Domestic politics frustrate U.S. – Latin American cooperation on climate change

By Guy Edwards and Kelly Rogers

As U.S. influence in Latin America continues its downward trajectory, the complex domestic situation in Washington D.C. risks jeopardizing greater cooperation on climate change. Although the vote in the House of Representatives to end the U.S.’s annual $48.5 million contribution to the Organization of American States (OAS) is unlikely to pass Congress, the vote was indicative of reactionary thinking on Latin America and the complex domestic political and economic environment.

The vote over the proposed cuts to the OAS reveals conservatives dislike of the OAS’s secretary-general, José Miguel Insulza, who they criticize for being too soft on leftist autocrats threatening democracy and media freedom. Those against the vote respond that it could undermine a unique channel for U.S. multilateral engagement in the region. With Latin American countries’ growing independence and willingness to engage with external actors such as China and India, the U.S. cannot afford to miss opportunities to improve hemispheric relations.

As climate change, resource scarcity and green growth begin to dominate U.S. – Latin American relations, the OAS could provide an appropriate stage for constructive diplomacy on climate change. With the OAS  made up of nearly all countries in the hemisphere except Cuba, it is in a good position to carry out this role, particularly when the U.S. is criticized for its non-constructive attitude at the international climate talks.

At the 41st session of the General Assembly of the OAS held last June, a resolution on climate change was adoptedwhich resolves to strengthen the resilience of the OAS member to the impacts of climate change. The OAS can also support and complement President Obama’s Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, which has generally received a positive reception in Latin America.   As the U.S. has been excluded from other regional institutions such as UNASUR and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the OAS is currently one of very view hemispheric channels for the U.S. to attempt to improve cooperation on climate. In turn, Latin American governments could utilize the OAS to highlight some of their own ambitious policies in order to foment collaboration with the U.S. and Canada.

Unfortunately, the proposed cuts to the OAS and other areas are the product of the current political season. From attempts to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of regulatory authority to reducing federal disaster spending, a substantial block of the Republican caucus is trying to limit government involvement as they know they can count on support far from Washington. Aspects of their philosophy stem from the Tea Party post-2010-election and pre-2012 election waves with many coming into Congress with strong voter mandates in their home districts to cut spending and create jobs.

This anti-oversight, anti-spending Republican trend is likely to continue throughout the 2012 U.S. presidential election, with environmental and climate policy firmly in the line of fire. Republican front-runner Governor Rick Perry has used rival former Governor Mitt Romney’s environmental record as a source of attack with the political in-fighting likely to continue until the winner is nominated at next August’s Republican National Convention.

Then the debate will re-center on differences between the Republican candidate and President Obama–a gap which seems to be shrinking with the President unwilling to take on the climate skeptics. Republican candidates are certainly not running out of momentum as the Congressional investigation into failed solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra continues to hamper political attitudes towards  “green-jobs” firms requiring Department of Energy assistance, and could likely become a presidential campaign issue (especially since some green energy loans were part of the initial 2008 stimulus bill that is so unpopular with Republicans).

One of the most contentious areas of the U.S. budget debate centers around the upcoming findings of the 12-member “super committee.” This bi-partisan outfit, comprised of leaders from both parties, is tasked with trimming $1.5 trillion from the federal budget by this month.

In terms of international climate funding, super committee discussions present the opportunity to re-define climate funding discussions. In August, environmental groups seemed to focus on oil and gas subsidies as their super committee priority, and collectively called on it to repeal oil and gas industry subsidies. The recent release of President Obama’s “millionaire surtax” plan, however, suggests that the oil and gas subsidy repeal is no longer a likely agenda option for super committee members, especially because many oil-state Democrats are opposed to repeal.

Since oil and gas subsidy repeal seems to be off the cards, what other energy-related programs will the committee cut? No one seems to know. The secrecy of the talks has not stopped several groups from sending written recommendations to committee members. As funding relates to Latin America, members of the House Science, Space and Technology committee recently sent a letter to the super committee to urge them to cut funding from several energy programs, one of which provides “energy resource assessments” to governments in Latin America, as well as other low-carbon initiatives.

Climate policy supporters should find some solace that long-time climate champion Senator John Kerry (D-MA) was appointed to the super committee. Also, Appropriations sub-committee member Senator Patty Murray is a super committee chair and fellow “climate hawk.” Whether these two climate advocates will have substantial progress in convincing their Republican colleagues of the merits of climate funding, especially in the context of high unemployment and the looming deficit, is impossible to call.

The most worrisome scenario is if the super committee fails to reach an agreement, and across-the-board cuts are made to discretionary spending, which includes international climate assistance. Not only would these cuts harm funding for next year, it would create chaos in the 2013 appropriations cycle, putting extreme pressure on already vulnerable programs like climate aid.

Encouragingly, Congress is not the only U.S. government body that can take pro-climate, pro -diplomatic policy action. The U.S. State Department intends to create a new Bureau for Energy Resources, which will place greater emphasis on international energy diplomacy and unite the diplomatic and programmatic efforts on fossil fuels, electricity, renewable energy, strategic resources, and energy poverty. It will be led by Carlos Pascual, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and could bolster the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas.

Frustratingly high unemployment, rescuing the economy and the opening salvos of the 2012 presidential election are clearly the main priorities on Capitol Hill. Although the US-Colombia free-trade agreement has passed through both chambers of Congress, the threat to cut funds to the OAS risks further exacerbating a difficult moment in U.S. – Latin American relations. As we wait for the super committee to deliver its verdict, we are reminded that though Congress may be our only hope for foreign assistance, there are other channels available to improve hemispheric relations and cooperation on climate change. The OAS’s potential contribution should not be jeopardized nor underestimated.

This blog is cross-posted in Brown University’s Global Conversation and Intercambio Climatico.


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