Without Republicans, Obama’s Climate Pledge Is an Empty Promise

A GOP Congress don’t seem keen to divert billions abroad for climate push.

US President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, October 24, 2013. The President renewed his call for Congress to pass sweeping immigration reform.
National Journal
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Nov. 14, 2014, 11:03 a.m.

When it comes to Pres­id­ent Obama’s planned prom­ise to con­trib­ute $3 bil­lion to a U.N. cli­mate fund for de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, the pledge is the easy part.

Get­ting Con­gress to pony up the funds? That might take some do­ing.

A White House of­fi­cial said that the $3 bil­lion con­tri­bu­tion to the Green Cli­mate Fund will be doled out over mul­tiple years and is sub­ject to con­gres­sion­al ap­pro­pri­ations. That means it’s go­ing to be sub­ject to re­view by Re­pub­lic­ans who want noth­ing less than to send money to poor coun­tries to fight cli­mate change.

In a state­ment, Sen. Jim In­hofe, the in­com­ing chair­man of the En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee, vowed to fight the pledge, which he said was part of a cli­mate-change agenda that’s “siphoned pre­cious tax­pay­er dol­lars away from the real prob­lems fa­cing the Amer­ic­an people.”

“This in­cludes get­ting our na­tion’s debt un­der con­trol, se­cur­ing prop­er equip­ment and train­ing to pro­tect our men and wo­men in uni­form, and re­pair­ing our na­tion’s crum­bling roads and bridges,” In­hofe said, list­ing pri­or­it­ies for the new Con­gress. “These are the real­ist­ic pri­or­it­ies of today.”

Bloomberg last week quoted an aide for in­com­ing Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell as say­ing “On the pres­id­ent’s de­sire to send the U.N. a ton of money, I’ve nev­er heard the lead­er en­dorse that ap­proach.” In a state­ment today, Mc­Con­nell spokes­man Don Stew­art said the pledge would be “part of the reg­u­lar ap­pro­pri­ations re­view and would have to com­pete with pri­or­it­ies.”

“Just be­cause the Pres­id­ent an­nounces it doesn’t mean Con­gress will pass it,” he said.

The funds would go to a new U.N. Green Cli­mate Fund that lever­ages pub­lic and private money to help de­vel­op­ing coun­tries ad­apt to and mit­ig­ate the ef­fects of cli­mate change. Chris­ti­ana Figueres, who leads the U.N. Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change, has called for an ini­tial cap­it­al­iz­a­tion of $10 bil­lion; Ja­pan is re­por­ted to have prom­ised an ad­di­tion­al $1.5 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to re­ports, and at least 10 oth­er coun­tries have pledged around $3 bil­lion (See the full spend­ing com­mit­ments from every coun­try here).

Ap­pro­pri­at­ing funds for in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate work isn’t new—in fact, it was Re­pub­lic­an Pres­id­ent George W. Bush who first pledged $2 bil­lion to a Cli­mate In­vest­ment Fund run out of the World Bank. In his 2008 State of the Uni­on ad­dress, Bush said the in­vest­ment would “cre­ate a new in­ter­na­tion­al clean-tech­no­logy fund, which will help de­vel­op­ing na­tions like In­dia and China make great­er use of clean en­ergy sources,” while also call­ing for an in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate deal.

The U.S. has also paid out between $800 mil­lion and $900 mil­lion a year in dir­ect cli­mate spend­ing, largely through a Glob­al Cli­mate Change Ini­ti­at­ive es­tab­lished in 2010. That fund­ing runs through the State and Treas­ury De­part­ments and USAID and goes to clean en­ergy, ad­apt­a­tion, a stra­tegic cli­mate fund, and oth­er glob­al de­vel­op­ments. (A May 2013 Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice re­port breaks down the spend­ing.) The total in­cludes roughly $300 mil­lion for the Cli­mate In­vest­ment Fund, which is due to be paid out some­time in fisc­al 2016.

Mi­chael Wo­los­in, an ana­lyst with Cli­mate Ad­visers, said that dir­ect spend­ing ac­counts for only about a third of what the U.S. con­siders its in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate in­vest­ment—the gov­ern­ment also adds up some clean-en­ergy spend­ing through pro­grams such as the Ex­port-Im­port Bank and the Over­seas Private In­vest­ment Cor­por­a­tion, plus in­dir­ect cli­mate be­ne­fits from biod­iversity and food-se­cur­ity pro­grams. (This ana­lys­is by Wo­los­in looks at the GCCI in depth.)

Giv­en all of that, Wo­los­in said it was likely that dir­ect cli­mate spend­ing would still have to go up by roughly a third. “Wheth­er that hap­pens or not is really about polit­ic­al will and how much the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pri­or­it­izes this,” he said.

An ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said that avert­ing the worst ef­fects of cli­mate change re­duces the need for “more costly in­ter­ven­tions to re­store sta­bil­ity and re­build” and that build­ing re­si­li­ence “helps safe­guard our in­vest­ments in many areas.” The funds are also ex­pec­ted to cre­ate a lar­ger mar­ket for do­mest­ic clean en­ergy com­pan­ies.

“If in fact the lit­mus test for U.S. ex­pendit­ures is wheth­er it serves the U.S. do­mest­ic and for­eign policy in­terests, then this pledge hits that cri­ter­ia for in­vest­ing,” said Lou Le­onard, vice pres­id­ent of cli­mate change for the World Wild­life Fund. “You can think of it as an ounce of pre­ven­tion is worth a pound of cure. We can either in­vest now and cre­ate a more re­si­li­ent world “¦ or we can wait, do noth­ing, and then spend much more to re­spond to prob­lems as they arise.”

The pledge, com­ing on the heels of Obama’s land­mark emis­sions re­duc­tion deal with China, seems to po­s­i­tion the U.S. as a lead­er in in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate talks as coun­tries pre­pare to meet next month in Lima and next year in Par­is to ham­mer out an in­ter­na­tion­al deal. The $3 bil­lion com­mit­ment is the largest and is seen as a way to nudge oth­er coun­tries to chip in to the fund.

Wheth­er that holds true if a GOP Con­gress blocks that $3 bil­lion from ma­ter­i­al­iz­ing re­mains to be seen. The pub­lic in­vest­ments are meant to spur fur­ther spend­ing from private com­pan­ies, and the U.N. hopes to build the full fund to $100 bil­lion by 2020. But hav­ing the U.S. fall short of its fund­ing com­mit­ment could be a blow.

Kar­en Oren­stein, a seni­or in­ter­na­tion­al policy ana­lyst with Friends of the Earth, said the U.S. con­tri­bu­tion was a “leg­al, as well as an eth­ic­al, ob­lig­a­tion un­der the U.N. Cli­mate Con­ven­tion” and charged that $3 bil­lion was be­low what was needed, al­though all that was real­ist­ic, giv­en do­mest­ic polit­ics.

“Is the en­tire world sup­posed to be held host­age to the fos­sil­ized think­ing of our Con­gress?” she said in a state­ment. “Cli­mate-den­iers in Con­gress must get their heads out of the sand and work with their fel­low elec­ted of­fi­cials to ap­pro­pri­ate sig­ni­fic­antly more than $3 bil­lion.”

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