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U.S. Congress: the Key to International Climate Action?

October 21, 2010

members of the Adopt a Negotiator team observing the negotiations

The US Congress’ inability to pass comprehensive climate change legislation has repercussions beyond the United States itself: surprisingly, this is a huge issue at the UNFCCC negotiations as well.   Over and over, I heard governments delegations, NGO observers and many others point to this as one of the main stumbling blocks of the negotiations.  Many countries, including China, argued that if the United States doesn’t have a national-level policy for reducing carbon emissions, other countries will not be able to trust the commitments made in an international forum.  President Obama committed to a target of reducing US emissions by 17% by 2020 in Copenhagen, but many ask how he actually plans to go about reaching that goal.

This emphasis on the US Congress was in a way very helpful for me, because in my work at FCNL I have been learning the ins and outs of Congress.  I am becoming increasingly familiar with the members, their concerns and what moves them to act (sometimes lobbying, but usually letters, calls and visits from constituents like you!).  I had a hard job cut out for me thought trying to explain to almost everyone why it is so difficult to get certain types of legislation through Congress.  Mentioned frequently were the upcoming midterm elections, the economic recession and high unemployment, disproportionate representation in the Senate, big money from oil interests, among a host of other factors.  I’m not sure that I convinced most people that I spoke to, but I was happy to at least attempt to convey some of the complicated reasons that the United States is a laggard on climate change measures, and the fact that many of us back home are trying very hard to change that!

The conference also had another direct connection to my work here at FCNL.  Along with a coalition of other NGOs, I have been working to support the “Investing in Our Future Act,” H.R. 5783, sponsored by Rep. Pete Stark (who is of no relation to me, although I still feel some kind of personal connection considering that we have the same last name!).  The legislation would place a 0.005% levy on international financial transactions from the United States, and the proceeds would be split up between a climate fund for adaptation and mitigation under the auspices of the UNFCCC, a global health fund and a domestic fund for childcare needs.  This bill is innovative in that it would only apply to transactions of $10,000 or more, so would only apply to financiers on Wall street and not casual travelers or Americans buying small stocks.   So attending the UNFCC conference gave me a chance to talk up the bill, and gauge country delegates’ and NGOs’ current thinking about what kind of climate finance will work the best.

At this point you might be asking yourself why someone who works on the Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict program is working on a climate finance bill.  The answer is that there is actually a direct and important connection between climate change and preventing violent conflict.  As FCNL’s policy brief Global Warming Heats Up Global Conflict notes, the developing world will be hit hardest by the effects of global warming, including desertification, extreme weather events, an increase in the incidence of infectious disease, rising sea levels, and changes in weather patterns and fresh water distribution.  These impacts are “likely to exacerbate societal or cross-border tensions and, in some cases, lead to violent conflict, threatening international and U.S. security.”
Surprisingly to some, this sentiment is echoed by many in the U.S. government and military, including in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review released by the Department of Defense which states that “assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation and the further weakening of fragile governments” and therefore that “climate change… may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict” (emphasis added).  Adaptation programs financed by a climate fund would help countries that are experiencing or will experience major negative shocks from climate change to manage the impacts and adapt in positive ways, reducing potential instability and violence.

On one of the final days of the conference, I got word from Bridget Moix that a letter

the UNFCCC conference center in Tianjin, veiled in smog

had just been released, signed by the 5 subcommittee chairs on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urging the United States to support the establishment of a climate fund under  UNFCCC auspices).  I quickly chased down the head of the US delegation, Jonathan Pershing (who is cc’d on the letter), and presented it to him.  Since he was in an incredibly hectic stage of the negotiations, he let me know that he had not yet had a chance to read through it, but would look it over and offer me his thoughts soon.  Hopefully I will be able to touch base with him soon, either here in DC or in Cancun this December, to follow up on the issue.  Just in case, let’s keep our fingers crossed for a positive outcome in Cancun on climate finance!

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