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What Happens If Congress Doesn't Deliver on Obama's Climate Promises?

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President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget proposal from Monday calls for more funding for climate change initiatives in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department, including a $4 billion bonus for states that go above and beyond the EPA's pollution regulations for utilities. By comparison, his $500 million request to fund international climate finance is a tiny portion of the $4 trillion budget. That request is to make good on his pledge last fall to contribute $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, which is the world's main financial vehicle for helping developing nations combat climate change. 

But he needs Congress to deliver on that promise. Getting any funds from the Republican-controlled body is one of Obama’s toughest challenges. And when Congress fails to deliver the $500 million this year, the U.S.'s credibility will be hurt. It would hurt the prospects of passing a global deal on greenhouse gas emissions, which is expected in Paris at the end of the year. 

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe promised he’ll “do everything in [his] power to prevent $3 billion in taxpayer dollars from going to the Green Climate Fund, where the money will be spent by unelected UN bureaucrats to dictate U.S. policy and hinder developing countries’ ability to aggressively address the economics of poverty.” Most Republicans feel the same way. During debate on a Keystone XL bill in January, Senate Republicans voted on an amendment proposed by Senator Roy Blunt that would nullify Obama's agreement with China this fall and limit the U.S.'s ability to negotiate in Paris. The bill reached a 51-vote majority, but did not garner the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster. Only two Republicans voted against the amendment, Susan Collins of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Another bad sign for a climate agreement is the omnibus spending bill Congress passed in December. That bill blocked appropriations for the Green Climate Fund, though its impact is limited to this fiscal year and therefore shouldn't affect the 2016 budget.  

George W. Bush set the precedent for helping poor countries adapt to climate change, committing $2 billion at the time to a similar climate fund—another sign that Republicans’ outrage is superficial at best.

Over and over again, people close to international climate talks have called the Green Climate Fund a critical detail for securing a deal in Paris. Successful negotiations “very much depend on the fulfillment of promises that people made," Karen Orenstein, senior analyst at Friends of the Earth, told Inside Climate News. "Everyone, but particularly developing countries and civil society, will be looking to see if the money is realized." The World Resources Institute helped explain the significance in a November blog post: “One of the most challenging and important sticking points in the international climate negotiations is the money to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, and to reduce their emissions of climate pollution," it read. "The Green Climate Fund (GCF) sits at the center of this discussion.”

So far, the rest of the world has only Obama's words (and his executive orders) to count on the U.S.'s participation in combatting climate change. Congressional action will undercut that credibility. If countries like China begin to think that the U.S.'s participation is only superficial, they could renege too, along with other countries that are somewhat reluctant to take action. After all: The Green Climate Fund’s announcements proved powerful in spurring other countries to contribute, like Australia and Canada. Of the developed world, they were the most reluctant to contribute anything, but they chipped in small amounts that helped the fund reach an initial goal of $10 billion.

If Obama gets some—but not all—of the funding he requests, that might be enough to retain America's credibility. It’s just unclear whether he can even manage that.