The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama’s following Bush in helping poor countries fight climate change. Suddenly that’s controversial.

A typhoon survivor stands inside his damaged house surrounded by debris left by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. The Green Climate Fund would help developing countries adapt to climate change, including increasing resiliency to disasters. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

Just off a historic climate deal with China, President Obama will now pledge up to $ 3 billion toward the financing of climate adaptation and clean energy investments for poor countries, an offer announced on the eve of an international pledging conference in Berlin on Nov. 20. The money would go toward the Green Climate Fund, an initiative originally launched during international climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010 and that is seen as crucial to securing a global consensus on emissions reductions -- a difficult task indeed when countries of the world have made highly disparate contributions to the current global warming trend.

The Green Climate Fund, says its executive director Héla Cheikhrouhou, "constitutes an important piece of the puzzle of how we as a people come together to enhance our livelihoods on the planet we are sharing." Cheikhrouhou thinks pledges to the fund from wealthier countries, like the U.S., will play a central role in shepherding the world towards a global emissions reduction agreement in Paris in late 2015. "There are moments in life where you feel like the stars have aligned, things are coming together in a positive way -- we may well be on the eve of a truly transformative agreement," she says.

As of this writing, over $ 7 billion has already been committed, including $1 billion from France and nearly $ 1 billion from Germany, and $ 1.5 billion from Japan:

There's just one problem. Even though the idea for international climate funding measures like this one dates back to the George W. Bush administration -- where they were crucially championed by then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson -- there are concerns that Congressional Republicans may try to thwart some of the new U.S. funds through the appropriations process. In fact, long before the GOP's triumph in the midterm elections, House Republicans in early 2011 introduced a continuing budget resolution that would have "gut most climate aid" -- a sign of the conflict that may be to come.

Indeed, the presumptive new chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Oklahoma's James Inhofe, used a 2012 video to decry a "United Nations green slush fund that would redistribute over $ 100 billion from developed countries to developing countries" -- which certainly sounds like a reference to today’s Green Climate Fund. The $100 billion figure refers to a pledge in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord that developed nations would spend that amount by 2020 helping countries adapt to climate change, and that mentioned the development of a Green Climate Fund. (To be sure, the $ 10 billion goal for the first round of the Green Climate Fund is well short of that total.)

"You’ve got a trifecta for Congress," says Taiya Smith, a senior adviser with the Paulson Institute and a former deputy chief of staff for the Treasury Department under Hank Paulson."$3 billion when we’re feeling poor; an international fund, when we’re not convinced that international anything is a very constructive way to get things done; and climate change," she continued, describing how some congressional Republicans might think about the idea of the U.S. sending money to the Green Climate Fund.

Indeed, in light of Obama's considerable climate momentum coming off the China agreement, if Republicans want to derail a global climate agreement -- and the president's agenda -- trying to block funds for the Green Climate Fund could provide crucial leverage, simply because these monies are so central to the politics of global climate cooperation."If there’s no money on the table to help developing countries adapt to climate change, then they won’t come to the table," says Athena Ballesteros, a director at the sustainable finance program of the World Resources Institute. "So it’s always a core pillar of any agreement on climate, but particularly for 2015."

What's amazing is that this very idea -- helping poorer or developing countries cope with climate change -- came out of the last Republican administration. In his 2008 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush outlined a $2 billion investment in "a new international clean energy technology fund to help confront climate change worldwide." In a 2008 op-ed in this paper, meanwhile, then Treasury Secretary Paulson joined with then-GOP Senator Richard Lugar wrote that "expanding the use of clean technologies is one way to address the common challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while transcending the differences here at home and between developed and developing countries," and stressed the fund's importance.

Later that year, the World Bank announced that a number top industrialized nations, led by $ 2 billion from the United States, had pledged over $ 6 billion to two Climate Investment Funds, one focused on clean technology, as per Bush's and Paulson's initiative, and the other on other issues such as climate resilience.

The Green Climate Fund "is really meant to be the successor to the clean investment funds that George W. Bush really helped lead the launch of, and pledged $ 2 billion to," explains Pete Ogden, a former Obama international energy and climate official who is now at the Center for American Progress. One chief difference is that Green Climate Fund seeks to raise considerably more money, and from a far more diverse set of nations around the world.

"But you know, in this political environment, just the fact that such funds have a kind of history of support and a logic to them doesn’t mean that they won’t be attacked," adds Ogden.

According to an Obama administration official, the $3 billion pledge for the Green Climate Fund will be "reflected in the President's future budget request." And it is clear that in the past, much U.S. funding for international climate assistance and investment has indeed had to wend its way through appropriations.

"It is in our national interest to [help] vulnerable countries to build resilience to climate change," said the official. "More resilient communities are less likely to descend into instability or conflict in the aftermath of extreme climate events, needing more costly interventions to restore stability and rebuild."

So how will Republicans treat a budget request amping up the US's contributions to international climate adaptation and clean energy development? "It will be part of the regular appropriations review and would have to compete with priorities," said Don Stewart,  a spokesman for incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "Just because the President announces it doesn’t mean Congress will pass it."