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Foreign Aid, Austerity, and Climate Policy

by Michael Levi
November 16, 2010

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.

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  • Posted by Joe Gurowsky

    I completely agree with your belief that climate aid should be categorized as having strategic effects, as long as it is targeted effectively. At UNFCCC Cancun, the US, working with other developed nations, should help led the call to round-up the funding commitments for the “fast-start funding” for 2010-12 agreed to in the Copenhagen Accord to help developing nations adapt to climate change.

    Granted, the fiscal and political environment domestically does not appear conducive to making stronger financial commitments to climate financing, but it is important to emphasis that the future price tag of climate change will be much more costly if not acted upon now (ex. IEA stated in the WEO 2010 that inaction in 2009 on climate goals added $1 trillion to the bill). Despite what the Murdoch and David Koch crowd espouse, the factual, science based message needs to be more effectively conveyed for broad acceptance of substantive climate aid being recognized as a necessary strategic necessity. We owe the developing world that much. The question becomes, who is the proper voice to project the message?

    Joe G.

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