President Joe Biden’s remarks to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday contained much of the same lofty rhetoric that pervades a lot of big speeches about climate change: calls for urgent action, paired with dire warnings of worsening droughts and floods that will bring chaos and destruction across the globe.
But amid the familiar tropes was a pledge that climate policymakers hope will provide real momentum to international climate talks set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland, this fall: a commitment to double the money the U.S. will spend each year to help developing countries tackle climate change. “This will make the United States a leader in public climate finance,” Biden said.
The new annual commitment—some $11 billion—is small in the scheme of America’s massive federal budget, but it could give the rest of the world a much-needed boost of confidence that the U.S. can finally be taken seriously as a climate leader. “This is the ticket for admission,” U.S. climate envoy John Kerry told TIME in an interview on Sept. 20 in New York. “If we don’t do this, we will not have credibility in Glasgow.”
With a little over a month remaining before more than 100 heads of government are expected to gather for COP 26, the talks have widely been acknowledged to be far behind where they should be, with key countries yet to produce new plans to reduce their emissions. Many climate leaders hope Biden’s announcement will break the deadlock over financing climate initiatives and catalyze a sprint to the finish line with other countries ramping up their own plans to cut emissions. “It can help change the dynamic,” Kerry said. “It can be an important step.”
The debate over how much the U.S. should spend to help developing countries with their climate agendas began long before Biden took office. During the 2009 UN climate conference, developed countries, including the U.S., committed to sending $100 billion annually to their developing counterparts to help them pay for their climate initiatives beginning in 2020.
The plan was ambitious, but the details were vague. Money could flow from both public and private sources, and commitments could come from individual countries as well as multilateral institutions. President Barack Obama offered an initial commitment of $3 billion in 2014 to a UN-run climate fund for developing countries—a sum that was decried as insufficient and, ultimately, never fully delivered as Trump withdrew the U.S. from its global climate commitments.
So when Biden entered office promising to help lead an aggressive global fight against climate change, one of the first questions his team received was when the U.S. would deliver on that money. It came from developing countries concerned about being able to pay for their climate programs. It came from activists who pointed out the U.S.’s outsized contribution to global warming. And it came from wealthy European countries concerned about the political challenges of spending more and more to help developing countries with climate initiatives while the U.S. sat on the sidelines.
But committing the U.S. to spending tens of billions of dollars to help developing countries address climate change isn’t exactly an easy vote winner, and it took months of internal wrangling to get to Biden’s announcement. As recently as last week, the details of the program were still being hashed out in a high-level conversations between Kerry, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
The approximately $11 billion figure that the Administration finally settled on is twice what Biden had previously announced the U.S. would spend on such efforts in April. And it’s about equivalent to what a group of NGOs, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, said would put the U.S. on the same page as many of its wealthy counterparts.
“The most important thing today has been your speech, Joe, to UNGA, where you made a commitment to supporting the world to adapt to climate change, doubling the American commitment,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said before a one-on-one meeting with Biden on Sept. 21. “That’s very important for us.”
But even as climate leaders around the world express a mixture of relief and enthusiasm at Biden’s plan, uncertainties remain about how the President will get it done. Will the Administration be able to get Congress to approve the funding? What agencies will take the lead in distributing the funds? Will it take the form of grants, loans or perhaps some combination? “There are all these questions about the details,” says Lauren Stuart, a climate policy advisor at Oxfam America.
The Biden Administration didn’t release a formal document explaining the details of the announcement, but White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday that the funding would be incorporated into the federal budget planning and that funding “could come from a range of sources” within the government.
“He just wanted to send a clear message to the world, which we think this did, that we are committed to being constructive partners,” Psaki said, “not just with words, but certainly with some skin in the game.”
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