U.S. Is Eliminating Its Arctic and Climate Envoys. What Message Does that Send?

The envoys gave the U.S. seasoned voices in international negotiations involving complex issues around climate change and the future of the Arctic region.

As U.S. climate envoy during the Obama administration, Todd Stern developed the United States' international leadership on climate change issues. "The (Trump) administration has already shown its colors on this issue," he said. Credit: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty

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As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson eliminates or shifts dozens of high-level diplomatic positions within the State Department—including the special envoys for climate change and the Arctic— those who have spent careers on these issues worry about the message being sent to the international community.

“On the appearance side, I think it definitely will be read by other governments as downgrading our interests,” said Brooks Yeager, who was the deputy secretary for environment at the end of the Clinton administration. “At least in appearance, we’re not devoting the same level of attention as other governments.”

In a letter sent to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) this week, Tillerson identified 36 special envoy positions that he plans to abolish. “I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose,” Tillerson wrote.

The move is in step with the continued shrinking of the federal government under President Donald Trump, where an exodus of Obama staffers, a hiring freeze and a lack of political appointments has left the State Department’s ranks thinner by the week.

The appointees who have held top positions as envoys on climate change and the Arctic have represented the United States in international climate negotiations and in multilateral diplomatic talks on the future of the Arctic region. Currently, both of those positions are vacant. Jonathan Pershing, former special envoy for climate change, and Admiral Robert Papp, former special representative for the Arctic, both resigned after Trump’s election.

Positions Expected to Take Over Remain Unfilled

Tillerson said the work done by their offices will shift to the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (known as OES)—a corner of the State Department that previously played a central role in international negotiations, but which is currently dormant as upper-level positions remain unfilled.

One State Department employee familiar with the Office of the Special Representative to the Arctic said the transition could be seamless—but for one thing: “They are still lacking specific policy guidance on many things they work on. Their work has been forced into a lull because they have not been given any guidance on something they can proactively do.”

“They’re all sitting there twiddling their thumbs,” the employee said.

The elimination of the envoy offices will affect seven positions and $761,000 in the climate change office and an additional five positions and $438,000 in the Arctic office. Trump’s proposed budget calls for a 32 percent cut to the State Department budget.

The OES is currently helmed by Acting Assistant Secretary Judith G. Garber, but acting secretaries aren’t in a good position to make policy decisions because they lack the authority of a congressionally confirmed appointee. Now, the OES ranks are about to be thinned even further, as Daniel A. Reifsnyder, the deputy assistant secretary for environment, who plans to leave the department soon.

Loss of U.S. Leadership?

“This strikes me as close to the elimination of capacity,” said Rafe Pomerance, a member of the Polar Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine who served as a deputy assistant secretary for environment and development under President Clinton until 1999. Shifting the responsibilities of the Arctic and climate change envoys “would not be a disaster,” Pomerance said, as long as there were a clear commitment in the OES to deal with the issues. “But fundamentally, Tillerson is not there on this,” he said. “Either on the climate issue globally or in the Arctic.”

“The notion that we’re going to exhibit any positive leadership on this feels pretty hopeless. Rather, we’re slowing it all down,” Pomerance said.

Although the Trump administration, which has said it will leave the international Paris climate agreement, nevertheless expects to participate in negotiations pending its eventual withdrawal, the lack of top appointees to attend meetings like the next conference of treaty parties in Bonn in November will likely render it impotent.

Todd Stern, who was the United States’ chief negotiator for the Paris Agreement as the special envoy for climate change from 2009 to 2016, said that while the position wasn’t necessary to get the work done, it certainly helped. “It allowed the United States to have a very senior level person who was focusing just on this issue,” he said.

“The administration has already shown its colors on this issue,” Stern said, referring to the Trump administration’s public statements about climate change and continuing efforts to roll back U.S. climate policies. “It’s no surprise that they decided to do away with my office. Indeed, I would have been quite surprised if they had not done that, given the orientation they have clearly demonstrated.”