US Players: Days Before Durban

By Kelly Rogers

On Monday, delegates from around the world will convene in Durban, South Africa for a two-week Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Delegates will pick up where last year’s Cancun negotiations left off, particularly concerning the contentious Green Climate Fund. At home in the US, spectators are watching our delegation’s position on the Fund–chiefly as it relates to public vs. private sector involvement. Recent reports about the lack of Congressional representation in the US delegation have observers worried about the domestic political viability of US promises made in Durban.

One member of the Senate Foreign Relations legal counsel will attend next week’s international climate negotiations. As of now, no other congressional staffers or members of Congress plan to attend. As Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) indicated, their absence might be further evidence of a shift in climate policy domains (from the Legislative to Executive branch). Or are the congressional absences, as Center for American Progress senior fellow Andrew Light suggested, a step towards a less politically-charged, more diplomatic conference?

Congressional participation in UNFCCC climate conferences might have previously resulted in political distractions in venues like COP-15’s Bella Center. Let’s not forget, however, that almost everything in Copenhagen was distracting and contentious. Even if the presence of a member like Senator Inhofe (R-OK) turned heads, the benefits that lower-profile staffers brought to the US delegation and the observing participants should not be ignored. Staffers both provide and absorb valuable information–and if nothing else these UNFCCC conferences are a massive forum for global information exchange.

Our current Congress could not be more divided on climate change policy. In fact, as exhibited by the recent failure of the deficit reduction super committee, our current Congress could not be more divided on most policies–climate change is no exception. Given the stark differences in partisan policy positions, how much progress should we demand from the US delegation in Durban?

Recent reports suggest that the US is shying away from previous climate financing commitments. In Copenhagen and Cancun, the UNFCCC process established the Green Climate Fund. The Fund is essentially a pot of money to spur adaptation measures in developing, climate change vulnerable nations. As of the Thursday before the start of the UNFCCC conference, the US and Saudi Arabia objected to a consensus outline of the Fund’s design. It appears as if the US continues to support the conceptual idea of the Fund but would like to see significantly more private sector (as opposed to public sector) investment in it.

If the capitalization of the Fund is to be the cornerstone of the Durban talks, it is not promising that the US is resisting before the negotiations even begin. It is also unclear what specific private sector involvement conditions the US would like incorporated into the final agreement. Looking ahead to the start of the talks next week, it will be important to discern 1) what types of private sector involvement the US delegation wants in the green fund agreement and 2) what are the obstacles are to the US position on the Fund, domestically and within the negotiations. Furthermore, even if the US agrees to a framework for public sector contributions to the Fund, will the US contribution need to be “blessed” by congressional approval? Without representatives from Congress in the negotiating room, it’s hard to imagine the US delegation putting forward a plan that has staying power at home.

The US domestic political and economic situation dictates that expectations for US contributions in Durban should be relatively low. The 2012 elections are right around the corner and it is unlikely that President Obama will stake significant political capital on public donations to the Fund. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a high bar for eventual US involvement, it is just a reminder that politics often dictates policy.  Even if Congress isn’t represented at the negotiations, politics will be at play. Without Congress, the US delegation is comprised of the Obama Administration and he too is up for re-election. Promoting policies that catalyze private sector investment in mitigation and adaptation, rather than offering up taxpayer money to foreign countries, seems like a more favorable political (and therefore election) strategy for the President’s Administration in Durban. Whether this strategy makes good climate public policy, however, is a different story.


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