This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
It’s one of the oldest tricks in politics: talk down expectations to the point that you can meet them.
And it played out again in Berlin as twenty-one countries—including the United States—pledged nearly $9.5 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a UN body tasked with helping developing countries cope with climate change and transition to clean-energy systems.
The total—which will cover a four-year period before new pledges are made—included $3 billion from the United States, $1.5 billion from Japan and around $1 billion each from the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
That’s a big step in the right direction. But put into context, $9.5 billion quickly sounds less impressive.
Floods, droughts, sea-level rises, heat waves and other forms of extreme weather are likely to cost developing countries hundreds of billions of dollars every year. And it will take hundreds of billions more to ensure that they industrialize more cleanly than their counterparts did in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia.
Developed countries should foot a large part of that bill, since they bear the greatest responsibility for causing climate change.
The Politics of Responsibility
Determining who pays for what is an integral part of achieving an international climate deal. And so far, pledges from rich countries have tracked far behind previous requests and recommendations.
Back in 2009, developed countries signed the Copenhagen Accord, which committed them to move $100 billion per year by 2020 to developing countries. A year later, the UN climate conference in Cancún called for the Green Climate Fund to be set up to channel a “significant share” of the money developing countries need to adapt to climate change.
Earlier this year, the G77—which is actually a grouping of 133 developing countries—called for $15 billion to be put into the Green Climate Fund. UN climate chief Christiana Figueres set the bar lower, at $10 billion. The failure to reach even that figure is likely to put strain on negotiations for a new multilateral climate agreement that is expected to be reached in December 2015.
But it’s not just the headline figure that’s important. Plenty of devils are likely to be lurking in the details.
Delivering on the US pledge requires budgetary approval from a hostile Congress, although a payment schedule stretching over much of the next decade could make that more politically feasible than it initially sounds.