The omnibus is a climate moral and diplomatic failure 

AP Photo/Noah Berger

On a recent trip to Kenya, I heard little talk of coronavirus, inflation, or Ukraine once outside the bustle of Nairobi. In the countryside, people are focused on surviving one of the most severe droughts in living memory. Some regions have seen virtually no rain in two years, and over half the crops and most of the livestock have perished. The drought wiped away wealth and savings for hundreds of thousands, jeopardizing educational opportunities for an entire generation. Up to four million people may require food aid in the coming months. 

Kenya isn’t the only country feeling the heat. Most developing nations are grappling with the impacts of climate change. President Biden has acknowledged this urgency, and last April, pledged $5.7 billion per year to international climate assistance. But in the face of climate catastrophe, Congress has embraced climate austerity. The omnibus budget passed on March 11 allots just $1 billion to humanity’s greatest challenge — barely more than the Trump-era budgets. The word “climate” appears only twice in the 2,741-page bill. By signing this budget into law, the United States has turned its back on the developing world — and severely undermined its international standing. 

In a cruel twist of fate, the countries least responsible for the climate crisis are also most vulnerable to its effects. Rural households in Bangladesh, for example, already spend $2 billion each year on climate-related damage. A dozen island nations are at risk of disappearing entirely.  To right this wrong — and prevent mass migration, future resource conflicts, and supply chain disruptions — countries like the United States must immediately scale up foreign climate investments. 

Here is the good news: There’s already a multilateral institution in place to deploy climate funding exclusively for the global south: the Green Climate Fund (GCF), created by the United Nations in 2010. The GCF helps developing nations reduce greenhouse gases, protect nature, and adapt to creeping climate hazards. The GCF has financed 190 projects around the world, prevented two billion tons of carbon emissions, and reduced the climate vulnerability of 612 million people.  

Shockingly, the United States — one of GFC’s founders — has yet to step up as a funder. Of the $17 billion that’s flowed into the fund, only six percent has come from the United States, the world’s largest aggregate emitter. The latest U.S. budget fails to allocate a single cent more. 

This isn’t just a moral failure — it could also upend global climate cooperation. 

The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, was a remarkable moment in diplomatic history. After years of stalemate, 195 countries managed to strike a grand bargain. Every nation agreed to cut emissions substantially — even the world’s most fragile economies. In return, wealthy countries pledged to help finance adaptation and mitigation efforts abroad. That promise has gone unfulfilled — and trust now seems to be in short supply.  Failing to pay even a fraction of our fair share to the Green Climate Fund will only further inflame tensions between the global north and south, while alienating some of America’s closest allies when we need them the most. When the United States ducks its climate obligations, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Japan are left to pick up the tab. If this budget is all we can muster, U.S. delegates will rightfully be laughed out of the room at the next UN Climate Conference in November and multilateralism will be dealt a body blow.   

Though the 2022 budget has already been signed into law, there is still a sliver of hope for the Green Climate Fund. The Biden administration could follow President Obama’s example, take initiative, and deploy international climate assistance through the myriad flexible accounts that exist to support our country’s strategic interests abroad. While these ad hoc contributions would likely fall well short of what is required, such a move would allow the administration to signal intentions — and at least pay for its seat at the table. 

Legislating with narrow majorities is challenging, and no deal will ever be perfect. But there are some things that must always remain a priority — a habitable planet is surely at the top of the list. As the climate catastrophe accelerates, we have little room for error and no time for political paralysis. History will not be kind to those who recognized this threat, but delayed action for the sake of political convenience. 

M. Sanjayan is CEO of Conservation International.

Tags Barack Obama Climate change Joe Biden omnibus Paris agreement

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