Climate News

Opinion: The U.S. Must Step Up in the Global South

Photo: Chris Bentley

The election of President Joe Biden was considered a turning point in U.S. climate policy.

He quickly moved to rejoin the Paris Agreement and submit a revised Nationally Determined Contribution. Biden also halted oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, revoked the Keystone XL pipeline permit, and suspended new oil and gas leases on federal public lands.

But Biden has done little to prioritize the needs of the Global South. The White House’s plan to scale up climate finance falls woefully short of what is needed. And to date, there has been little movement on advancing the pressing issues of loss and damage and climate migration.

Although Biden has declared “America is back” in the international arena, the United States continues to underdeliver when it comes to assisting the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Missing the Mark on Climate Finance

Climate finance is critical for developing nations to make large-scale investments in mitigation and adaptation measures. The Global South needs support from developed nations like the United States to fund investments in clean technologies and sustainable infrastructure. Costa Rica’s electric train, for example, will be partially financed with a $250 million loan through the Green Climate Fund.

The benchmark for climate finance is the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, which calls for developed countries to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries. This $100 billion goal was reaffirmed in the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

Climate finance provided and mobilized by developed nations is on the rise, with total funding increasing from $58.6 billion in 2016 to $78.9 in 2018, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. While this is trending in a positive direction, developed countries are falling short of the modest goals set forth in Copenhagen. 

The biggest reason that developed nations are not meeting this goal is the United States’ inadequate contributions. Under Barack Obama’s leadership, the United States pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, but only $1 billion was transferred before Donald Trump withdrew the country’s support. The World Resources Institute, Oxfam, and ODI have all estimated that the United States should be responsible for at least 40 percent of the developed countries’ climate finance effort.

The United States released its International Climate Finance Plan in April. The plan would double the U.S. annual public climate finance to developing countries relative to the Obama Administration and triple adaptation finance by 2024. The new U.S. climate finance pledge puts the U.S. on track for $5.7 billion by 2024.

The Biden Administration released its proposed budget for the 2022 fiscal year, which includes $1.2 billion for the Green Climate Fund. It also calls for $485 million to support other multilateral climate initiatives. Another $700 million would be set aside for the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development “to assist developing countries in adapting to climate disruptions, expanding clean energy production, and reducing landscape emissions.”

Biden’s climate finance targets fall far short of what is needed to help developing nations reduce their emissions and adopt new climate technologies. Forty-six environment, development, and faith groups have called for at least an $8 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund, $2 billion to fulfill the first pledge and an additional $6 billion “to bring the U.S. in step with other key contributors.” 

The United States, they say, should do more:

“As the world’s largest historical greenhouse gas emitter, it is both a legal obligation and a moral imperative for the United States to provide finance for developing countries for climate action.”

Silence on Loss and Damage

What’s more, Biden has been quiet on the topic of loss and damage. This term refers to irreparable damage or irreversible losses from the adverse impacts of climate change. 

While images of catastrophic floods in Europe and heatwaves in the U.S. Pacific Northwest have captured the world’s attention in recent weeks, similar climate-induced events in the Global South have received far less coverage.

Loss and damage should be considered a third pillar of international climate policy in addition to mitigation and adaptation, but has not been given equal weight in previous negotiations.

Developed nations have historically been hostile to the idea of providing financial compensation for loss and damage. Both the Obama and Trump Administrations resisted compensating countries for the damage caused by the historical emissions from wealthy nations.

“If you really want to get something done, don’t go down that road,” said Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry on creating a legal remedy for loss and damage prior to the Paris Agreement.

The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts was established during COP19 in November 2013, but there has been little progress made in providing financial compensation from countries most responsible for these adverse impacts. Consideration of loss and damage has been greatly hindered by Paragraph 51 of the Paris Agreement, which states, “Article 8 of the Agreement (relating to Loss and Damage) does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

At the last U.N. climate conference in Madrid, the Santiago Network was launched to “connect vulnerable developing countries with providers of technical assistance, knowledge, resources they need to address climate risks comprehensively in the context of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage.” Despite these steps forward, loss and damage is far from being considered the third pillar of climate action.  

If Biden truly wants to atone for the failures of the U.S. on the global stage, he must reform his position on loss and damage and consider providing financial support to countries experiencing the devastating effects of climate change.

“You’re talking here about potentially hundreds of billions of dollars a year in costs of these impacts,” said E3G Senior Associate Alden Meyer in an interview with Living on Earth. “So it’s been something that the U.S., Europe, other developed countries have been very reluctant to engage in, but I think they will have to deal with that. It is an issue the vulnerable countries and others will put front and center on the agenda. And there needs to be an adult discussion about what we’re going to do about it going forward.”

New Protections for Climate Refugees Needed

Biden’s election was seen as an opportunity to usher in a new era of immigration reform.  Although Biden has rolled back some of the cruelest Trump-era policies on immigration, he has done little to address the pressing issue of climate-related migration. 

Millions of people will be displaced by sea-level rise, drought, crop-failure, and climate-related natural disasters in the coming decades. The number of immigrants from the Dry Corridor of Central America has increased in recent years due to increasingly unstable and hostile conditions.

Since it is responsible for 25 percent of cumulative global emissions, the United States has a moral obligation to provide protections for climate refugees. The U.S. must look to protect the rights of those fleeing climate catastrophe.   

The Biden Administration is weighing protections for climate refugees. In February, Biden signed an Executive Order on Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration that calls for a report on climate, including migration, internal displacement, and planned relocation.

Biden pledged to “ensure our values are squarely at the center of our immigration and enforcement policies.” Although he moved swiftly to halt construction of Trump’s wall along the Mexican border, end the Trump travel ban, and reaffirm protections for DACA recipients, his administration has not been welcoming to many immigrants, particularly those fleeing Central America. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have both warned those looking to flee their home countries to not come to the United States. Detention facilities are alive and well and Biden’s budget proposal barely changes funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 


“If the top priority is to limit temperature increases so that climate disasters force fewer people from their homes, the second priority is to manage the trauma of involuntary migration,” wrote 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben in a recent op-ed in Project Syndicate. “Whether governments like it or not, millions of people globally are already resorting to migration to cope with the climate crisis. The US in particular must respond with more than walls, cages, or the stern warning issued by President Joe Biden’s administration to Central Americans: ‘do not come.’

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