After an event at Georgetown University co-hosted by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, the Science, Technology & International Affairs Office, and the Georgetown Sustainable Oceans Alliance, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Ambassador Mark Brzezinski, U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Sweden, to discuss the importance of using new tools and new partners in diplomacy, and how Arctic policy fits into the international response to climate change.
GJIA: In your role as an ambassador, how have you worked to raise awareness of and combat climate change in the Arctic?
MB: Climate change is a very difficult topic to communicate. While it is a threat to national and global security, it is slow-moving, it is complex, and it goes to the heart of the economy. You have to communicate this challenge in a way that registers and connects with people. As an ambassador, I’ve tried to do so by leveraging new tools, like social media and YouTube, and forming new partnerships. Our team created a YouTube video series called #OurSharedArctic with Sweden’s leading comedian, Felix Herngren. The U.S. Embassy in Sweden has never partnered with nationally known comedians in this way before. Combining my platform as an ambassador with that of this widely known cultural figure, who is like the Jerry Seinfeld of Sweden, has created a multiplier effect that I believe has allowed us to reach new audiences when it comes to communicating the challenge of the Arctic. The more audiences that we reach, the more we connect with people, the more we can build and then advance a unified approach to combating climate change as well as a better understanding of what is happening in the Arctic.
GJIA: Why is the Arctic critical for policymakers to focus on in the fight against climate change? What role does the United States play in the Arctic?
MB: Because what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic! The Arctic is like a refrigerator for the planet. When it warms more dramatically than anywhere else on earth, it of course impacts life in the Arctic, but it also impacts us. It makes a huge difference on weather in North America. It results in a higher occurrence of extreme weather events like storm surges and droughts. It results in sea-level rise and the release of dangerous methane in the Arctic. So there’s a direct interaction between what happens in the Arctic and what happens in the rest of the world. Scientists are projecting catastrophic consequences for mankind and the planet if we stay on the current global warming path.
In April, the United States will become the Chairman of the Arctic Council, which is a multilateral institution of eight Arctic countries. Eight nations [Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States] formed the Arctic Council in 1996, and it has proven to be an effective and cooperative forum in which Arctic States and other concerned organizations can develop effective ways for managing this precious resource. The United States will hold that chairmanship for two years. It is a remarkable opportunity to make a difference in a strategic space in which the entire world has an interest.
We have three goals for our Arctic Council chairmanship: the protection and stewardship of the Arctic Ocean, advancing the health and welfare of the people of the Arctic area, and mitigating the impact of climate change. Going into our chairmanship, we have an incredibly well thought-out plan and strategy to tactically implement each of those three goals. In 2016, halfway through our chairmanship, the Arctic Council will be twenty years old, and that will provide the United States with the opportunity to do a mid-chairmanship review of what we are doing.
GJIA: What is the next step to achieving international cooperation to combat climate change? What are the challenges to formulating a plan that is both agreeable to and feasible for all parties involved?
MB: The December 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris will be the culmination of four years of talks towards a new international agreement on combatting climate change. It is, without a doubt, a major opportunity to achieve a pact that is inclusive, meaning that it reflects the perspective of not only developed countries, but also developing countries; ambitious, meaning that it will produce steps to address a really negative human and geopolitical reality that could emerge from climate change; and durable, in terms of being able to last and be implemented successfully. That is the opportunity when it comes to the 2015 Conference in Paris, on which President Obama has focused like a laser. It’s an important part of the larger context of our chairmanship of the Arctic Council because, as I always say, what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic.
GJIA: Is there consensus within the international community about how to improve the financial system’s effectiveness in mobilizing capital toward the sustainable technology industry?
MB:The financial sector is a big conveyor of sustainable development. There is greater recognition now than ever before that the business of sustainability is a good business. Investing capital towards developing, for example, electric vehicles or zero emission cars, is a good investment, and whomever gets there first will not only make a great contribution towards a better world, but will also do well financially. Sweden’s record economically and in terms of sustainability is revealing: between 1990 and 2012, Sweden grew its economy by more than 40 percent, while lowering green house gas emissions by nearly 20 percent. This is a textbook example of being able to grow your economy while lowering carbon output. The Obama administration is on track to achieve similar goals of growing the economy while simultaneously lowering emissions.
GJIA: How is the United States engaging with other important global powers and global energy powerhouses, such as China and Russia, on the issue of climate change?
MB: The U.S.-China announcement on climate change and clean energy cooperation is an excellent example of constructive engagement with other geopolitical partners on climate change. In that case, President Obama announced in November a new target to cut net greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. At the same time, China’s President Xi Jinping announced targets to peak CO2 emissions around 2030, with the intention to try to peak early, and to increase the non fossil fuel share of all energy to around 20 percent by 2030. That agreement was key, because together the United States and China account for over one third of global greenhouse gas emissions. The United States is the second largest global emitter of CO2, after China, and the number one per capita emitter of CO2. So U.S. leadership is essential in not only getting other countries to cooperate, but also in actually inhibiting climate change.
This is a remarkable pact that the two presidents have brokered, and it is surely a model for how we can engage with others around the world in the future. I think citizens of every country are increasingly thinking about the stakes of the current climate situation and what kind of world their grandchildren will inherit. Unfortunately, time is not on our side, so we must act. Let me close with a quote from another historic president, John F. Kennedy, in which he describes nature as a great unifier—that’s a good thing, because we face an unprecedented challenge with climate change that will require unprecedented levels of international cooperation and self-sacrifice: “Where nature makes natural allies of us all, we can demonstrate that beneficial relations are possible even with those with whom we most deeply disagree, and this must someday be the basis of world peace and world law.”
Ambassador Mark Brzezinski is the current U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Sweden. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on October 18, 2011. He has had a distinguished career in both public service and the private sector, serving as a partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm, a Director on the White House’s National Security Council, and a Fulbright Scholar. He was also a member of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board before becoming U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ambassador Brzezinski was interviewed by Jacob Haberman on 30 March 2015 in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Brzezinski supplied additional commentary via email on 6 April. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.