One of the few levers that the United States has used successfully in international climate diplomacy in the last couple years is the promise of financial help for the poorest countries in the world. Foreign aid, though, is at the top of the hit list for spending hawks in the new Congress. If you take a look at the Simpson-Bowles budget plan, released last week, you’ll see that foreign aid takes a several billion dollar hit. (Never mind that this wasn’t necessary to their assigned task of balancing the budget.) This trend shouldn’t be a surprise: during the 2008 campaign, even the Obama campaign went straight to foreign aid when asked which part of the budget they’d target if triage became essential.
I think that the United States could be doing much more to help the poorest in the world, irrespective of what we do about climate. But political reality is on a different planet. As Congress sharpens its scalpels, then, it’s important that it distinguish between foreign aid that “just” does good and foreign aid that also has strategic consequences, and that it make protecting the latter a priority.
Climate-related assistance clearly falls in this second category. It not only does direct good (if spent wisely); it also enhances U.S. leverage in the world. It’s not the only category of U.S. foreign assistance that fits this bill – public health aid, for example, can help stop epidemics before they become global problems, while military aid can help boost weak but essential allies. But it may be the only type of strategic aid that’s explicitly targeted for cuts. (Have you noticed that the new Congress doesn’t love climate change policy either?) The Obama administration and its allies on the Hill (Senators Kerry and Lugar chief among them) ought to get out in front of this one to avoid a mess.