Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Code red: Three steps for the US to make good on climate commitments

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COP26 climate change activists.jpg
Outside of pre-COP events in Milan, Italy, activists rallied to demand urgent action on climate change. When COP26 kicks off in Glasgow on October 31, the US will need to make concrete commitments to limit global warming, support marginalized communities feeling the harshest impacts of climate disruption, and enhance resilience of small-holder farmers. Photo: Mauro Ujetto

As we head into COP26 in Glasgow, we hope to see the US play a constructive role in advocating for strong climate action grounded in justice, with support from Congress to turn commitments into reality.

Since President Biden took office in January, the US has been rebuilding its credibility and leadership on global climate issues. The Biden Administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement, hosted a world leaders’ climate summit on Earth Day, announced a new emissions reduction target, and pledged to significantly scale up commitments for international climate finance.

These are important milestones toward seriously addressing what Biden himself has called “an existential threat to our lives,” adding, “This is code red. The nation and the world are in peril.”

But more is needed, and the clock is ticking. And now, with COP26 (26th UN Climate Change Conference) just days away (starting on October 31), the US finds itself in the difficult position of trying to uphold bold commitments without a clear path to achieve them.

But we can see the fundamentals of a roadmap, starting with three significant steps. At COP26, the US must reassure the world that it will:

  1. take ambitious climate action to limit global warming to 1.5C;
  2. support the world’s most vulnerable and traditionally marginalized communities with sufficient financial resources;
  3. commit to enhancing the resilience and food security of small-holder farmers hit hard by the climate crisis.

Limiting global warming to 1.5C

At COP26 we hope to see ambitious action from all countries—and particularly major emitting countries—to reduce emissions to keep to the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C. As the world’s largest historical emitter by far, the US has an urgent obligation to significantly reduce emissions.

In April, the Biden Administration announced an updated Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement that sets an economy-wide target of reducing US greenhouse gas emissions 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030. Subsequently, it has also launched the Global Methane Pledge to reduce emissions of this highly potent warming pollutant by 30% by 2030. These are positive initial steps, yet it’s still not enough in light of the country’s outsized role in creating the climate crisis.

Congress currently has the opportunity to pass the most significant climate legislation the US has ever seen through the budget reconciliation process and the Build Back Better bill; it would help put the US on track to achieve more clean energy, and economy-wide emissions reductions.

If Congress fails to pass this legislation, it will be a blow to US credibility at COP26, and will compel President Biden to turn to other Executive branch authorities on climate.

Supporting the World’s Most Vulnerable

The poorest half of the world’s population is responsible for only a small fraction of CO2 emissions. Yet, those living in poverty (particularly women and historically marginalized communities) continue to bear the brunt of the climate crisis.

The US has a particular obligation to address the increasingly devastating climate impacts on vulnerable communities by providing climate finance for developing countries.

In September, the Biden Administration came forward with a new international climate finance pledge of $11.4 billion per year by 2024 (double the commitment made in April, which received widespread criticism for being far too low). Although this is a step in the right direction, $11.4 billion per year still doesn’t reflect our fair share contribution in climate finance, and only includes an estimated $3 billion per year in adaptation finance--well short of the global goal of achieving a 50/50 balance between adaptation and mitigation finance.

At COP26, we hope to see more attention on the quality of climate finance by ensuring it is additional to development aid, and that it prioritizes the needs of local communities.

However, in order for the US to deliver on this pledge, Congress must appropriate adequate funds—including to the Green Climate Fund, Least Developed Countries Fund, and Adaptation Fund—as well as to bilateral channels to support adaptation and renewable energy projects in developing countries. Although we have seen positive signals of support for increasing international climate finance, Congress can’t settle for incremental increases, and must be transformational in the way it appropriates international climate finance moving forward.

Building Resilience and Food Security of Vulnerable Communities

Small-scale farmers across the world are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Floods, droughts, and extreme weather events can destroy crops, devastate agricultural livelihoods, and lead to food insecurity.

Nature-based solutions must prioritize food security and resilience of small-scale farmers by strengthening the rights and livelihoods of local communities, protecting ecosystems, and enforcing strong social and environmental safeguards to ensure local communities, Indigenous People, and frontline defenders have a seat at the table.  

The US can increase its support for the resilience and food security of vulnerable communities by doubling the Feed the Futures program (from 12 to 24 countries) and leveraging development aid for adaptation and resilience to boost food security. Additionally, the US must commit to supporting the protection of forests and critical ecosystems—including the Amazon rainforest—in ways that recognize and strengthen the land rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

COP26 is an opportunity to support strong outcomes on nature-based solutions that prioritize resilience and food security. For example, countries should support strong outcomes from the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA) process, which was formed to mainstream agriculture into the UNFCCC process.

Additionally, the US and other countries should support decisions (including those regarding Article 6 on carbon trading) that ensure investments in land-based mitigation strategies and nature-based solutions support food security, land rights and biodiversity protection, and are subject to strong safeguards, such as Free, Prior and Informed Consent by affected local communities.


Take action: The Biden administration has made big commitments to reduce emissions and support the most vulnerable. Now, the US must take action to fulfil these commitments in a way that centers the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities, and addresses the disproportionate gender and racial impacts of a changing climate both at home and abroad.