You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Ugly Truth Lurking Behind the Climate Talks

As a climate deal nears, power players want accountability (just not for themselves).

Mandel Ngan / Getty

LE BOURGET, France—When I meet new people here, the first question I usually get is a variation on, “Are these your first climate talks?” What they want to know is if I’m an expert like them—if I know the jargon, the unwritten rules, the backstories of who’s been fighting who since Kyoto ’97.

The answer is, yes, these are my first talks. And that’s made for some humbling learning curves (look, “ADP” and “informal informal” aren’t exactly self-defining terms). But the good part is that I got to come here with the outsider’s perspective of someone who’s spent more time covering disaster, social upheaval, and response, particularly in Haiti, the country ranked as the third-most affected by climate change so far.

In other words, I’ve seen a few things—things that leave me with a question right at the center of what is likely to be the major battle in the final stage of these talks.

I think everyone gets the importance of money and power at these negotiations by now. The operating assumption is that rich countries who’ve benefited most from carbon emissions will pay something to alleviate the effects of global warming on the poor, while helping the new major polluters, such as India, get off carbon before they burn us past the point of no return.

In exchange, the world’s powers want reporting and transparency—so India and China don’t sneak off and burn a bunch of coal and oil while no one is looking—and a plan for future meetings where everyone will make new pledges and be held accountable in the court of world opinion for what they’ve done. That trade-off is why the U.S. wants emissions accounting and transparency standards (and little else) to be legally binding, while India goes to the mat to force a better accounting on rich countries’ existing pledge to “mobilize” $100 billion a year in climate finance.

But the thing is, I’ve actually seen what it looks like when rich countries “give”—or more accurately, promise to give—to people in the developing world. It’s ugly.

The truth is that powerful countries rarely simply hand money to foreign governments or people. Instead, we pay ourselves to do projects, then evaluate them ourselves, with little meaningful participation from the people we nominally try to help. Oxfam has said that 85 percent of the U.S. “foreign aid” budget actually goes to U.S. government contractors and U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations—despite the fact that study after study shows it’s more effective to support other governments’ budgets or better yet (surprise!) just give people money.

One reason this happens is an outsized fear of foreigners’ corruption. Another is domestic politics: Conservatives, especially U.S. ones, loathe foreign aid, seeing it as yet another redistribution of money from those who deserve it (them) to those who don’t (anyone else). Congresses of all stripes routinely block anything that actually lets money leave American hands, and administrations have rarely pushed the issue. No number of reports or books or briefings about the unending circularity of “foreign” aid spending has shaken the idea. As a rare climate science-accepting conservative researcher of climate finance wrote at the opening of the talks, “Opposing such a transfer of wealth to developing countries would seem a rather uncontroversial position.”

But most importantly, it happens because the process works just fine for the rich countries, at least in the short run. They keep their money, and nobody makes them give it up. When disaster strikes in the places that have been neglected it gets written off as inevitable, or just the victims’ fault. Then the cycle starts again.

So for me the bigger question is: Will international assistance be different when it comes to climate change?

Three major financial categories are on the table in Paris: mitigation, adaptation, and “loss and damage.” Mitigation is spending that limits carbon emissions, such as helping to build renewable energy plants. Adaptation spending is supposed to help people cope with the effects of climate change where they live. “Loss and damage” is the most controversial: spending on people who have suffered total catastrophe—whose farmland has turned irrevocably to desert, for instance, or whose home islands have been eaten by the ocean.

All three categories are vague, and so are the spending proposals. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the U.S. would double its pledge—note that word—for climate-related grants to $860 million. I asked the State Department for a breakdown and details. They haven’t sent one. This morning, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres noted new pledges for an adaptation fund from Germany, Sweden, Italy, and the Walloon Region of Belgium (nothing from the Flemings?) amounting to $75 million. Again I asked for details. Nothing doing.

Focusing on numbers may be the wrong way to go. Budget support and direct transfers are both much cheaper and more effective than flying aid workers and officials around the world, but would look less impressive in the overall totals.

Business proponents feel similarly. “The problem in India is not one of, ‘We need grant money to build clean energy.’ That’s not it. Clean energy actually is very lucrative,” argues Varun Sivaram, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow who studies renewable energy in India. Instead he told me money should go to financial mechanisms such as risk pools to cover currency fluctuations, which would get investors over their reticence to fund green energy projects.

That’s the sort of horse-trading that’s probably happening in the bilateral meetings where this deal is being made.

But while that may be good for a rising giant like India, the smallest and most vulnerable countries are still going to get left out. Some observers here were hoping that the third type of finance—loss and damage—might provide the impetus for change. If countries could be held liable for the damage they’ve done to the climate, the thinking goes, they might work harder to cut emissions, while actually coming through with effective ways of supporting development in the countries that need it.

The U.S. and European Union successfully fought to make sure any loss and damage text in the agreement won’t imply any formal liability on their parts, as an article by India’s Business Standard documented this week.

Late Thursday night, it got worse. The latest draft included two options: A very vague sentence saying that loss and damage is important; the other a more detailed plan that says it must be undertaken “in a manner that does not involve or provide a basis for liability or compensation nor prejudice existing rights under international law.” That clause would prevent all future claims against major polluters, no matter what happens in Haiti, the Marshall Islands, or anywhere else in the world.  

“Poor people will always be at the mercy of the same people who have destroyed their homes,” said Harjeet Singh, head of ActionAid’s delegation to the talks.

Everyone wants accountability, but just for everyone else.

Now that looks like the kind of story I’ve covered before. The thing that makes climate change different, as always, is its scale. This wouldn’t be the first time irresponsibility or malfeasance in the world’s most vulnerable places caused problems for the comfortable parts of the world. But it would be the worst.

A final deal is scheduled tomorrow.