The U.S. and Other Rich Countries Stonewalled $300 Billion Climate Relief Fund

Furious activists protested, but mandatory measures remained lacking as negotiations continue into the night on Friday.

Christine MacDonald December 13, 2019

Activists protest outside the High-Level Global Climate Action Event Hall, where the COP25 Summit is taking place in Madrid, Spain, on December 11, 2019. (Photo by Celestino Arce/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

UPDATE: Observers called it the most bruis­ing — as well as inef­fec­tu­al — UN cli­mate sum­mit yet. Even UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al Anto­nio Guter­res said he was dis­ap­point­ed with the out­come. Coun­tries were sup­posed to arrive at the annu­al meet­ing to dis­cuss plans for dra­mat­i­cal­ly ramp­ing up work to tran­si­tion to clean ener­gy and bring down emis­sions, but con­ver­sa­tions stalled over cre­ative car­bon account­ing loop­holes and devolved from there. 

“It is the U.S., EU, Canada, Japan and Australia not allowing any progress.”

As the last day of the con­fer­ence dawned on Sun­day, Decem­ber 15, the Unit­ed States and a few oth­er coun­tries had suc­ceed­ed in weak­en­ing lan­guage on loss and dam­age” caused by cli­mate dis­as­ter, remov­ing even an unen­force­able men­tion of devel­oped coun­tries’ respon­si­bil­i­ty to assist poor­er coun­tries to cope with cli­mate change. In nego­ti­at­ing ses­sions that went into the wee hours of the morn­ing, the Unit­ed States had got­ten the changes it want­ed, under­min­ing any future effort to assign cli­mate lia­bil­i­ty or make his­toric pol­luters pay more for their role in warm­ing the planet. 

At one point in the final two-day marathon nego­ti­a­tions, the rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Tuvalu, an island in the Pacif­ic, sug­gest­ed that deny­ing cli­mate change could be inter­pret­ed as a crime against humanity.” 

One sil­ver lin­ing: Coun­tries punt­ed on new car­bon trad­ing rules, for now.

MADRID — With cli­mate-relat­ed dis­as­ters hap­pen­ing at the rate of one a week,” accord­ing to the Unit­ed Nations, more than 150 civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions around the world are using the UN cli­mate nego­ti­a­tions this week to stand with the Glob­al South. They are push­ing for demands set out in an open let­ter to nego­tia­tors in Novem­ber, includ­ing a new glob­al cli­mate fund to aid poor coun­tries in the midst of cli­mate catastrophes.

The orga­ni­za­tions say it’s about time for a rethink of cli­mate financ­ing as cli­mate-relat­ed dis­as­ters like extreme storms, droughts, floods and famines take a mount­ing eco­nom­ic toll on poor coun­tries. World­wide costs are esti­mat­ed to grow to between $300 and $700 bil­lion a year by 2030. To cov­er the costs, poor coun­tries must increas­ing­ly bor­row from devel­op­ment aid, which is push­ing them into a debt trap,” says Har­jeet Singh, glob­al lead on cli­mate change with Action­Aid Inter­na­tion­al, one of the 150-plus orga­ni­za­tions that signed the letter.

The Unit­ed States and oth­er wealthy coun­tries made a pledge in 2010 to com­mit $100 bil­lion annu­al­ly to assist poor­er coun­tries, but wealth­i­er coun­tries have con­sis­tent­ly failed to pay in. The new pro­pos­al calls for a com­pre­hen­sive and manda­to­ry new fund to help poor coun­tries recov­er that would make an addi­tion­al $50 bil­lion avail­able by 2022 and grad­u­al­ly increase the amount to $300 bil­lion a year by 2030.

The mon­ey would come from the wealthy coun­tries that are respon­si­ble for the vast major­i­ty of the emis­sions behind cli­mate change. Addi­tion­al funds could be raised from tax­es on air trav­el, fos­sil fuels and finan­cial trans­ac­tions. The mon­ey would go direct­ly to local orga­ni­za­tions work­ing in front­line com­mu­ni­ties in the Glob­al South to help with rebuild­ing, recov­ery and resilience efforts.

How­ev­er, with nego­ti­a­tions still going on as night­time fell in Madrid, all sug­ges­tion of addi­tion­al manda­to­ry cli­mate funds have met stiff resis­tance from wealthy coun­tries. The 47 mem­bers of the Least Devel­oped Coun­tries group pushed new loss and dam­age” fund­ing com­mit­ments, using much of the lan­guage culled from the envi­ron­men­tal groups’ pro­pos­al. But the rich coun­tries that would have to foot the bill, includ­ing the Unit­ed States, Singh says, would not even engage.”

Ear­li­er in the week, Singh expressed opti­mism about pro­pos­als for beef­ing up cli­mate recov­ery fund­ing through some­thing called The War­saw Inter­na­tion­al Mech­a­nism for Loss and Dam­age asso­ci­at­ed with Cli­mate Change Impacts, or WIM. But by late Thurs­day, a draft of WIM cir­cu­lat­ing among nego­tia­tors includ­ed no men­tion of addi­tion­al fund­ing but mere­ly urged devel­oped coun­tries and oth­ers to scale up” their finan­cial com­mit­ments. The real­i­ty, Singh said, is that a fail­ure to man­date addi­tion­al fund­ing would mere­ly spread exist­ing funds around more thin­ly, thus expos­ing more peo­ple to cli­mate disasters.”

The lack of com­mit­ment to coun­tries in the Glob­al South has prompt­ed unprece­dent­ed protests this year, both inside of the nego­ti­at­ing halls, led by youth and indige­nous activists, and out­side on the streets, where an esti­mat­ed 500,000 peo­ple marched with Swedish teenag­er Gre­ta Thun­berg on Fri­day, Decem­ber 6. On Thurs­day more than 300 activists from around the globe protest­ed just out­side of the room where cli­mate talks were tak­ing place. Bang­ing on pots and pans in a ver­sion of what is known in Latin Amer­i­ca as a cacero­la­zo, they chant­ed slo­gans and yelled Shame!” until secu­ri­ty guards round­ed them up, snatch­ing con­fer­ence IDs from around activists’ necks and herd­ing them out of the building.

In response, UN offi­cials threat­ened to bar all inter­na­tion­al observers from the talks, say­ing the protests were ille­gal” under the UN’s code of con­duct. After tense nego­ti­a­tions, UN offi­cials agreed to let some but not all of the inter­na­tion­al observers back into the con­fer­ence after extract­ing promis­es not to car­ry out any more so-called ille­gal protests.” The Fri­days for Future orga­ni­za­tion respond­ed by call­ing an emer­gency cli­mate strike this after­noon worldwide.

Activists have denounced the UN for allow­ing oil com­pa­ny exec­u­tives to roam free while con­trol­ling the access of activists. The UN should be kick­ing pol­luters out of the talks, but instead they are kick­ing peo­ple out,” says Sara Shaw, inter­na­tion­al pro­gram coor­di­na­tor for cli­mate jus­tice and ener­gy at Friends of the Earth International.

Oil com­pa­nies and the U.S. gov­ern­ment have emerged as the biggest vil­lains of this year’s con­fer­ence. Increas­ing­ly, com­pa­nies are look­ing to prof­itable approach­es like trad­ing in car­bon off­set projects. While win­ing and din­ing nego­tia­tors over drinks and canapes, indus­try experts, cor­po­rate friend­ly envi­ron­men­tal groups and cor­po­rate exec­u­tives have out­lined an array of mar­ket-based solu­tions” to the cli­mate cri­sis — despite warn­ings from sci­en­tif­ic experts that it’s mag­i­cal think­ing to assume the world can trade its way out of more than a frac­tion of the nec­es­sary emis­sions reduc­tions. This week’s indus­try pro­pos­als include plans to launch broad new mar­kets in nat­ur­al cli­mate solu­tions” that will involve invest­ing in every­thing from man­grove preser­va­tion to sus­tain­able farm­ing and more.

Mean­while, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, which is in the process of with­draw­ing from the UN Paris cli­mate agree­ment, has tak­en advan­tage of its wan­ing nego­ti­at­ing pow­er to push for renewed assur­ances that the Unit­ed States and oth­er big pol­luters can’t be held account­able for his­toric pol­lu­tion. This lia­bil­i­ty” issue — the same one assail­ing the world’s fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies — have been among the most con­tentious issues in past cli­mate nego­ti­a­tions, which is what led to the loss and dam­age” pro­vi­sion being includ­ed to help poor coun­tries, in the first place. As nego­ti­a­tions con­tin­ued Fri­day, U.S. del­e­gates kept push­ing for a lia­bil­i­ty and com­pen­sa­tion waiv­er includ­ed in the final WIM doc­u­ment, a move that Tay­lor Billings of Cor­po­rate Account­abil­i­ty Inter­na­tion­al referred to in Buz­zfeed as an ass-cov­er­ing maneuver.”

With this waiv­er, the U.S. is try­ing to torch crit­i­cal ele­ments of cli­mate action on its way out of the Paris Agree­ment — and cre­ate an escape hatch for pol­lut­ing coun­tries and poten­tial­ly cor­po­ra­tions,” Billings told In These Times. Across the nego­ti­a­tions, it’s obvi­ous that the U.S. is attempt­ing to gut the Paris Agree­ment of any promise and poten­tial. That’s what they’ve always done in these talks. Shame­ful­ly, it’s not just the U.S. — the EU, Aus­tralia and Cana­da are help­ing the U.S. do its dirty work and cow­er­ing in Trump’s shad­ow when ques­tioned about it.”

The U.S. is light­ing the house in fire as it’s on its way out the door and Glob­al North gov­ern­ments like the EU, Aus­tralia and Cana­da are back­ing it every step of the way,” said Billings’ col­league Sri­ram Mad­hu­soodanan, deputy cam­paigns direc­tor of Cor­po­rate Account­abil­i­ty, at an Action­Aid press con­fer­ence on the final day of the cli­mate talks Friday.

Speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymi­ty because they were not autho­rized to talk on the record, one per­son involved in nego­ti­a­tions told In These Times that the Unit­ed States and oth­er devel­oped coun­tries have been unwill­ing to dis­cuss addi­tion­al fund­ing beyond the exist­ing com­mit­ments for cli­mate adap­ta­tion and resilience, in part because they don’t want to open the door to fur­ther dis­cus­sion about cli­mate blame. It remains a thorny issue whether wealthy indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries should pay more to mit­i­gate the impacts of cli­mate change since they are respon­si­ble for the bulk of fos­sil fuel emis­sions, dat­ing back to the bring­ing of the Indus­tri­al Revolution.

The U.S. has been very clear that it doesn’t want any­thing more beyond adap­tion fund­ing, because if you start talk­ing about loss and dam­age’ it gets into the issue of who is respon­si­ble for the fos­sil fuel emis­sions that have cre­at­ed the cli­mate cri­sis,” the nego­tia­tor says.

It is the U.S., EU, Cana­da, Japan and Aus­tralia that are not allow­ing any progress,” con­curs Singh.

With poor and rich coun­tries still far apart, there’s spec­u­la­tion that the nego­ti­a­tions may end with­out agree­ment on key issues. Some of the less cost­ly ideas out­lined in the open let­ter have found their way into the lat­est draft agree­ment. They include lan­guage stip­u­lat­ing a new expert group” by 2020 to help poor coun­tries grap­pling with cli­mate dam­ages and the cre­ation of a San­ti­a­go Net­work” for tech­ni­cal assis­tance, but with­out addi­tion­al fund­ing, those mea­sures are expect­ed to have lim­it­ed effect.

Orga­ni­za­tions that penned the open let­ter, which includ­ed 350​.org, Friends of the Earth Inter­na­tion­al and WWF Inter­na­tion­al, the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diver­si­ty, the Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work and the Cli­mate Jus­tice Project, say they are not giv­ing up and will con­tin­ue to push a com­pre­hen­sive new approach to cli­mate finance even after this year’s negotiation’s wrap up. The pro­pos­al by Action­Aid and the oth­er 150-plus groups also backs a tem­po­rary inter­est-free mora­to­ri­um on for­eign debt pay­ments of poor coun­tries in the throes of cli­mate dis­as­ters. But that idea didn’t even get dis­cussed by nego­tia­tors this year.

Dylan Hamil­ton, a Fri­days for Future activist from Scot­land, said in a press con­fer­ence in Madrid today that the UN process has failed us again” and promis­ing to bring an even big­ger fight next year at the 26th annu­al con­fer­ence in Glas­gow, Scot­land, a half hour from where Hamil­ton lives.

Get ready,” she said. We’re going to be even big­ger next year.”

Chris­tine Mac­Don­ald is a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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