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12 November 2021updated 13 Nov 2021 10:25am

Is Joe Biden as bad as Donald Trump on climate justice?

As negotiations run over at Cop26 in Glasgow, poorer nations run out of patience with the EU and the US.

By Philippa Nuttall

Joe Biden has sold him self as a climate change champion. “America is back in the game,” with Biden’s election, said the president’s national climate advisor Gina McCarthy. But an observer from Kenya briefing at Cop26 on Friday suggested the US leader is “no better than Trump” if he doesn’t show greater ambition on ensuring developing countries receive support for the destruction climate change has wrought on their countries.

The thorny issue of “loss and damage” has been floating around in international climate negotiations for years with little serious attention. However, in Glasgow, poorer countries want action. Countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change want a “loss and damage facility” to be included in the final declaration of Cop26 that would make access to funding easier and faster. African nations are already spending up to 10 per cent of annual GDP on adaptation. When a hurricane hits a small island developing nation, it can currently take one to two years to access funding, not helpful when you need to rebuild a hospital or a school.

Somalia’s environment minister asked the US and EU late on Friday afternoon to “provide their full diplomatic and financial backing” to countries on loss and damage, and adaptation finance. The call was backed by various nations. 

“Are we negotiating to just to keep the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] process ticking along or to tackle climate change?” asked the negotiator from Bangladesh.

“We had high hopes Glasgow would be the defining Cop and deliver action,” said his colleague from Tuvalu. “In the first two days in the World Leaders Summit, we heard passion and commitment. That was encouraging and gave us a level of optimism. We are not now seeing that level of optimism. Tuvalu is a low-lying nation, we are at the forefront of climate change, it is an existential threat to us. It is not fiction or predicted to happen in the future. Tuvala is literally sinking.”

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“We just asking you to keep your promises,” said the negotiator from Panama. “1.5 [degrees Celsius] is a lifeline.”

But the EU and the US appear to be refusing to budge. 

“Biden campaigned on the basis of climate action,” Mohamed Adow from the NGO Power Shift Africa told journalists. The president was following up this promise on his domestic agenda, but not fully engaging at an international level, he suggested. “On climate justice, Biden is as bad as Trump,” he said, if Biden doesn’t come up with the goods on financing for loss and damage and adaptation. “The US is the biggest block on this issue and is supported by the EU.”

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Veteran US climate expert Alden Meyer, who has been to all but one of the 26 Cops, said the EU and the US needed to realise that climate finance was vital for countries on the frontline of climate change and of strategic importance for rich countries — failure by the EU and the US to help poorer countries adapt to the impacts of extreme weather would lead to “mass migration, hot beds of terrorism  and food shortages,” he warned. “We don’t need money on the table,” but the process for getting the money and ensuring the most vulnerable countries can access it “starts here”, said Meyer. 

As to the reasons the US and the EU are apparently being so obstructionist on the issue? Jennifer Tollman from think tank E3G suggested the EU was “not properly prepared” on loss and damage, had “not taken it seriously”, and so was having to coordinate on the issue “on the ground”, a slow process when you have 27 member states with which to consult and various institutions.

A spokesperson for the European Commission refused to comment, saying the EU was doing “everything we can to get a successful outcome and listening to all parties”. Vice President Frans Timmermans is publicly bullish on EU ambition and doesn’t broker criticism of its position.  

The US has long been concerned that any willingness to pay for the destruction already brought about by climate change will leave it open to liability cases as, historically, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. “The US knows where it stands on this issue, but had not expected this pressure,” said Meyer. He warned that if Washington doesn’t move on loss and damage, it was unlikely to get what it wants from China in terms of cutting emissions and moving away from fossil fuels to cleaner technologies. China backs greater support for poorer countries.

The negotiations at Cop26 are supposed to draw to a conclusion on Friday night, but given the stalemate on this and other outstanding issues, it looks like being “a very long night”, said Meyer. In the case of “Covid and the pandemic, developed countries mobilised trillions over night,” he added. “There is no vaccine for climate change.”

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