How sending climate aid abroad helps the U.S.

By Jean Chemnick | 01/09/2023 06:30 AM EST

Helping other countries deal with climate change is an idea that has plenty of skeptics. But many experts say it’s good for the U.S. and other rich nations.

Coal is stored for the Maitree Super Thermal Power Project in Bangladesh.

Coal is stored for the Maitree Super Thermal Power Project near the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, in Rampal, Bangladesh, on Oct. 17, 2022. Al-emrun Garjon/AP Photo

For years, the world’s wealthiest nations have dragged their feet on sending climate aid to developing countries.

One obstacle — perhaps the biggest obstacle — is convincing politicians in the United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere that climate investments abroad can make a difference back home. As former President Donald Trump quipped in 2017 about one U.N. climate initiative: It’s “yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States.”

But experts say that viewpoint is shortsighted. They argue that climate investments in developing countries offer some of the cheapest and best opportunities to avoid runaway warming and preserve geopolitical stability. And they warn that the United States sells itself short when it under-funds international climate efforts, as Congress did last month with the latest federal spending bill (Climatewire, Dec. 21, 2022).


“The U.S. has more capacity to adapt, but it’s ultimately at least as vulnerable — and some of the very wealthiest parts of this country are as vulnerable — as other parts of the world,” said David Nicholson, chief climate officer at Mercy Corps. “And I think the American audience often doesn’t realize that.”

In 2009, the United States and other wealthy countries pledged in Copenhagen, Denmark, that they would work together to channel $100 billion annually to the developing world by 2020. But they’re behind in delivering on that promise.

An analysis released in September by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a group composed mostly of more developed countries, found that rich nations fell short of the annual $100 billion goal in 2020, mobilizing just $83.3 billion in climate finance that year. Oxfam released an analysis last year that showed even less investment. It said rich countries mobilized less than $25 billion in 2020 — not even a quarter of the Copenhagen pledge.

The U.N. Green Climate Fund, which channels public finance from wealthier nations toward mitigation and adaptation projects in the developing world, also has been undercapitalized. U.S. donations in particular have lagged. To date it has provided $1 billion of the initial $3 billion President Barack Obama pledged in 2014 (Climatewire, Dec. 19, 2022).

Short-changing these funds, some experts say, is a recipe for disaster. Not only does it make it harder for the world to fight global warming, but it also sets the stage for future economic problems, as climate-juiced disasters wreak havoc on countries that don’t have the resources to deal with them.

“The difference between a 1.7-degree [Celsius] world and a 2-degree world is going to be the emissions coming from emerging economies,” Nicholson said. “That is where the difference is.”

Helping the rest of the world halve its emissions

Without emissions cuts in the Global South — a term that refers broadly to Africa, Latin America, Asia and Oceana — the world can’t keep global temperatures below the threshold that scientists say could open the door to climate catastrophe.

The world’s poor countries already account for 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, compared with the collective 15 percent they contributed in 1950. And though rich nations’ annual carbon output is projected to fall dramatically in the coming decades in response to domestic policies and economic forces, a cadre of countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia that contributed comparatively little to climate change until recently could become tomorrow’s mega-emitters.

Kelly Sims Gallagher, a former White House policy adviser under Obama, wrote in a recent article for Foreign Affairs magazine that two dozen countries are expected to greatly increase their emissions in the coming decades because they share some of the characteristics that spurred China’s meteoric rise in emissions in the first two decades of the 21st century.

Her list includes today’s emerging heavyweights, including China and India, but also not-so-usual suspects such as Ethiopia, Tanzania and Bangladesh.

“Their population size, rapid economic growth rates, and reliance on fossil fuels have placed them on a trajectory for a dramatic expansion of their emissions,” wrote Sims Gallagher, who’s now with the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

In that same vein, Nicholson pointed to the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose carbon-sequestering forests might be sacrificed to economic growth.

“We want [gross domestic product] growth in those countries, because they deserve to develop, but it has to be decoupled from carbon emissions growth,” he said.

A Global South “carbon bomb” would be felt in rich countries as well as poor ones. Successive editions of the U.S. National Climate Assessment have identified climate impacts at various temperature thresholds, and they get worse as the thermometer rises. The risks include supersized storms, wildfires and droughts, as well as damage to infrastructure, property and public health.

“It’s fully projected, what the impacts of emissions in other countries will be on the United States. It’s virtually mathematical,” said Ashfaq Khalfan, climate justice director for Oxfam America.

A $4.3 trillion price tag

The Paris Agreement relies on nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, submitted by countries that show their emissions commitments and other actions, often including adaptation plans. These pledges are intended to tighten over time to allow the world to limit overall warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The United States and many other rich countries have agreed to cut emissions approximately in half by 2030. Their NDCs are in line with Paris’ 1.5 C objective — but only if one assumes the rest of the world follows suit.

Khalfan called that assumption “completely unreasonable” given disparities in wealth and historical emissions.

“So if the Global North is not willing or able to move much faster in reducing emissions, and is expecting developing countries to reduce by the same proportion, then they do need to be providing the billions [of dollars] needed for developing countries to reduce the emissions themselves,” he said.

The mitigation and adaptation goals outlined in developing country NDCs would cost an aggregate $4.3 trillion with cutoff dates through 2040, according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute. More than half of pledges put forward by Global South countries to date depend at least in part on finance, technical assistance or both from outside sources. That includes bilateral and multilateral aid and finance from multilateral development banks, among other sources.

The U.N. climate agency’s standing committee on finance reported last year that 78 developing-country NDCs included specific requests for support attached to programs. Those requests totaled more than $500 billion through 2030. That total doesn’t cover all NDCs that would depend on foreign aid — a number that would likely be much higher.

Climate affects migration, security

Nicholson said there were plenty of humanitarian reasons for the Global North to help poor countries adapt to climate change and recover from disasters.

“However, if you’re asking the question, ‘Why should Americans care from their own perspective?’ then it is about global security,” he said.

The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community are well aware of the link between climate and security, issuing threat assessments that looked not only at the effect of warming on U.S. military operations but also its role in exacerbating risks such as armed insurrection and state failure (E&E News PM, Oct. 21, 2021).

If the Global North doesn’t provide proactive aid to help countries survive economically and recover from climate disasters, Nicholson said, “it will just lead to global instability, people crossing borders and countries sort of turning in on themselves.”

“Clearly, migration is an issue,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at E3G. “We’re already seeing some climate-driven migration happening in different regions of the world. And projections are that that could substantially increase under various temperature scenarios.”

There’s some research to suggest climate change helped seed the Syrian civil war that drove refugees into the European Union in the last decade. Droughts in Central America and Mexico that pushed smallholder farmers off their land may have contributed to migration across the U.S. southern border. Aid organizations stress that immigration offers substantial benefits for countries where migrants settle. But it has also fueled nationalist political movements in both the United States and Europe.

“If you get hundreds of millions or a billion people facing forced migration, you make global governance almost impossible and may threaten democracies that can’t deal with that kind of strain on the system,” Meyer said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the estimated total cost of developing countries’ climate mitigation and adaptation goals.