The woman in the center of Biden’s climate aid puzzle

By Sara Schonhardt | 05/01/2023 06:37 AM EDT

Diplomat Christina Chan is helping guide the creation of a loss and damage fund — with America’s interests in mind.

Christina Chan of the State Department.

Christina Chan of the State Department represents the U.S. on the U.N.-backed loss and damage transitional committee. Sara Schonhardt/POLITICO's E&E News

Meet President Joe Biden’s fixer on loss and damage.

Christina Chan started her career helping manage climate-related disasters. Now she has a different challenge to manage: determining how the United States might contribute aid to countries losing land, lives and heritage to global warming.

Chan, 47, represents the United States on a U.N.-backed committee overseeing the creation of a fund for loss and damage — the term used to describe the unavoidable, often irreparable harms fueled by a changing climate. The fund and the committee were part of a landmark agreement reached at last year’s global climate talks in Egypt.


In that role she’ll have to wrestle with global skepticism about America’s promises on climate aid, and internal disputes within a government that has shortchanged countries on the front lines of dramatic environmental changes. Behind the scenes looms the possibility that her efforts might not result in actual new money for climate support.

With the fund existing only as a concept for now, the U.S. hasn’t begun talking about money. Chan said the goal is to design something that the U.S. can “hopefully contribute to.”

She sees her role as helping to define what kinds of problems the fund would pay to address. In her mind, that includes issues related to migration, displacement and planned relocation, as well as the impacts of slow-onset events like rising seas and the loss of cultural heritage.

“Starting to define what it is we’re talking about, helps us then with the finance pieces of getting funding for those things,” Chan told E&E News in an interview at the State Department.

The committee she’s on has 24 members — 10 from wealthy nations like the U.S., which have the most responsibility for causing climate change, and 14 from poorer countries that bear the greatest burdens of rising temperatures.

The committee’s job is to determine how a fund would be structured and governed — and where the money would come from. It will need to offer recommendations to get the fund running by the time climate talks begin in late November in the United Arab Emirates.

There is, of course, no funding yet, though lots of ideas have been floated beyond government contributions, from a levy on fossil fuel production to a tax on air travel.

The United States has consistently come up short in meeting its pledges on international climate funding, which generally needs to be appropriated from Congress. Republicans have long been opposed to supporting climate aid for other countries.

Last week, Biden put $1 billion toward the U.N. Green Climate Fund, bringing the U.S. two-thirds of the way toward meeting its $3 billion promise made in 2014.

New Jersey, Nepal, Washington

Chan said she feels the pressure of her role, knowing that the U.S. hasn’t made good on past pledges. It’s a role that’s informed as much by her work on adaptation policies as it is by her upbringing as a child of Chinese immigrants.

“My dad owned a Chinese restaurant in New Jersey, and I worked in that restaurant from like [the age of] 4. My dad would press a light, and then I would go to the kitchen and pick up the takeout packages,” said Chan.

“And so it was always maybe an appreciation from being really little about how fortunate we were to be in this country,” she added. “I could have lived a completely different life had I just been born in a different place.”

After college at Stanford University, Chan worked in Nepal, eventually taking a job with the global humanitarian agency CARE International to help remote communities deal with flash flooding from heavy rains. That was rewarding, she said, because the results were so visible: safer people and saved possessions.

Then she went to the State Department to advocate for U.S. climate policies that would help poor people in other countries.

She left the department in 2017 to lead a climate resilience program at the World Resources Institute that was focused on giving communities more say over adaptation funding. She returned to State after Biden was elected on a strong climate platform.

Unanswered questions

Chan — who also serves as senior adviser for adaptation to climate envoy John Kerry — said the U.S. hasn’t discussed how or when it might begin to contribute to a loss and damage fund.

“We need to figure out what this fund will do. We need to figure out the sources of finance for the fund, we need to figure out where the fund will sit and what the fund will fund. And we’re absolutely committed,” she said.

That commitment seems to mark a shift from past years, when the U.S. had stood in the way of discussions on payments for loss and damage, out of concern for admitting liability around its carbon emissions or for encouraging compensation claims by other nations. The U.S. says the agreement reached last year is not about either liability or compensation.

Going into the global climate talks in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November, there were questions about whether the U.S. would back a loss and damage fund. Chan said she thinks that was a misperception.

“What we had proposed at the start of Sharm was to agree to a process. We thought it would take two years to have a good conversation and exploration in a methodological way of what are the needs, what are the gaps and what are the best ways to fill them,” she said.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t think loss and damage was an issue or that we didn’t think there was a need for more finance to help countries with loss and damage. So when there was growing consensus to agree to a fund, we didn’t oppose it,” Chan added.

“We just thought it was … we were agreeing to it without actually talking about what it was and what it could do and how it could fill a space and not be duplicative or redundant,” she said.

Landing on a fund was historic.

As for what projects the loss and damage fund might support, Chan said a number of ideas have been put forward.

One Pacific island nation says it wants funding to reclaim land by raising low-lying areas and guard against rising seas, she said. Another has talked about managing the loss of cultural heritage such as ancestral burial grounds threatened by coastal erosion. And there are proposals to essentially transform island economies like the Maldives that can no longer rely on fisheries for income.

Chan said there are challenges beyond finding the money, such as determining who gets funding and ensuring it’s used effectively.

She offered a hypothetical: Instead of waiting until crops are lost in a drought, money could flow to at-risk places when climate risks are triggered, helping them prevent a disaster.

Searching for common ground

Finding common ground among countries will be a challenge. Chan had hoped that the first loss and damage committee meeting in March, held in Luxor, Egypt, would help put everyone on the same page. It did not.

It reminded her of a mix-up she and other committee members had days earlier while sightseeing. They thought they were seeing the tomb of one queen, but it turned out to be another.

“I worry that if we’re talking about different things and we’re talking past each other at [meeting number] one, and we continue to do it at [meeting] two, it’s going to make it a lot harder to find compromise and to find places where we can land this thing,” she said.

A fund for everything and everyone is something that makes Chan express discomfort. She also talked uneasily about the growing financial demands being placed on the U.S. and the repercussions of not being able to meet them.

“We want to design a fund that is going to be effective and is going to be able to attract funding from a wide range of sources. That’s why we’re doing this,” she said. That includes contributions from governments but also “innovative sources of finance.”

“We want to design something that … we can hopefully contribute to,” she said.