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Beware the Strategic Consequences of Slashing International Climate Assistance

by Michael Levi
February 14, 2011

The Obama administration budget request for FY2012 is out. The contrast with the House Republican alternative is stark. Nowhere is this more clear than in funding for international climate change activities, where the administration has scaled back its request modestly from its FY2011 submission (but is still asking for considerably more than was appropriated for FY2010), while the House Republican proposal envisions eliminating almost all U.S. spending.

I’m not going to dwell for now on the merits of each piece of the spending request: I have no doubt that some money is being wasted; I’m also sure that there are places where additional sums could be valuably spent. It behooves everyone, though, to think a bit about the bigger picture. Slashing international climate spending could have far reaching strategic consequences for the United States, all while saving less than a billion dollars a year.

Set aside arguments about competitiveness, worries about climate change induced security problems, and even the consequences of cutting aid for U.S. leverage in the global climate talks. The United States is competing for allegiance in the 21st century, particularly as it faces a rising China. Slashing climate assistance could severely hurt that cause.

I was reminded of this dynamic while reading Robert Kaplan’s engrossing new book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. (You might not guess it from the title, but it’s one of the most insightful books on energy security and climate change of recent years.) Kaplan reminded me that many of the countries that we tend to think of as abstract players in global climate diplomacy are actually of enormous geopolitical importance. The Maldives aren’t simply a set of resort islands with a charismatic leader – they occupy a strategically important location in the Indian ocean, astride oil shipping routes from the Persian Gulf to China. It’s no accident that, after the Copenhagen debacle, Chinese leaders quickly visited the island chain to make amends. Indonesia abuts crucial shipping lanes, serves as a source of timber and coal that fuels Chinese economic growth, and is home to more Muslims than any other country in the world. It’s also a key recipient of support under the Forest Investment Program, which the alternative budget would eliminate. And then there’s Bangladesh. Here’s Kaplan:

“The linkage between a global community on the one hand and a village one on the other has made Bangladeshi NGOs intensely aware of the worldwide significance of their coutnry’s environmental plight…. To some degree, this is a racket in which every eroded  embankment becomes part of an indictment against the United States for abrogating the Kyoto accords…. Nevertheless, for the United States to strictly argue the merits of its case is not good enough here. Because it is the world’s greatest power, the United States must be seen to take the lead in the struggle against global warming or suffer the fate of being blamed for it. Bangladesh demonstrates how third world misery has acquired—in the form of “climate change”—a powerful new political dimesntion…. The future of American power is related directly to how it communicates its concern about issues like climate change to Bangladeshis and others.”

The modest $40 million request for the Pilot Program for Climate Resiliance would be zeroed out under the alternative budget request. One of its biggest beneficiaries – you guessed it – is Bangladesh.

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  • Posted by L. Carey

    If the position of the Republican party (especially that of many of the newly elected Tea Party backed candidates) is that climate change either doesn’t exist, or isn’t caused by human activity, or is actually beneficial, why on earth would you expect them to propose ANY funding for climate assistance? To paraphrase Kaplan, the future of American power is related directly to how it reacts to reality – and the Republicans are not doing very well on that score regarding climate risk.

    [ML: Belief by U.S. policymakers in climate change is irrelevant to the argument in this post. What matters is that other people believe in it, and that as a result, the U.S. can influence them through its climate policies.]

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