Obama on Climate (and Development)

September 24, 2014

President Obama's speech at the UN Climate Summit was long on ambition and short on specifics – with the exception of a executive order on US support for climate resilient development of uncertain merit.

The ambition was notable and welcome, strong enough to make me wish that they had been addressed to the American people early in his first term rather than to the UN General Assembly almost half way through his second.

"The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. The alarm bells keep ringing. Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call," he said, in a reference to unprecedented climate protests in New York City and around the world ahead of the UN Summit.

"We cannot condemn our children, and their children, to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair. Not when we have the means – the technological innovation and the scientific imagination – to begin the work of repairing it right now."

The president made a compelling case for the regulatory measures his administration has undertaken in the face of a recalcitrant Congress: automobile mileage standards, proposed measures to cut emissions from existing power plants, and new measures he said he had taken in recent days to further boost renewables and energy efficiency. 

He also highlighted US-Chinese discussions on the issue, including prior talks with Chinese president Xi Jinping (who did not attend the summit) and a meeting "just a few minutes ago" with Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli in which Obama said he had "reiterated my belief that as the two largest economies and emitters in the world, we have a special responsibility to lead." (The General Assembly responded with applause.)

Zhang, speaking soon after, sparked the interest of climate policy wonks by committing that China would try to peak emissions "as soon as possible," seemingly a new and more ambitious formulation than previous pledges.

Words matter, and if any of the many speeches delivered at the UN Summit could make a difference based on rhetoric alone, President Obama's would have been it. His speech may have helped to raise expectations ahead of the next two rounds of global climate talks, in Lima later this year and, importantly, in Paris in 2015, which is all to the good.

Still, the speech would have been more persuasive and better received if the president had been able to offer more specifics. Unlike several other heads of state, he did not offer a specific commitment to the Green Climate Fund – a new international entity seen by developing countries as the primary financing vehicle for rich countries to help support low-emissions, climate-resilient development.

Instead the president highlighted bilateral programs ("partnering with African entrepreneurs to launch clean energy projects") and US-led multilateral initiatives ("building international coalitions to drive action, from reducing methane emissions from pipelines to launching a free trade agreement for environmental goods").

The most noticeable fresh commitment was a new executive order directing US federal agencies "to begin factoring climate resilience into our international development programs and investments." To be sure, this isn't entirely new. The president said that US climate assistance already reaches more than 120 nations. "We're helping more nations skip past the dirty phase of development, using current technologies, not duplicating the same mistakes and environmental degradation that took place previously."

The problem is that such an approach may sound to developing countries – and some development experts – like "do as we say, not as we do," especially when pledges of new resources are lacking and when the executive order includes instructions to US agencies to ensure that "climate resilience" addressed in the multilateral financial institutions that the US supports, such as the World Bank and the regional development banks.

Development and climate change resilience go hand-in-hand with or without a US president's executive order to ensure that happens. CGD research has shown that educating girls – a center piece of development efforts for at least a generation – is arguably the single most cost-effective climate resilience intervention available.

Developing countries want and need poverty-reducing growth and  proper infrastructure, too, including utility scale power systems and roads and modern flood control and hydropower systems – all of which can increase climate resilience – but are sometimes impeded by the US because of environmental concerns. It will be up to those officials responsible for interpreting the new executive order to ensure that the new US push for climate-resilient development doesn't become an unintended impediment to US support for development itself.

A mechanism that could do this is included in the executive order, in the form of a new US inter-agency Working Group on Climate-Resilient International Development to be co-chaired by the Treasury Secretary and the head of the US Agency for International  Development (USAID) or their designees.

I expect that my colleagues in CGD's Rethinking US Development Policy initiative and others who argue for stronger and more effective US leadership in the multilateral financial institutions will be keeping an eye on this in the months and years ahead.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.