EDITOR’S NOTE: The original article used the expression “loss and damage,” which has been replaced in this updated version with “liability and compensation” to more accurately reflect the negotiations. Furthermore, the article has been updated with new information about financial assistance to developing nations.
Paris, France—Entering the closing 48 hours of the global climate negotiations, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday that “we will not leave the most vulnerable nations among us to quite literally weather the storm alone.” Speaking an hour before newly updated negotiating text was released, Kerry also referenced the surprising news from Monday that a temperature limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius—“or as low as we can go” beneath 2 degrees, he said—might be included in the final agreement. But representatives of developing nations complained that, behind closed doors, the United States was demanding two deal-breaking quid pro quos. First, in return for referencing the 1.5 C target, poor and vulnerable nations must agree to never again raise the issue of “liability and compensation” for the climate impacts bound to increasingly afflict those nations in the years ahead. Second, the US has refused to provide the financial assistance poor nations need to pursue a development path consistent with a 1.5 C target—for India, for example, to forego coal-fired power plants in favor of wind and solar.
In an uncharacteristically animated speech, Kerry made news by announcing that the United States will double its funding for vulnerable countries’ adaptation to climate impacts to $800 million a year by 2020. Beyond that, he largely reiterated the known US position, listing four points the Obama administration wants to see in the final text: The agreement should be “as ambitious as possible”; it should be “flexible,” reflecting the differing economic circumstances of each country; it should include “adaptation and resilience” for the poor and most vulnerable countries, where climate disruption is “a matter of life and death,” and it should “get stronger over time.”
In a speech streamed live throughout the Le Bourget convention center, Kerry told a packed press conference that he was optimistic that the Paris summit will succeed, saying, “We are seeing momentum towards an agreement that has never existed before.” He concluded with unabashed cheerleading, urging his fellow diplomats to “do whatever it takes, make the compromises we need to make, to give the world the agreement it deserves and demands.”
What Secretary Kerry did not say was also important. He did not endorse de-carbonizing the global economy by 2050 or the related imperative of leaving most of the earth’s fossil fuels in the ground, as scientists have said is required to honor the current international goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial level. Nor did he mention “liability and compensation”—a shorthand term for the demand by vulnerable countries for monetary and other assistance to deal with irreparable climate impacts beyond what adaptation can address, such as the disappearance of homelands under rising seas.
Civil society groups expressed varying degrees of enthusiasm for Kerry’s remarks, even as other activists announced plans for a “Red Lines” demonstration in the streets of Paris on Saturday, despite French authorities’ continuing ban on large public protests.
“Secretary Kerry’s commitment to an ambitious deal is clear,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told The Nation. “This announcement of additional financing—the hardest thing for the US to pledge—shows how committed the US is to a strong outcome. But there is still much more to do.”
“With today’s announcements, Secretary Kerry has just taken the US off the fence on finance and helped boost the elements we need to achieve the 100% clean energy deal the world demands,” said Emma Ruby-Sachs, acting executive director of Avaaz, a citizens movement that claims 42 million members worldwide. “The question now is whether China and India will back the deal, or break it.”