Politics of Poverty

A small – but important – climate victory in the Senate

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A view of the plenary hall in the World Conference Center in Bonn during a meeting of the UNFCCC. (Photo: IISD)

Thanks to Sen. Jeff Merkley, the Senate just took a key step to protect funding for international climate change diplomacy.

Lost in the wall-to-wall coverage of the hurricanes and the President’s decision on Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was a little-noticed – but important – victory for the millions around the world affected daily by a changing climate. A crucial Senate committee took a bipartisan vote to restore funding for the main international body tasked with implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change. And that matters, especially at a moment when the Trump administration has walked away from the international effort to fight climate change altogether.

What exactly happened? On Friday, September 8th, the Senate Appropriations Committee met to approve legislation providing 2018 funding for the State Department. In years past, these kinds of bills have included money for an important organization with a long, boring name: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat. Approved by President George H.W. Bush and unanimously approved by the US Senate in the early 1990s, the UNFCCC is the original treaty that sought to build a big international agreement on climate change (which they did, in 2015 – the Paris Agreement). However, this year’s Senate funding bill was missing the funding the US normally provides to help the UNFCCC keep the climate diplomacy agenda moving forward.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), a long-time climate champion, offered an amendment that would restore $10 million in much-needed funding for the UNFCCC – hoping it would attract enough bipartisan support to pass. And it did. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) both voted for the amendment, allowing it to pass.

Why is funding for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) important? Well, the 2015 landmark Paris Agreement is basically a big blueprint: it sets forth a ton of work to be done in the years ahead to ensure that the world reduces carbon emissions, protects poor people, and invests in renewables. And the engine of much of that work is the UNFCCC itself. If the UNFCCC can’t function, the whole process falls apart.

And, weirdly, funding for the UNFCCC should theoretically be something President Trump supports. After Trump announced on June 1st that the US intended to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (in 2020), EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made a slew of public appearances wherein he pledged that, despite the wrong-headed effort to back out of Paris, the US was ­not rejecting the underlying UNFCCC treaty. “We don’t lose our seat at the table. We joined the treaty in 1992, called the UNFCCC, with respect to climate change,” Pruitt told Chris Wallace. Briefing the White House press corps that same week, Pruitt further stated that, “We are part, as you know, of the UNFCCC, and that process encourages voices by some national groups and by countries across the globe. And we are going to stay engaged and try to work through agreements and achieve outcomes that put America’s interest first.” The State Department has since affirmed that it is official US policy to stay in the UNFCCC. So, in theory, money for the Framework Convention should be something these folks support. We hope.

It’s also worth remembering why these kinds of fights are important in the first place. While climate change didn’t cause them, we know that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were made stronger and power destructive by climate change – just look at the Caribbean and the Florida Keys. Walking away from our last, best hope to address this problem on the global stage makes no sense.

This is one small victory among further battles to come – this Senate legislation now has to be reconciled with the House bill before moving forward, and many members of Congress in both chambers would prefer to bar any and all climate-related funding from the bill. Senator Merkley deserves strong praise for his effort to restore the UNFCCC funding. This is only one piece of funding, but it’s an important one: there are many more climate-related parts of the budget that remain very much in danger. If we want to preserve any part of the US responsibility to be a leader in low-emissions development, funding these programs and accounts is essential.

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