US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, on Wednesday, October 26, in a telephonic press briefing, laid out the government’s top priorities for the upcoming COP27 meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, as well as the Biden administration’s international climate efforts.
The former US Secretary of State was seeking middle ground on a controversy that threatens to derail the upcoming world climate summit—a growing demand from poorer countries that the United States and other richer countries pay compensation as the culprits most responsible for wrecking the Earth’s climate.
The US has already been in the proverbial eye of the climate change storm, when former president Donald Trump had pulled out of the Paris Accord in June 2017. His rationale for the withdrawal was that the Paris Agreement was costly and ineffective. He also argued that the agreement wasted taxpayer money. Trump surmised that withdrawal is a demonstration of leadership. He also declared that withdrawal is good for American energy competitiveness.
Trump’s successor, Joe Biden wasted no time and on January 20, on his first day in office, signed the instrument to bring the United States back into the Paris Agreement. Now, Biden’s special envoy on climate change states that: “We believe we have to step up, and we have a responsibility. We accept that.”
Just days ahead of the annual U.N. climate conference in Egypt’s Sharm el Sheikh, with emissions from coal, oil and natural gas threatening to break through the threshold set in the Paris climate accord, the Biden administration and others are eager to keep summit negotiations on track for deeper emission cuts.
This scribe took time out to listen to John Kerry’s live briefing because Pakistan has recently suffered tremendously from a deluge owing to unprecedented rains caused by climate change.
Flooding in Pakistan has killed more than 1,000, displaced a half-million and caused an estimated $40 billion in damage, acting as a catalyst to push compensation demands to the forefront ahead of the climate summit. Pakistan’s justification is based on the logic that historically it has contributed just 0.4% of the fossil fuel pollution responsible for climate damage, compared to 21.5% for the U.S., 16.5% for China and 15% for the European Union.
Pakistan’s leaders opine that they need financial help to deal with climate damage, rather than loans that put them further in debt. They are not isolated in this demand because with Pacific island nations being swallowed by rising seas, sub-Saharan nations facing a future of droughts, and Arctic communities struggling with heat waves, the phenomenon of global warming is wreaking havoc across the globe. The U.S. and European Union for years have stone walled proposals for formal summit negotiations on compensation, labeled as “loss and damage.”
Straight shooter John Kerry, despite being Washington DC’s top diplomat during the Obama administration, has been increasingly direct on the problems of that demand as the summit in Egypt nears, saying the idea of the US or any other country coming up with a trillion dollars for it is a nonstarter, politically and otherwise.
Any move that threatens to put richer nations on the hook for legal liability is “going to be a problem for everybody, not just for us,” Kerry said. “So how do you do this in a way that actually produces money, gets a system in place? We’re totally in favor of that.
Kerry provides redemption, declaring that “We are working toward it, and we will in Sharm,” he said. “We will not be, you know, obstructing.”
Ellen Knickmeyer and Seth Borenstein, writing for The Washington Post in their opinion piece titled, ‘Kerry: US open to talks on contentious climate financing’, quote Faten Aggad, senior climate diplomacy adviser for the African Climate Foundation, who stated in a briefing in October that past statements by Kerry and European leaders make “people doubt the EU and the U.S. commitment to move on loss and damage.” She said her expectations are low for progress in Egypt on the issue.
In the same op-ed, David Waskow, international climate initiative director of the World Resources Institute, a think-tank, has been quoted claiming that dealing with how rich nations pay for past pollution’s harms will be the central issue of next month’s negotiations.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres too, did not mince his words on the issue, when he discoursed last month that “Loss and damage are happening now, hurting people and economies now, and must be addressed now. This is a fundamental question of climate justice, international solidarity and trust.”
Ironically, in 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen, developed countries promised $100 billion a year in aid by 2020 for developing countries, both to help develop green energy and adapt to future warming. They are yet to fulfill that pledge but U.N. officials remain sanguine that it will happen soon.
Senior US officials have suggested that negotiators at the Egypt summit could set up a framework for discussion on any special financing mechanisms for reparations and put off negotiations for an actual deal for two years.
In his briefing, Kerry emphasised a need to “reimagine” the role and function of multilateral development banks, organisations of donor nations and borrowing ones that provide development finance.
International financial institutions often wind up burying poorer economies in insurmountable debt, or forcing harsh economic reforms at a fast pace that creates social unrest.
Unfortunately, rather than examine the track record of Europe and the US, Kerry could not resist taking potshots at archrival China, stating that President Xi Jinping’s continued reliance on coal-fired power plants and building of new ones is putting China on track to overtake the United States thus, as the worst wrecker of the climate in history “of course” China should contribute to any such fund, Kerry said.
It is a hard fact that as of July 2022, Germany and several of its European neighbours are returning to coal-fired power plants in order to conserve precious reserves of natural gas. This is contrary to all accords on climate change and environment control.
Kerry also revealed what appeared to be a bare-bones level of communication continuing with climate counterparts in the Chinese government.
The need of the hour for Washington D.C. is to engage Beijing in a close and meaningful dialogue on climate change rather than indulge in rhetoric and raking up dead issues like Taiwan. Countries like Pakistan et-al will continue to demand compensation from the top users of fossil fuel for wrecking the earth’s climate.