Climate action just merged with Middle East peace efforts

By Jean Chemnick | 03/23/2016 08:43 AM EDT

The Palestinian National Authority may have just given its Republican detractors in the U.S. Congress an inadvertent win by making it impossible for the United States to pay future dues to the U.N. body on climate change.

The Palestinian National Authority may have just given its Republican detractors in the U.S. Congress an inadvertent win by making it impossible for the United States to pay future dues to the U.N. body on climate change.

When the Palestinian territories became the 197th party to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change last week, some observers say, it triggered a decades-old U.S. law barring the State Department from paying dues to the United Nations "or any specialized agency thereof" that treats the territories like an independent state.

"Essentially, the Palestinians have most likely succeeded in having U.S. funding for the UNFCCC cut off for the foreseeable future," said Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation.


It’s not clear if Schaefer’s interpretation will hold up to legal scrutiny. The State Department said yesterday that the UNFCCC is not one of the United Nations’ official "specialized agencies."

Peter Yeo, president of the U.N. Foundation’s Better World Campaign, called the 1990s law "an outdated policy [that] serves to punish our own U.S. foreign policy interests and deny our country a voice in critical decisionmaking tables."

This wouldn’t be the first time that the Palestinian quest for greater U.N. recognition has forced the Obama administration to stop funding a U.N. agency it strongly supports. Secretary of State John Kerry is still looking for a way to secure a waiver to fund the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization since it granted Palestine full membership in 2011. It triggered the same law.

The United States lost its vote in the body two years later, and while the United States was re-elected to UNESCO’s executive board last year — partly on the strength of Kerry’s pledge to restore funding — the country remains in arrears. UNESCO is a specialized agency, as designated by the United Nations.

Kerry said last year that he was "hopeful that Congress will act to provide the administration the authority needed to waive the current legislative restrictions that prohibit U.S. contributions to the organization."

But Schaefer said Congress has little appetite for that.

"I think that from the perspective of Congress … they see this provision as part of the U.S. overall strategy to try and get Palestinians and Israelis to come to a mutually acceptable peace agreement," he said, "and that changing the law would remove incentives for Palestinians to engage in that process."

Even if the GOP-controlled Congress could be persuaded to allow funds to flow to the United Nations’ education agency, it seems doubtful that it would take proactive steps to fund the UNFCCC — which in December finalized a landmark climate change deal that Republicans have panned as a job killer.

Icebergs and ozone

The accession of the Palestinian territories to the UNFCCC would not affect the Obama administration’s authority to sign the Paris Agreement.

It also won’t affect the administration’s ability to make good on its $3 billion pledge to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund — another frequent target of congressional Republican disapproval.

The administration has requested $750 million in State and Treasury department funding for fiscal 2017 for the fund to help poor countries cope with warming and reduce their own emissions. A group of Republican senators sought yesterday to attach a policy rider to this year’s spending bill barring the agency from providing it (E&ENews PM, March 22).

The effort by the Palestinian territories could affect the $13 million that State has requested in fiscal 2017 to pay UNFCCC dues, eventually depriving the United States of a vote in the body if it goes into arrears, according to Schaefer.

While it’s a tiny line item by federal budgetary standards, Republicans have proposed barring similar requests in the past as a way to undermine Obama’s climate agenda. They haven’t been successful.

Nedal Katbeh-Bader, the Palestinian territories’ climate change adviser and UNFCCC representative, said his government held off on joining the UNFCCC until after last year’s high-profile Paris summit because "some countries were not in favor of this accession. Palestinian leadership did not want to cause any disturbance to the smooth implementation of UNFCCC and the smooth negotiation processes linked to it."

Now that it’s complete, "no country [or] people should be left behind," he said.

The United States, Canada and Israel posted separate communiqués in January driving home that the Palestinian territories’ accession would have no bearing on their position about the territories’ being a state or not.

In an appeal directly to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, made the case for barring the territories from becoming a party.

"This is not the first time Palestinian leaders are trying to achieve cheap political points and receive recognition on paper at the U.N. instead of bettering the lives of their people by joining us in substantial negotiations," Danon wrote. "It is clear to all that they are not seeking to join this convention with the intention of saving the world’s melting icebergs or repairing the ozone layer."

The UNFCCC doesn’t govern ozone-depleting substances, which are addressed under the Montreal Protocol.

The Palestinian Authority has spent many years attempting to build its clout within the United Nations, with some success — besides the accession to UNESCO, it has also succeeded in securing "non-member observer state" status, which effectively recognized the Palestinian territories as a state for the first time. It has also joined treaties. But other specialized agencies have resisted its membership for fear that it might mean losing U.S. funds.

Water scarcity is a big issue

While it makes no secret of wanting to join the UNFCCC to strengthen its status, Katbeh-Bader said his government is also very concerned about climate change. The authority did submit a set of post-2020 climate commitments toward last year’s Paris deal. And Katbeh-Bader pointed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, which warns of changes in precipitation, temperature, extreme weather events and sea-level rise.

"All will have negative impact on Palestine and the national development planning, and on sustainable development, as well," he said.

Change in water availability is one of the harshest likely consequences of climate change in the eastern Mediterranean. While it will affect other populations, including in Israel, the Palestinian territories are likely to bear the brunt of potential water shortages.

That’s because Israel controls all of the region’s aquifers, including water that collects in the occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank. A treaty finalized in 1995 that was intended to give Palestinians more access to water and improved infrastructure has had the opposite effect, according to a 2009 World Bank report.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) skipped this week’s Washington, D.C., meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which drew other presidential candidates like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is competing against Sanders for the Democratic nomination. But he said in a speech on the campaign trail earlier this week that the region’s water situation is perpetuating tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Right now, Israel controls 80 percent of the water reserves in the West Bank," he noted. "Inadequate water supply has contributed to the degradation and desertification of Palestinian land. A lasting peace will have to recognize Palestinians are entitled to control their own lives, and there is nothing human life needs more than water."

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies said water distribution is "a huge symbol of Israeli domination and oppression, and it’s a cause of the continuation of the conflict."

Water scarcity has the effect of pushing Palestinians out of the occupied territories — an outcome she said Israelis seem to have intended.

"This is not something that might in the future make a problem; it’s an ongoing problem, and has been for decades," Bennis said.

While the United States is not proposing to recognize the Palestinian territories as a state, the man who orchestrated the summit that delivered the Paris climate agreement proposed to do just that if France couldn’t settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In January, then-French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius proposed a Paris summit aimed at brokering a two-state solution in the Middle East. He proposed that France would recognize Palestinian statehood if the talks broke down. Israel argued that would give Palestine no incentive to negotiate.

Fabius stepped down as foreign minister in February.