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If Obama Agrees the U.S. Is Causing Global Climate Change, Then Why Is He Letting Other Countries Foot the Bill?

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On Tuesday, President Obama made it clear that he understands the damage the United States has done to the climate—and the unfair consequences: “The nations that contribute the least to climate change,” he said, speaking at the UN Climate Summit, “often stand to lose the most.”

Dealing with climate change is a two-step process requiring, in the language of climate scientists, mitigation—the effort to reduce or prevent altogether harmful emissions—and adaptation—adjustments populations make in order to cope with a changing climate. The burden of mitigation lies squarely on the shoulders of countries like the United States and China—those that are responsible for the greatest share of pollutants. At global climate talks (like the ones this week) the spotlight shines on those nations the brightest. Obama acknowledged as much in his speech this week: “We recognize our role in creating this problem. We embrace our responsibility to combat it.”

Pledges to clean up the environment, however, don’t address the immediate needs of people already struggling to survive extreme weather events. That’s a matter of adaptation, and the necessity to adapt falls most directly to the countries least economically equipped to do so.

That’s where the Green Climate Fund comes in. The Green Climate Fund aims to become the global financer for progressive climate action. This week alone, it gathered over $1.3 billion in pledges to finance adaptation projects for countries in need. France committed to $1 billion, and by early afternoon on Tuesday, a handful of other countries, including Denmark, Norway, and Mexico, pledged a combined $300 million. Prior to the Summit Germany promised $1 billion. Notably, the U.S. did not pledge anything to the Fund.

Established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in late 2010, one year after the ill-fated 2009 Copenhagen conference, the Green Climate Fund plans to fund innovation in sustainable technology and costly infrastructure that is needed to protect vulnerable countries.

The Green Climate Fund’s Executive Director, Hela Cheikhrouhou, says she has observed the inefficiencies of a top-down approach. To ensure that the Fund finances the most-needed sectors and populations, they’re letting countries suffering from climate change that don’t have financial resources lead. In advance of funding, the committees will create a list of priority projects. Helping to fund seawalls to keep back ocean waves or desalination plants to clean polluted water are just two examples of small island countries’ particular needs.

Cheikhrouhou suspects that larger more industrialized economies will be interested in working with the Fund on innovative adaptation technology, like early-warning systems for seismic or atmospheric shifts, which will help indicate imminent severe weather events. These are secondary projects, though. The most pressing need comes from small, vulnerable countries that require financial help to quickly adjust to an environment that is rapidly changing. “When you are in a country with much more poverty and much more dependence on natural resources, then your communities’ livelihood is much more fragile and less resilient,” Cheikhrouhou says.

Because countries haven’t yet made good on their promised pledges—the Fund starts collecting in November—the Fund can’t immediately finance anything. Cheikhrouhou says that tentative projects are currently in front of the board, but that nothing will be put into action until funding is secured. 

Similar financial institutions have had somewhat limited success in drawing financial support from the world’s biggest economies. In 2001, partners to the Kyoto Protocol established the Adaptation Fund to raise money from global leaders, though it wasn’t officially launched until six years later. Despite its head start, less than $300 million has been donated to the Adaptation Fund. According to the Adaptation Fund’s website, the Fund has pledged to spend $167 million. In Madagascar, $5 million has been awarded to help the current rice sector more climate resilient. Pakistan has received $4 million to reduce vulnerabilities to flooding from nearby glacier lakes.

Amidst all this fundraising, the U.S., the world’s largest economy, is noticeably absent. Pledging to the Green Climate Fund would require congressional approval, which is nearly impossible. Congress is likely to be similarly intractable if presented with a climate treaty after the 2015 Paris talks. Such a treaty would presumably go the way of the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. signed but Congress refused to ratify. And without a legally binding agreement or a formal pledge of support, Obama’s Summit vow doesn’t mean much.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government’s past reticence to fund climate action for less fortunate countries has set the tone for the world. The U.S.’s failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol gave countries around the world tacit approval to abandon the environmental pact. Few countries outside of Europe upheld their promises, and the Protocol never fulfilled its mission. In 2011, Canada withdrew from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. After Canada pulled out, several countries including Ukraine threatened to follow suit. Let’s hope the U.S.’s reluctance to commit to the Green Climate Fund does not have a similar effect.