Obama's foreign-aid pledge bound for GOP chopping block

When Congress passes appropriations legislation this year, the shortlist of programs getting more money is unlikely to include international climate aid.

The new Republican majority in the House and many members in the Senate have made cutting discretionary spending their flagship issue for the 112th Congress, a stance that doesn't bode well for international aid programs. Meanwhile, climate change fell from sitting atop the Democratic majorities' "to do" lists in the last Congress to being a target as Republicans and some Democrats offer competing proposals to halt U.S. EPA's regulation of heat-trapping carbon emissions.

"I think that Congress is after foreign aid in general, and this may be a particularly attractive area for some in Congress because they can make two points with one action," said Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Republicans [in the House] will propose a cut in international climate funding -- they don't like international especially -- and they definitely don't like climate change," said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "And then it will be a conversation between the House and Senate for how they reconcile what I think will be pretty significant differences."

Still, while international programs related to climate mitigation and adaptation may have lost their clout in Congress, observers who work on international climate policy point out that other countries still expect the United States to live up to commitments it has made in recent years as part of ongoing U.N. climate negotiations.


The United States contributed $1.7 billion last year in climate change assistance to other countries, and President Obama is expected to ask Congress for at least that amount when he unveils his fiscal 2012 budget request on Monday.

At 2009 U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, the Obama administration pledged to help deliver $100 billion annually by 2020 to an international fund for mitigation and adaptation efforts. In the short term, the United States is also obligated to help raise $30 billion to help the world's poorest countries cope with climate change.

If the United States falls short of these commitments, it could lose the ability to influence future talks, Levi said. Small developing countries in Asia and Africa will support U.S. priorities in U.N. negotiations only if they can trust the United States to safeguard their own interests -- especially by helping to provide them with the means to respond to climate change, he said.

"The bottom line is that if the United States isn't able to follow through on the kinds of things that it is saying it wants to do, that makes it less influential," he said.

The United States and China have often held opposite points of view on issues ranging from emissions monitoring, reporting and verification to whether large developing nations should agree to binding mitigation targets.

Levi said that developing nations had the capacity to nudge China to make the concessions necessary to forge an agreement. "China cares about its image in the broader developing world," he said. Losing the support of poorer countries would weaken the United States' hand and make consensus less attainable, he said.

Reid Detchon, vice president for energy and climate at the U.N. Foundation, said that by showing developing nations that they cannot take U.S. commitments to the bank, the United States could increase China's influence over them.

"It seems to me that increasingly, developing countries are seeing China as a more reliable partner than the U.S. A country that keeps its commitments," he said. "So this would be another factor in the shift in influence between the two countries."

Detchon said that China has become a major presence in developing countries, mostly in an effort to secure access to their natural resources. It has cultivated relationships with some of the same countries that stand to benefit from international climate aid.

"If China and the U.S. disagree in future talks, who is the rest of the world going to stand with?" he said.

Detchon said that helping poor countries cope with the effects of climate change is also a moral obligation for the United States, given the country's role as the top historic emitter of greenhouse gases.

Business at risk

Schmidt of Natural Resources Defense Council said that if the United States "lowballs" its climate funding contributions, it could kill opportunities for U.S. businesses.

"When we create markets abroad for clean energy technologies, it creates opportunities for U.S. companies to sell into those markets," he said. "We've already seen that." He noted that U.S.-based Clipper Windpower had supplied wind turbines to a Mexican utility with financing help from the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

Even funding to combat deforestation in developing countries could benefit U.S. foresters and farmers who do not have to compete with illegally harvested timber, he said.

"These cuts are sort of penny-wise, pound-foolish, in the sense that there's such a bigger upside to U.S. small investments," he said.

Sarah Ladislaw, an energy analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the administration had already taken steps to ensure that carbon reduction is not eliminated from their foreign aid operations.

She pointed out that the State Department has moved to make climate mitigation a strategic part of its other economic aid programs, which are expected to fare better -- if not well -- in the fiscal 2012 appropriations process.

"Most folks in the climate world in this country saw that coming and to a certain extent tried very hard to recalibrate anything that looked like climate finance in particular and sort of integrate it into development assistance in general," she said.

"It's not fool-proof, it's not necessarily going to help all that much, but it's what can be done."

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