Declassified docs: U.S. resisted calls for climate aid since Nixon

By Sara Schonhardt | 07/06/2023 06:29 AM EDT

The opposition to “loss and damage” funding goes back decades. That could complicate global efforts to compensate developing countries for climate impacts.

President George H.W. Bush attends the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992.

President George H.W. Bush attends the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Dennis Cook/AP Photo

The United States has long resisted compensating poorer countries for environmental damages, boding ill for global negotiations to bolster climate aid, according to an analysis of declassified records published Thursday.

The briefing from the National Security Archive, a nonprofit watchdog group at George Washington University, finds that U.S. opposition to such international support stretches back to the early 1970s, starting with an intelligence report commissioned under President Richard Nixon.

“These records shed light on the various ways that the U.S. government has tried to avoid getting what President George H. W. Bush called a ‘big bill’ for its environmental impacts in talks about compensation, liability, and reparations programs meant to alleviate the impacts of climate change,” the analysis states.


The report comes as a U.N.-backed committee works to hammer out the details of a fund for so-called loss and damage, which would compensate developing countries for the irreparable harms of human-caused climate change. Countries agreed to establish that fund last year at global climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt — though settling on its outlines has been no easy task.

But the arc of U.S. history on climate reparations complicates future loss and damage negotiations, the National Security Archive analysis concludes.

“Although the adoption of the Loss and Damage Fund was historic, recent events, and the declassified record, suggest that developed countries will continue to resist practical efforts to implement climate finance programs,” it states.

The 17 documents cited in the analysis come from various sources, including presidential libraries, the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series and previous National Security Archive briefing books on White House climate change policy. Some were only recently declassified.

One of the earliest documents is a 1972 State Department intelligence note released ahead of a U.N. environment conference in Stockholm. It assesses calls by a coalition of African nations for reparations from developed countries that have “partially based (and continue to base) their growth” on the exploitation of natural resources.

The document interprets the African group’s position as a push for increased foreign aid rather than reparations. But it also asserts that the group’s views linking environment and development will “be with us in the years to come” and reflect “an increasing African militancy.”

At the Stockholm conference, the United States pledged up to $40 million for a voluntary $100 million U.N. environment fund — a proposal suggested by Russell Train, then-head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Henry Kissinger, who at the time was Nixon’s assistant for national security affairs. In a memo to Nixon, they said it would give the conference the chance “to produce a substantive international program.”

But the U.S. delegation opposed a principle calling for the development of international law “regarding liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage,” according to a declassified roundup of actions taken at the conference.

A summary memo by Train states that the delegation opposed “politicizing” the conference and “consistently opposed using the conference as an excuse for new development ‘add-ons.'”

Train also noted, however, that “it is not possible to discuss environmental protection with the LDCs [least-developed countries] completely outside the context of development objectives.”

Train later went on to head EPA, where he faced a death threat for helping to institutionalize federal environmental policy in the agency’s early days.

‘We don’t want a big bill’

Developing countries began calling for reparations during the 1970s as environmental concerns entered international forum discussions, according to the National Security Archive’s analysis of the declassified documents. That prompted the State Department and other government officials to ready a strategy in anticipation of further calls for compensation.

“It really does reveal such a long, charged history of no admittance of responsibility for environmental impacts,” said Rachel Santarsiero, a research analyst at the National Security Archive.

Neither the State Department nor the White House responded to a request for comment Wednesday.

A recently declassified 1989 State Department document — which considered financial measures to limit or adapt to climate change — said proposals for a global climate fund were “premature and raise serious concerns.”

In language that echoes arguments from developed countries today, the paper adds: “Substantial work would need to be done to identify activities which might be supported. Any resources would need to be raised on a voluntary basis. The compatibility of a separate fund with existing assistance programs would also have to be demonstrated.”

While each presidential administration has approached climate action with varying degrees of ambition, they all appear to share a reticence to support calls for compensation.

Twenty years after the Stockholm conference, George H.W. Bush told German Chancellor Helmut Kohl he had a “major problem” with a summit marking its anniversary in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Bush, facing a rocky election, said he wouldn’t commit to things that would halt the economy.

“Maybe our experts can resolve these problems. But we don’t want a big bill at the end of the day,” he said, according to a White House record of the conversation.

None of the resistance stopped developing countries from continuing to push for compensation measures — with some small success. Climate talks in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007 led to the first formal mention in a U.N. document of the term “loss and damage.” At climate talks in 2013, countries agreed to create the Warsaw International Mechanism, making loss and damage a formal pillar of U.N. climate negotiations.

But efforts continued to avoid any mention of liability or compensation under the administration of President Barack Obama.

A declassified State Department communications package in the run-up to the 2015 Paris climate change conference states that “demands for massive sums and for ‘compensation’ are simply not feasible.”

The document includes talking points and questions and answers, including advice for officials on how to respond if pressed on why the United States opposes the creation of a fund for loss and damage. The suggested response: “We don’t think it appropriate or feasible to suggest that unknown, unlimited liability should be imposed on certain countries.”

“These documents are particularly interesting because they show snapshots of the U.S. hardline right before the Paris climate summit,” Santarsiero said.

The agreement to create a loss and damage fund last year still includes a caveat that those arrangements do not constitute liability, compensation or reparations. That’s a signal that the United States and other wealthy nations will continue to oppose such language into the future, the analysis concludes.

“Questions like, ‘Who will contribute to the fund?’ ‘Will only developed countries contribute?’ and ‘Will developing countries like China and India, or other non-state actors have to contribute?’ will surely dominate future climate summits — but any acceptance of responsibility is unlikely,” it states.