Obama's $3B pledge to face test in Republican-led Congress

President Obama will follow his promise of sweeping U.S. cuts in greenhouse gas emissions this weekend with a pledge of $3 billion to help poor countries afflicted by miseries linked to global warming, the White House confirmed today.

Obama is set to announce the U.S. commitment to the United Nations' Green Climate Fund at the G-20 summit in Australia. The president and Chinese President Xi Jinping will also use the gathering of major industrialized and emerging countries to present their new post-2020 carbon dioxide reduction promises in the hopes of spurring other big carbon emitters to make their own commitments early next year.

The U.S. would make its contribution to the Green Climate Fund over four years, building up an account established during 2010 U.N. climate talks in Cancun, Mexico. The U.S. pledge would take the fund nearly a third of the way to its goal -- an initial investment of between $10 billion and $15 billion.

Countries were asked to make pledges at a scheduled Nov. 20 meeting in Berlin, which comes a few weeks before the next round of climate change talks in Lima, Peru. Environmentalists and anti-poverty groups embraced reports of the administration's Green Climate Fund pledge with great enthusiasm this morning, saying it would encourage other contributions.

"The Obama administration should be applauded for taking action and putting real resources on the table to help protect our children's future and invest in greater security for all of us," said Heather Coleman, climate change manager at Oxfam America, in a statement. "This pledge can help ensure developing countries have the tools they need to grow in a low-carbon way and the confidence that America will do its part."


But like Obama's commitment earlier this week to slash U.S. emissions by 26 to 28 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2025, the climate funding is likely to be opposed by Republican majorities in Congress.

"Climate finance brings not just one source of opposition but two sources of opposition from conservatives in the Congress -- both to the notion of foreign aid and to the notion of climate change policy," Harvard University economist Robert Stavins said. "So I think it's particularly challenging."

Since winning control of the Senate last week, Republicans have pledged to use their clout to target administration regulations for carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions. But while they may now have the opportunity to move legislation in both chambers, all those efforts are expected to die on the president's desk.

But Congress' "power of the purse" does put the ball in Republicans' court when it comes to funding administration priorities. And that seems to cast doubt on the administration's ability to deliver on its pledge.

"There's going to be a lot of moves to strip out language that includes any new funding, that's certainly the case," Stavins said.

All of this argues for a greater emphasis on leveraging private capitol rather than directing taxpayer money to international climate finance, Stavins said. U.S. EPA could even do that by allowing international carbon offsets to play a role in its draft rule for existing power plants.

By taking steps to encourage private investment in international projects -- mostly mitigation efforts like deployment of renewable energy -- the administration might also minimize the risk of seeing those funds diverted to other purposes or pocketed by corrupt foreign officials, Stavins said.

Climate aid advocates say they expect the new political environment to complicate efforts to secure generous U.S. contributions to international climate aid.

"Anything in the budget that is tagged climate -- with the theme 'climate' -- is going to be under scrutiny, there's no doubt about it," Oxfam's Coleman said in an interview last night. "I do think it will be an uphill battle, and I think most would agree."

Remembering Bush's pledge

But Coleman and others noted that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have supported funding in the past for the U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies that help poor nations cope with weather disasters and provide power and other services to their citizens.

"There is precedent for this," said Alex Doukas, a financial analyst at the World Resources Institute. He pointed to President George W. Bush's pledge in 2008 to contribute $2 billion over five years to the U.N.'s Climate Investment Fund -- a program that supported low-carbon energy in developing countries. The former president, who is not often hailed as a climate change activist, also promised $320 million for the Global Environment Facility.

But Billy Pizer, a deputy assistant Treasury secretary for environment and energy in the Bush administration who worked on many of these issues, noted that Congress didn't immediately fund Bush's pledges of climate aid. The president announced them early in 2008 and included them in his 2009 budget request to Congress, but the money was not provided until the following fiscal year.

The same thing could happen again, Pizer said. Obama could include the funds in his fiscal 2016 budget proposal, and Congress could either grant those funds or not. The U.S. will have four years to deliver on its promise.

Outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) this morning noted the last administration's support for climate change aid.

"President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for building off President George W. Bush's $2 billion pledge for the Climate Investment Fund and positioning the U.S. as a global leader on climate," he said in a statement. "This announcement, combined with the historic announcement with China earlier in the week, shows that the U.S. is serious about addressing climate change and is willing to lead the way."

Menendez is preparing to hand his gavel to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who in 2008 was a member of a bipartisan working group of moderate senators led by then-Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who collaborated on energy policy. And Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), a strong advocate for climate finance, will be replaced as chairman of the Senate State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who in 2010 worked with Secretary of State John Kerry, then a Massachusetts senator, and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a bill that would have capped carbon emissions across the U.S. economy.

Graham still supports action to curb emissions, though he has moved away from cap and trade as a mechanism.

With Corker at the helm of the Senate committee in charge of authorizing international aid programs and Graham heading the Appropriations subpanel responsible for funding them, climate advocates say there is some reason to be optimistic. Coleman noted that Corker and Graham favor international aid generally more than other members of their caucus.

"They understand the value of foreign aid for a variety of purposes," said Coleman. "And I think they understand the value of investments."

And advocates stress that climate aid can benefit U.S. businesses -- especially green technology and infrastructure providers -- by creating markets for their products abroad. That upside should appeal to pro-business Republicans, they say.

Pizer said the Senate seemed less inclined than the House to micromanage agency budgets as part of its spending bills.

"I don't know that the Senate would get into the weeds on the foreign assistance account in the same way that the House would," he said.

Past financing commitments

Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Tuesday's announcement of climate pledges and the coming pledge to the Green Climate Fund will give other countries confidence that the U.S. is doing its part toward an international climate deal next year in Paris.

Both emissions reduction and finance for poor countries will be important components of any agreement.

France, Germany and other countries have already pledged money toward the fund, and the U.S. pledge will likely put pressure on other countries that have yet to do so -- like the United Kingdom.

"If they don't come through with capitalizing it, it will be seen as a broken promise," he said.

In the past, offers of finance from the developed world would also have been crucial to persuading major emerging countries to offer more ambitious emissions reduction commitments.

"But I think the landscape has shifted," Meyer said.

China pledged to cap its emissions by 2030 on Tuesday in a joint announcement with the U.S. But while finance commitments may no longer be needed to compel large developing emitters to act, they will be needed to gain poor countries' support for an international agreement next year in Paris.

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