Kerry demands action, vows aid ahead of summit conclusion

By Jean Chemnick, Lisa Friedman | 12/09/2015 01:23 PM EST

LE BOURGET, France — The fate of the planet may hang on what happens here in the next two days, Secretary of State John Kerry said this morning.

LE BOURGET, France — The fate of the planet may hang on what happens here in the next two days, Secretary of State John Kerry said this morning.

Kerry, who has been involved in the U.N. climate negotiations since their inception, told delegates gathered in an airfield outside of Paris that the time for delay is over. They must resolve differences and forge an agreement or risk losing their best chance to avert catastrophe.

"If a global community cannot come together and refuses to rise to this challenge, if we continue to allow calculated obstruction to derail the urgency of this moment, we will be liable for a collective moral failure of historic consequence," he said.


Kerry, who as a Massachusetts senator attended the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio that led to these negotiations, said that while the next few days will not result in a deal that solves climate change, it must "chart a new path" that will lead to a sustainable future.

"We need to get the job done," he told an audience of delegates and officials who will spend the next days grappling with contentious issues ranging from legal form to climate aid for poor countries.

He presented the United States as a reliable partner in these talks, seizing the opportunity to disparage U.S. Republicans who say that human-driven warming doesn’t exists.

"My friends, these people are so out of touch with science that they believe rising sea levels don’t matter because in their view the extra water is just going to spill out of the sides of a flat Earth," he said. U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and others have spent considerable time this week holding news conferences and meeting with delegations to argue that the agency’s Clean Power Plan and other policies will withstand GOP attacks.

The top U.S. diplomat, meanwhile, told his audience that the United States is aware of its historic contribution to the emissions that are driving warming and is determined to help resolve the problem.

But while the Obama administration has won kudos from many for its ambitious domestic agenda on climate change — including its new power-plant emissions controls — poor countries continue to insist that developed countries provide them with more guarantees of aid for adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage. Rich countries have promised to help raise $100 billion a year by 2020, but there are substantial disagreements between developed and developing countries about how that aid should be counted and uncertainty about where it will come from.

Poor countries note that while private investment may be available for green energy projects and other means of mitigation, the same is not true for adaptation. They insist that rich countries provide more certainty about what they will contribute directly and that such help come in the form of grants rather than loans.

Kerry responded this morning by announcing that the United States would double the money now flowing to adaptation grants by 2020 (Greenwire, Dec. 9). That means increasing expenditures from the State Department, U.S. AID and the Treasury Department from about $431 million last year to $860 million by the end of the decade. He acknowledged in his remarks that many of the countries most affected by warming did little to cause it and in some cases may face losing their homes to sea-level rise and other threats.

"We will not leave the most vulnerable nations among us to quite literally weather the storm alone," Kerry pledged.

Adaptation aid would be additional

A senior official said earlier today that the rollout would be a net increase to U.S. adaptation funding. The funds will support programs at the State Department and other agencies.

The administration has pledged separately to provide $3 billion over the next four years to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund to help poor countries cope with climate change and reduce their own emissions. But less than half of that money will go to adaptation grants, and the pledge ends in 2020.

"With this commitment, we are committing to an enduring effort to ramp up our investments in adaptation, of which our contribution to the Green Climate Fund will be component, but which will endure beyond that additional GCF contribution and which will be reflected in increased investment through State, through USAID and through Treasury," the official said.

The money will go to projects to help climate-vulnerable countries better forecast and prepare for changing weather patterns, adapt to changes in precipitation by trapping rainwater, or to help islands shore up their mangroves, among other things, the official said. These are already underway through U.S. AID and other agencies.

The fate of the Green Climate Fund remains uncertain. Congress must pass legislation by Friday to fund the federal government, and while the administration has said it is prioritizing its fiscal 2016 GCF contribution of $350 million in the State Department budget, it remains unclear whether that will be provided. The adaptation funding would be available in the future if the State Department "prioritizes" the funding in its budget, the official said.

But Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who heads a key Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee, said in a statement to Greenwire that Kerry’s announcement is just the latest example of the administration making promises it can’t keep without authorization from Congress.

"Secretary Kerry is simply trying to buy off developing nations with money he doesn’t have and Congress won’t give him," he said. "Thirty-six senators recently joined me in pledging to President Obama that there will be no international climate funding without Senate approval."

Aid a ‘strategic play’

The offer of aid is intended to help the world reach a climate agreement that will be a key component of President Obama’s climate legacy.

The United States hopes it will spur poor countries to accept its priorities in these talks, especially a legal architecture that does not make emissions targets subject to international law and that the United States can therefore participate in without consent from the Senate. Other top U.S. asks include provisions to ensure greater transparency of emissions reporting, language lessening the differences between developed and developing countries’ responsibilities, and certainty that rich countries will never be liable for climate-related damages.

Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser who is attending the talks, called the announcement "a strategic play to both head off loss and damage calls by developing nations, and gain additional help from other nations on the key U.S. issues of emissions reporting and updating greenhouse gas ambitions every five years that China and India are resisting."

Nathaniel Keohane, who oversees international climate issues for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the commitment would shore up U.S. "bona fides" going in to the final negotiations by showing that the United States is sensitive to developing world priorities.

While disagreements persist, the talks seem on course to end with a deal.

U.S. analysts who were at the 2009 summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, contrasted Kerry’s speech to that of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then. During the darkest days of that conference, when negotiations were at their lowest point, Clinton announced the United States and other wealthy countries would mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020.

"The momentum had really ground to the halt," recalled Peter Ogden, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who was serving as U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern’s chief of staff at the time.

"She arrived and gave a really energizing speech and breathed some fresh hope into the process," he said. "It gave it a spark that it really needed at that point."

While Kerry’s announcement of doubling adaptation finance to about $860 million annually is hardly as jaw-dropping, Ogden and others said the Paris moment calls for a different touch.

"You needed shock and awe" in Copenhagen, said Jake Schmidt, international programs director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Agreed Ogden: "Clearly there is momentum still in the process here." Kerry’s speech and delivering money for adaptation takes on a key issue that very poor nations are concerned about. But, he said, "We’re not experiencing anywhere near the tension that ripped the Bella Center at this juncture."

Those who work directly with poor countries to help them protect communities from the impacts of climate change, like Heather Coleman of Oxfam America, called the money important politically and substantively.

"It’s a really positive political signal," Coleman said. She described the money as part of existing U.S. commitments but repackaged for adaptation. Still, she said, "It is still a critically important message to send, and it shows the commitment this administration has to delivering on what they said they will do."

Developing countries were the obvious target for the adaptation announcement — which came after Kerry met with representatives of small island nations earlier this week.

Anthony Wolimbwa, who works for an environmental group in Uganda, called it "a good thing."

But, he said, "It really needs to be matched by capacity building. Most of the African states don’t have the capacity to attract the money," he said. He also urged other wealthy countries like Japan, Canada and Australia to follow in the footsteps of the United States.

Saleemul Huq, who advises the group of least developed countries in the negotiations, called Kerry’s speech "a master class in climate change issues, both diplomacy and reality."

He praised the adaptation funding and said he hopes it helps "raise the level of ambition collectively."

Raman Mehta, director of policy and programs at the Vasudha Foundation in New Delhi, said before the announcement that the developing world wouldn’t accept "aspirational" commitments.

"It has now reached a stage where promises of something being done in the future don’t really count, because there have been so many promises in the past that have not been met, at least in this process," he said.

When details emerged, Mehta said that the new aid promises would help, but that $800 million a year was still "a drop in the ocean" compared with the vast sums that climate-vulnerable countries would ultimately need.

Others were skeptical of the move.

Harlan Watson of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a former George W. Bush administration climate envoy questioned whether Kerry was offering up new money.

"Can he even get the old money?" Watson asked. "He’s almost waving a red flag before Congress."