This Earth Day carries even greater urgency and weight than in the past. A world ravaged by the climate crisis isn’t some dystopian, distant future that we can leave for our grandchildren to tackle. It’s here now, visible in the extreme storms, droughts, and wildfires we face each year, and in the alarming collapse of Antarctic ice shelves that are contributing to rising sea levels that threaten coastal communities around the world. These tangible consequences must move the global community of nations to accelerate action. We need to both adapt to the damaging effects of the climate crisis while also working to mitigate the cause.
In my role as the Department of State Chief Sustainability Officer, I am working with dedicated colleagues in U.S. embassies around the world to reduce the Department’s greenhouse gas emissions and prepare our community for the climate impacts that are already here and will only worsen in the future. We want to ensure America’s diplomats have a modern, efficient, climate-resilient operating platform, and that we’re promoting U.S. leadership on climate. To achieve this, our personnel around the world continue to rethink how our facilities at home and abroad can best represent the American flag that flies over them.
Our embassies and consulates span the globe and are a symbol of U.S. diversity, innovation, and ingenuity. Wherever we’re located, we have first-hand experience and understand the environmental and adaptation dilemmas faced by the countries where we operate.
Already, the Department has more than 55 State Department campuses that have U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification — including three distinguished Platinum and 18 Gold. We are also using the latest in smart city technology and collecting data from energy sensors and air quality monitors to drive decision making. Over the last two years, the Department has also modernized data collection for utilities for our overseas facilities: now, we have a centralized, automated platform that does data intake and analysis in 45 languages and 106 currencies. This data is the backbone to enable us to benchmark our operations and reduce our energy and water consumption. The Department is also leveraging data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help make decisions to adapt our existing buildings and operations to withstand the harmful impacts of the climate crisis.
We are working to obtain cleaner power. In Washington, D.C., the Department has solar panels on the roof of our headquarters, and we have worked with the foreign diplomatic community to create an offsite solar farm that enables them to access cheaper and cleaner power.
These efforts are key components of Secretary Blinken’s agenda to modernize American diplomacy and President Biden’s efforts to revitalize the federal foreign affairs community.
None of this work is easy, and in the toughest operating environments, our diplomats and local staff face an uphill battle to bring about innovative climate solutions. Thanks to them, the Department has accomplished a great deal in recent years. The team at U.S. Embassy New Delhi is a shining example of the power individuals can have. By using the Department’s MeterNet sensor program to track equipment usage, they reduced energy use by over 445,000 kilowatt hours annually – enough to power nearly 500 Indian households for a year. In Beijing, our Embassy facility manager developed a method to use recycled water in the Embassy’s pond, saving 2.5 million gallons per year and demonstrating resource conservation in a water-stressed region of China. In Rio de Janeiro, Consulate officials are engaging dozens of organizations to promote biking to work and beach clean-ups, in support of local environmental objectives. Domestically, our staff is engaged on everything from transportation to energy policy. At our mail facility, for example, we’ve replaced water fountains with water refill stations, keeping thousands of plastic bottles from the waste stream.
To meet the challenge of our lifetimes, we are integrating partnerships, technology, and data solutions into our efforts, with the aim to weave climate action into the fabric of our agency. I envision U.S. diplomats leading the way in tackling climate change and fostering a community of practice among other diplomatic services and national and local governments.
The future of diplomacy is here, and it is innovative, sustainable, and resilient.
About the Author: John Bass is the Under Secretary for Management and Chief Sustainability Officer at the U.S. Department of State.