majority remain committed to the principles of democracy. However, Latin America and the Caribbean face an uphill battle in lessening social inequalities that create opportunities for resource nationalism and populist governments to rear an ugly head.

How can the U.S. best confront these challenges? According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, it will only become more difficult to address these issues in the future as Latin America and the Caribbean represent the second most disaster-prone region in the world. Recognizing this challenge means building resilience and supporting a rapid and just energy transition as quickly as possible at home and abroad. The choice before U.S. foreign policymakers is to either double down and do what is easiest for short-term interests or to consider the more difficult problem of formulating a grand strategy that emphasizes U.S. leadership in a global technological race to meet net-zero emissions by 2050.

For the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, the choice need not be a non-principled stance of non-alignment, but rather a mutually beneficial partnership based on a key area of common concern with the United States. U.S. diplomacy, therefore, should encourage more listening and engagement with leaders in the region. A greater focus and emphasis on green investment for important markets, particularly those that have manufacturing and robust R&D capacities, can help create a sense of equal partnership and further a broader, more ambitious U.S. policy that advances a clean energy transition in the coming decade. Such a focus can also include enhancing regional capabilities for responding to future external shocks, as the poor and most vulnerable suffer greatest from high-energy prices and inflation.

Together, the Americas can lead a technological revolution that counters an autocratic model based on family ties, corrupt offshore accounts, and a commitment to cult personalities over the welfare of citizens. History and the current state of affairs in several countries is rife with examples of such a status quo, and citizens throughout the region continue to raise their voices on the streets and at the ballot box.

With the Ninth Summit of the Americas being held this summer in Los Angeles, it represents perhaps for the first time, an immensely important and breakthrough opportunity to better equip and partner with regional allies—not only against the rising pressures of a warming planet, but the autocratic nature of adversaries that wish to see dysfunction in our governments and a waning influence of economic growth that prioritizes democracy, social inclusion, and sustainable development.

As the Russian invasion was unfolding several weeks ago, Dr. Svitlana Krakovska, a Ukrainian climate scientist involved in finalizing the latest IPCC report, noted that the war in Ukraine has also had a disrupting impact on addressing the climate crisis. In an interview with BBC News, she stated, “The money that’s invested in fossil fuels, they’re using against us. Against freedom. Against humanity.” Indeed, now is the time to get serious about addressing the climate crisis.

The autocrat’s worst nightmare is not only a united and unified Europe, but also an American continent that possesses the resources and resolve to push for a common approach to today’s global energy challenges. Dr. Krakovska said it best, “It’s amazing how the people of Ukraine united against one enemy. If we all unite against climate change, we can survive as a civilization.” In that sense, the desire for a renewable energy future is as much about supporting democracy and coalescing around a framework that brings partners together to address the current status quo of geopolitics and energy. Revitalizing climate diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere can therefore bridge much-needed ambition to meet the challenge of a warming planet alongside the shared interests of protecting democracy and human rights.

 Anders Beal is an associate in the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are those of the author.

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