For a stretch of U.S. history back in the 1800s, two forces struggled to impose their social order on the expanses of the nation’s vast Western frontier. On the one side were citizen “settlers” and their officials, trying to impose national laws from the East to make the place safe for building a society where joint problems like safety, land ownership, and building basic infrastructure got dealt with in a consensual and predictable way. On the other side were bands of renegades or “outlaws,” who furtively sought the treasures of the land through their ability to terrorize the settlers and other bands of outlaws.
(Perhaps the only times these groups worked together was to overcome the indigenous people of the land, but that’s another story for another day.)
The ruthless renegades are often glamorized in “spaghetti Western” films, but their impact on the ability of the emerging society to address long-term issues such as water allocation, land regularization, and building roads and bridges was often debilitating, setting back local society for decades.
Fast forwarding to global politics of climate change finance in late 2011, it’s the Wild West all over again. On the open frontier of counting the amount of money flowing to help poor and developing countries avoid economic expansion based on burning fossil fuels and to deal with the impacts of climate-related disasters, the renegades still rule the land.
Parties to the U.N. should have laid down laws long ago, but there has been both subtle and direct resistance to agreeing standards of conduct. Promises of “New and Additional” climate finance glimmer on the pages of U.N. documents now two decades old. In the contentious days of the great 2009 showdown in the high noon of Copenhagen, that promise of “New and Additional” climate finance brought resistant poor nations back to the negotiating table, leading them to agree to a terrible deal that condemned them to the unsafe future of 7 Fahrenheit degrees of global mean temperature increase (3.9 degrees C).
The Copenhagen Accord was a pact laid down by five renegades undermining the U.N. negotiating system, who wanted to continue to rule the tumbleweeds without any constraints imposed by settlers like the EU, the small island states, or the Least Developed Countries. The Copenhagen pact was drafted by the U.S. and just four other nations in the “BASIC” group: Brazil, South Africa, India and China. This unlikely gang of five renegades saw a confluence of their frontier justice interests: growth without constraints and anarchy epitomized by a weak sheriff. By threat of funding cuts, cajoling and subtle arm-twisting, they ran the toothless “pledge and review” system through the wobbly frontier town council the next year in Cancun. What they won was nothing less than the continuation of a land without laws.
In effect, to gain the consent of the poor (settlers) of the Earth, the U.S. got other wealthy nations to promise $30 billion in “New and Additional” “Fast Start” climate finance in three years: 2010, 2011, and 2012. This amount was promised to “scale up” to $100 billion a year by 2020.
That’s a big promised pile of gold. But here we are, two years later and with just one year left in the Fast Start period, and we really don’t know if the gold is being delivered. That is, it’s still the Wild West. We have no agreed standard of how to count whether countries offer truly “new and additional” funding. We don’t even have a system to decide what counts as climate aid. Even less–we have no official registry that could track this aid, nor even a standardized reporting format. The renegades rule the land, to their own benefit with each writing laws as they see fit.
Efforts to funnel climate funding into a new “Green Climate Fund” or other U.N. channels have also failed: less than 2 percent are currently flowing through the U.N. funds. What we have is a Wild West fragmented system with dozens upon dozens of individual channels by which each nation is choosing how it wants to give—through World Bank or other “multilateral” channels, or through its own “bilateral” aid agencies. The renegades are ruling the day, and they are resisting the development of real systems of law.
One of the first governance systems on frontiers is to set up property ownership regulations. Frontier societies needed to regularize deeds, agree on what those deeds claim and promise, what information the deeds report and how they report it, and decide how they will verify the deeds. Similarly on the frontier of climate finance we must first establish a climate finance registry, one in which countries report how they are meeting their Copenhagen promises.
We urgently need to establish this part of the law, and we could do so quite quickly and cheaply. We need to establish such a registry under the authority of the UNFCCC, which would set standards for reporting format and criteria for what counts as climate-relevant funding. Recent submissions from the Africa Group and the G77 and China call for a “forum” for this kind of information standardization and warehousing, under the “Standing Committee” of the Green Climate Fund. In response the renegade U.S. seeks to keep the frontier free from laws: “There was no
agreement to have the COP determine, limit, or otherwise take decisions on sources, whether the relative contributions of public and private finance or otherwise. …each country is free to determine the mode and source of its climate finance contributions.”
It is time for some strong settlers to band together to beat back the lawless nihilism of the climate renegades, and get this frontier under control. Doing so for climate finance is Job One for the climate showdown in Durban. We have tools from tracking foreign assistance in other sectors that can provide timely, complete information in a way people can understand about who’s doing what to fulfill their promises. We can harness the energy of civil society to provide their own reports on how the actors are behaving, and thus strengthen the rule of law. It’s time for the renegades to come in from the cold, and admit that to build trust across the global divide a real system of laws and monitoring is needed for climate finance.
Timmons Roberts is Director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Brown University, USA, and co-author of A Climate of Injustice (2007 MIT Press). He is a co-founder of AidData.org and AdaptationWatch. His Climate and Development Lab research group is traveling to Durban to follow the politics of climate finance. This piece represents his own opinions.