US green fund contribution tests Obama’s climate commitment

The UN’s Green Climate Fund desperately needs cash, but can White House deliver after bruising mid term elections?

(Pic: White House/Flickr)

(Pic: White House/Flickr)

By Ed King

The US contribution to the Green Climate Fund will be an early test of president Barack Obama’s determination to secure a UN agreement to tackle global warming.

With the Republicans now in full control of Congress after securing a Senate majority in last week’s midterms, the White House faces a tough 13 months in the lead up to Paris, where a global climate deal is set to be signed next year.

The leaders of both houses on Capitol Hill oppose Obama’s Climate Action Plan, launched in June 2013, and have pledged to fight back against what they term a “war on coal”.

While the Senate doesn’t officially change hands until January 2015, Obama and his critics face a day of reckoning in Berlin next week, where the GCF hosts a resource mobilization meeting.

It is a critical gathering, 10 days before the annual round of UN climate negotiations in Lima, Peru.

The UN-backed fund is part of wider efforts to help poorer countries invest in clean energy and prepare for future extreme weather events like sea level rise or drought.

The GCF’s head says it needs US$10 billion by the end of 2014. So far it has around $3 billion, with support from Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden and others.

Washington influence

How much the US coughs up will be critical says Pete Ogden, a former White House official and now head of international energy and climate policy at the Centre of American Progress.

“I think Republicans are going to try and do everything they can to stop the administration from trying to combat climate change, and that will include attempts to try and slash funding,” he tells RTCC.

“I think it’s going to be really important for the administration if it wants to continue to be a leader on climate change to show that it’s continuing to fight for those investments.”

There is still no word on how much the US could offer, although Peru’s foreign minister recently let slip that it would pay in a “significant amount”, citing John Kerry as his source.

Four leading Democrat Senators have weighed into the debate, calling this week for the US to make a “strong pledge” that would encourage similar commitments from developing countries.

Report: Clinton says IPCC science is a climate “wake up call”

“These countries will not be willing to join international emissions reduction efforts unless the US displays a willingness to assist them,” said Robert Menendez, Ron Wyden, Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray in a joint letter to President Obama.

UK sources suggest it could offer as much as $2 billion over 2-3 years and Ogden suggests the US contribution could be similar.

“If you look back at previous funds such as the Climate Investment Fund, which launched under George W Bush, he pledged $2 billion to that,” he says.

“The Obama administration has continued to working towards fulfilling that pledge every budget. I think that’s an interesting marker – how far north I don’t know.

“And again, it’s something that came out of a bipartisan origin. If you look back and put politics aside these multilateral funds are generally considered very good uses of public taxpayer dollars.”

A $2 billion pledge is less than the $4.8 billion Oxfam says would be a “fair share” for the US, but it would still cause ructions.

Opponents of US climate policy have already started their now familiar rumbling against new funds for the UN or associated international bodies.

Incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (l) says President Obama is waging a "war on coal" (Pic: White House/Flickr)

Incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (l) says President Obama is waging a “war on coal” (Pic: White House/Flickr)

A spokesperson for senator Jim Inhofe, the Hill’s most notorious climate sceptic and likely chair of the environment committee from 2015, says he will oppose any new cash.

“Inhofe has no interest in allowing taxpayer dollars to be used to fund the careers of unelected international bureaucrats,” spokesperson Donelle Harder told the Washington Examiner.

It’s important to understand that any funds the US announces in Berlin next week will be the opening salvo of a long fight back in Washington.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s funding is likely to be targeted by Republicans, given its key role in plans to curb coal power plant emissions.

So too is the State Department’s climate budget, with a rumoured $10 million it gives to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in line for the chop.

Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project, and a former Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, says the GCF is likely to be part of a bigger battle on how much the US government spends.

“There will be more questions in budget and appropriations,” he says. “There’s not going to be an argument about climate in particular. It’s going to be part of the bigger budget argument.”

Tar sands dilemma

While the US contribution to the Green Climate Fund is of huge interest outside the country, in Washington the future of the Keystone XL pipeline extension ranks higher up the agenda.

Environmentalists like founder Bill McKibben have waged a fierce campaign against the 2,000 km project, occasionally seeing the inside of prison as a result.

If built it would transport crude from Canadian tar sands to US Gulf Coast refineries, and from there sold to domestic or international buyers.

Scientists say it could result in the release of an extra 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, and stimulate demand for oil by boosting supply on the global markets.

Officially, a decision rests with State and John Kerry. In reality, it will be a political call made from the White House.

The president has said that emissions from the pipe will be a determining factor, but strong support from Republicans and some Democrats will place that claim under intense pressure.

Holland thinks it will be approved, but wonders “if TransCanada will actually build the thing” given how long the assessment process has taken thus far.

Ogden won’t be drawn on any predictions, but is keen to stress that it’s just one part of a wider debate on where US energy policy is heading.

“It is certainly taking on huge importance, whatever the substance,” he says.

“I think even the people who really care passionately about the pipeline also care about the new power plant regulations, and know there are a lot of other important things on the table.”

Philosophical split

What seems clear is that these battles are a symptom of a wider malaise in US politics, a deepening divide between the two main parties of power.

While the UK’s left and right came together in 2008 to back the Climate Change Act, efforts to achieve climate consensus in DC have left a bitter taste.

For Ogden, Republicans need to show more courage in addressing an issue that until a few years ago many agreed was one of America’s major challenges.

“The ones who care about it aren’t speaking up enough,” he says.

“John McCain was among the people who was looked to – a supporter of cap and trade back in 2007.

“You can find adverts of Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich. You’ve seen unfortunately shifts into silence or shifts into denialism or opposition.”

It is not an analysis Holland completely agrees with, pointing out that Colorado senator-elect Cory Gardner, a Republican, ran on a ticket backing renewables.

He thinks there were enough votes in the Senate back in 2008 for “some kind of cap and trade”, before the global financial crisis saw attention switched to Wall Street and collapsing banks.

Obama’s plans for the EPA to tackle power plant emissions could work, he says, but the fight to see them enforced will see “no lawyer left behind” and could take years he warns.

Instead he’s pushing a conservative line on energy and climate as a way out for Republicans.

“One thing I do is coming at the state and local levels is this idea of energy liberty, when state laws and utility rules prevent me from putting solar panels on my roof, or if I’m a farmer, making some money, by putting up a wind turbine and selling it to the grid.

“This sort of stuff where it is individualist, being stopped by big business or big government is I think a real wedge into this stuff. It’s about freedom and liberty, and it fits into the narrative. And I think that could be a way into this for some Republicans to look at climate mitigation.”

Could that fit into a wider US energy and climate policy that has already seen new policies on fuel efficiency, methane leakage and the use of HFCs?

Ogden insists Obama does want to work with Congress on climate change given the chance, provided Republicans are willing to propose serious carbon cutting policies.

“I would encourage them to build those solutions and then see what the president does. My sense is that he would be eager to engage,” he says.

“This is their opportunity to do it… if they want to help find bipartisan solutions to climate change I think you’re going to find an administration eager to talk to them.”

Read more on: Comment | Green Climate Fund | US |