THE HILL 11/30/23
By Michael Shank
This year is set to be the hottest year on record, and yet for all of U.S. President Joe Biden’s talk about the urgency of tackling climate change, his administration’s approach to the United Nations climate conference in Dubai this week is problematic. And it’s putting people directly in harm’s way.
This year’s global climate summit — the 28th Conference of the Parties, or COP28 — is viewed by many as the world’s last chance for a deal to avert life-altering climate change. Yet the near-breakdown in recent weeks of emergency global negotiations on a “Loss and Damage” fund for climate-vulnerable countries, the text of which was agreed to this week at COP28, was due largely to U.S. obfuscation.
The Biden administration has long rejected the idea of taking financial responsibility for America’s emissions — which are the biggest historical driver of climate change — and how they’ve exacerbated the climate crisis and impacted vulnerable communities, especially in the Global South.
The idea of the U.S. paying for the loss and damage experienced by countries impacted by climate change has been a non-starter. Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry said to Congress this summer that “under no circumstances” would the U.S. pay into a loss and damage fund. Since that statement, Kerry has mentioned a non-specific offer of several million dollars, which amounted to a meager $24 million.
The Biden administration’s refusal to take full responsibility for historical emissions, roughly a quarter of the world’s total emissions to date, isn’t the first time the world’s largest oil producer has watered down its responsibility to the Global South.
This issue of loss and damage has upended global climate negotiations for decades. And it remains one the largest barriers to cooperation between the Global North and South, the latter of which want reparations for the former’s historical CO2 emissions.
Since last year’s UN climate conference — when ‘loss and damage’ finally got some attention — the U.S. and other Global North countries have delayed and dithered, arguing that contributions should be voluntary and not legally binding, that participation should not be based on historical emissions, and even questioning the science behind loss and damage cost estimates.
During recent negotiations over loss and damage in Abu Dhabi, the U.S. again insisted that the World Bank host the fund, with no obligation to pay into the fund, and they got what they wanted. Global South countries, in contrast, wanted an independent body under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The divide between the Global North and South widens as a result, due to America’s continued refusal to take responsibility for its historical emissions. Biden is expected to skip the summit, a snub that signals growing U.S. disinterest in global climate cooperation and flies in the face of the pro-climate platform that got him elected.
Without the participation of the U.S., a robust international climate agreement remains in jeopardy. And though Biden talks often of a ‘decisive decade’ for climate action and once pledged to contribute $11.4 billion annually to assist developing countries in the climate fight, U.S. refusal to appropriately fund loss and damage proves the U.S. still doesn’t genuinely want to be a global leader in climate action. If it did, it’d put its money where its mouth is, walk the talk, and take responsibility for its historical carbon footprint — as over 600 scientists called on the Biden administration to do recently in an open letter pre-COP28.
It appears the Biden administration doesn’t want to make any bold international climate moves at all right now. Even at home, Biden has ignored calls since the beginning of his term to declare a climate emergency to unlock executive powers and resources to more rapidly phase down fossil fuels, expand renewable energy, and shield Americans from climate-related disasters.
What a misread of the need to lead now more than ever. Not only are the climate signals becoming more obvious, but the American electorate cares deeply about environmental issues and wants bold leadership abroad and at home. According to recent Pew Research, three-quarters of Americans support U.S. participation in international efforts to reduce the effects of climate change and two-thirds support the U.S. becoming carbon neutral by 2050. There’d be support for bold Biden leadership. And shoring up vulnerable communities with loss and damage funds is not only smart climate policy, but it is also smart security policy for America. Instability anywhere is a threat to stability everywhere.
All of this begs a more constructive role in COP28 negotiations. The U.S. can’t be seen to be sitting on its hands while the rest of the world fights fires and floods. It’s high time America took responsibility for its historical footprint. And that means leading at home, announcing the national emergency declaration necessary to meet its climate targets of net-zero by 2050, while leading abroad, recognizing the historic responsibility of developed countries to fully back the loss and damage fund. Be bold, Biden. The world is watching and wanting your leadership.
Shank is adjunct faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution and serves on the board of Faith for Our Planet.