In January, some of the most prominent religious organizations active in the United States wrote an open letter to then U.S. President-elect Donald Trump urging him to continue helping developing countries adapt and mitigate the devastating effects of climate change.
“It is the moral responsibility of our nation, and our sacred task as people of faith, to protect our ecosystems, work for environmental justice, and address climate change,” they wrote.
But when the groups took the letter to a number of Senate offices on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C, they were told in no uncertain terms that they now need to start speaking about what is in the U.S.’ national interests, recalls Jasmine Huggins, a senior policy and advocacy officer at the Church World Service, one of 32 faith-based organizations that signed the letter “in peace.”
In the past, faith-based groups have justified pushing for clean energy on the basis that poor countries aren’t just poor, they’re also energy poor and that in turn affects health, education and gender inequality. Now some religious organizations say that they will have to discuss the need for clean energy in developing countries in terms of the lucrative jobs that it can offer Americans. As part of their stewardship toward the poor, faith-based organizations have advocated for funds to help developing countries adapt to intensifying cyclones and longer periods of drought. Now some religious organizations say that they will have to discuss adaptation funding in terms of enhancing American national security.
“I think that runs a bit contrary to our faith tradition because if you’re speaking from a faith tradition, you’re not supposed to be about what’s good for me,” says Huggins. “You’re supposed to be [about] what’s good for the common good. But we’re going to have to do it, because otherwise, I don’t think we’ll have as much success.”
Faith-based groups aren’t the only coalition on Capitol Hill changing the way they operate under an “America first” administration that has demonstrated hostility toward climate change. With President Trump set to release his first budget proposal in mid-March, other organizations — particularly those that have more sway over Republican senators — are increasing efforts to secure the billions of dollars the U.S. dedicates annually to international climate action.
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“We are spending more time on the Hill than we have in the past years,” says Andrew Holland, director of studies and senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project, a nonpartisan national security think tank. Holland is engaging senators and their staff in a variety of ways — including making formal appointments, sitting on panels, and holding informal meetings with Washington elites. ASP is also planning a few events outside of Washington later this year to talk about the national security threats of climate change.
“With the current administration, it’s pretty clear that your classical environmental groups don’t have an open door there,” says Holland. “And it’s pretty clear that the folks who may have more of an opening are faith, business and national security. We’re working on that. We’re pushing on that door and trying to get that message out there.”
Advocates have their work cut out for them. According to several reports, the president is proposing up to a 37 percent spending cut for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which administers most of the government’s bilateral assistance programs for climate change. Trump is reportedly slashing foreign aid, which comprises less than 1 percent of the federal budget, to help offset his proposal to increase military spending by $54 billion.
But the president’s budget is just a starting point. Any cuts would have to be made through the congressional appropriations process, which is going to be difficult. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham — who is chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, as well as some aspects of climate finance for developing countries — said Trump’s plan would not pass, calling it a “disaster” and saying that “it’s dead on arrival.”
While that’s positive news for foreign aid as a whole, it’s difficult to read much into Graham’s response when it comes down to U.S. international climate finance, says Karen Orenstein, deputy director of the economic policy program at the nongovernmental organization Friends of the Earth, where she oversees international public climate finance. Sen. Graham has publicly supported climate action for years and has gone on the record to say that there needs to be real climate policies. But his actions haven’t backed up his words yet. And Orenstein doesn’t think that will change any time soon. “I don’t expect to see Graham championing climate finance this year, but I also would be surprised if he vociferously opposed it,” she adds.
Pushing for climate change issues will likely be even harder due to changes in the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal grant-based assistance to developing countries for climate change issues. Climate advocates lost a key supporter in former Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, who did not get re-elected. Among other things, Kirk has largely been credited with pushing through an amendment last year, which removed language that prevented the State Department from providing money for the Green Climate Fund.
But, climate advocates aren’t just concerned about finding new supporters. They also have to deal with climate skeptics. Marco Rubio — who joined the subcommittee this year and passionately defended U.S. foreign aid on the Senate floor just a few days ago — does not seem likely to extend the same support to climate change issues. At a Republican presidential debate held in Miami last year, Rubio refused to even acknowledge man-made climate change, saying “Sure the climate is changing, and one of the reasons why the climate is changing is the climate has always been changing.”
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No matter how grim the political landscape gets, climate advocates say they will continue pushing for U.S. international climate finance on Capitol Hill. Not only will they have to convince Republicans that these funds are important regardless of one’s views on climate change. But, advocates will also have to encourage Democrats to prioritize climate change when it really comes down to negotiating the final issues in the budget, says Paul Bodnar, who served as a senior advisor to Obama on climate change issues and is now a managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute.
In reality, no one expects the new administration to provide significant funding for multilateral climate funds. Nor do they think Trump will even request Congress to pay out the $2 billion that Obama pledged to the Green Climate Fund.
What climate advocates do next will become clearer in the coming weeks. Huggins says that faith-based groups “are not completely decided yet on what their tactics will be until after the ‘skinny budget’ is presented.” Meanwhile some climate supporters within the national security community say that their priority is to ensure that the roads aren’t closed for future work. So even if President Trump keeps his campaign promise to “cancel billions of dollars in global warming payments to the United Nations,” ASP, for instance, wants to make sure that the U.S. doesn’t pull out of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. (In reality, the U.S. provides millions, not billions.)
“ASP’s tactics right now are more defensive than if a different administration was in power,” says Holland. “It’s more protecting what’s already been done or protecting existing programs than it is going out and advocating for more.”