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U.S. cuts to global climate funding take a steep toll

As the Trump administration scales back aid, developing countries suffer.

Pakistani residents cool off at a canal during heatwave as temperatures reach 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) in Karachi on May 30, 2018. CREDIT: RIZWAN TABASSUM / AFP
Pakistani residents cool off at a canal during heatwave as temperatures reach 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) in Karachi on May 30, 2018. CREDIT: RIZWAN TABASSUM / AFP

Steep U.S. cuts to global climate funding are taking a toll on developing countries, even as South Asia and other vulnerable regions face looming risks from global warming.

The United States has halved its contribution to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) for the first time in nearly 30 years, India Climate Dialogue reported on Friday. In 2014, the United States gave $546 million to the GEF, which convenes an assembly once every four years.

But the Trump administration’s 2018 contribution will reportedly be only $273 million. The reduced US contribution is a key factor in bringing the GEF’s total budget down from $4.4 billion four years ago to $4.1 billion this year.

Established in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, the GEF works to help global institutions and civil society unite with private sector members to empower sustainable development efforts.

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According to the GEF’s website, the partnership has given over $17.9 billion in grants since its founding, enabling more than 4,500 projects in 170 countries. GEF efforts include funding sustainable forest, landscape, and sea management, in addition to investing in protected areas, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, empowering water protection, and the general disposal of hazardous chemicals. Mitigating the impact of climate change is also listed as a leading goal.

During this week’s GEF meeting in Danang, Vietnam, leaders from vulnerable island nations like Kiribati emphasized the toll the GEF budget reduction will take on their homes. Some assembly attendees were more candid than others, lashing out at the United States.

“We cannot allow the U.S. government to renege on its responsibilities just because President Trump refuses to acknowledge them,” one unnamed Chilean diplomat told India Climate Dialogue.

The GEF assembly coincided this week with a World Bank report honing in on the consequences of climate change in one particularly vulnerable region: South Asia.

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In a study published Thursday, researchers concluded that six South Asian nations — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Nepal — are disproportionately at risk if global greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate or rise. The region is home to some 800 million people, many of whom live in poverty and without access to consistent food, water, and other basic necessities like shelter and health care.

“Changes in the Earth’s climate will have major effects on the people of South Asia, which is already one of the most affected regions of the world,” the report notes. So-called “hot spots” in the region — identified as areas with “low household consumption, poor road connectivity, limited access to markets, and other development challenges” — are among those places most at risk, showcasing hubs where climate change will worsen poverty.

Hot spots identified in the report include the city of Karachi, the largest in Pakistan and the fourth-largest in the world. The city has already suffered staggering heat waves this summer, forcing its 20 million residents to power through temperatures topping 110 degrees Fahrenheit — even during the recently-concluded holy month of Ramadan, when many were fasting. Dozens of people have died this year from the heat; in 2015, that number climbed to over 1,000.

Struggles facing South Asia and some other particularly vulnerable regions, including island many African countries, are nothing new.

With fewer resources and development needs still a high priority, many have faced hard decisions regarding climate change. In addition to the GEF, efforts like the U.N. Green Climate Fund (GCF) are meant to help lower-income countries sustainably adapt and develop through assistance from wealthier, Western nations like the United States. But under the Trump administration, those endeavors have hit a wall.

President Trump, who has questioned the existence of human-driven climate change, announced in June 2017 that he would withdraw the United States from the landmark Paris climate agreement. In doing so, he lashed out at the GCF in particular, lambasting U.S. contributions to global climate finance. While such aid has been critical for coal-dependent countries like India — which ultimately signed onto the Paris agreement because of funds like the GCF — Trump has walked back U.S. global commitments broadly.

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After announcing a U.S. exit from the Paris agreement, the White House indicated that it would use its GCF board seat to push for U.S. energy interests abroad, encouraging developing areas to invest in fossil fuels. That includes “clean” coal, a largely unproven energy source encouraged by the Trump administration but largely rejected by scientists as non-existent. The White House moreover indicated it would not pay the remaining money the United States has pledged to the fund — $3 billion was promised by the Obama administration, but only $1 billion has been paid so far.

Climate change has also disappeared from an “international priorities” page laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) International Cooperations website, according to an April report from the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI). At the time, an EPA spokesperson told ThinkProgress that the site is “reflective of the current administration’s priorities” and that “all the content from the previous administration is still easily accessible and publicly available-through the banner across the top of the main page of the site.”

Reduced U.S. contributions to the GEF fund are only the latest indicator that the White House is drifting further away from global climate leadership. According to a May report published in Science Advances, countries that produce fewer greenhouse gases are set to suffer more from global warming by virtue of their location. That study coincided with an Oxfam report revealing that Western nations are falling behind in climate finance aid. Those countries include some of the world’s biggest polluters — like the United States.