Kerry's Bold COP21 Speech Can't Hide US Pledge of "Pennies," say Activists

Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the United Nations. (Photo: UN Geneva/flickr/cc)

Kerry's Bold COP21 Speech Can't Hide US Pledge of "Pennies," say Activists

'The force of his words is not matched by the U.S. financial commitments.'

Speaking at the UN climate change conference in Paris on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced an $800 million climate pledge by 2020 from the U.S. and slammed deniers of global warming, stating, "Make no mistake: If, as a global community, we refuse to rise to this challenge--if we continue to allow calculated obstruction to derail the urgency of this moment--we will be liable for a collective moral failure of historic consequence."

Amid the release of the COP21 climate agreement draft text (pdf), which advocacy group Oil Change International said harbored clear signals of influence by the fossil fuel industry, environmental groups said Kerry's speech exposes a uniquely American problem in the fight against climate change--the rejection of innovative clean energy solutions and blockading of meaningful progress in curbing irreparable global warming.

"Secretary Kerry came to Paris to inject some urgency into the closing hours of the negotiations, which is surely needed. We welcome his call for an ambitious and enduring agreement with regular, transparent reviews of countries' climate actions," said Kyle Ash, senior legislative representative at Greenpeace. "But the U.S. is still missing a clear long term goal and the acknowledgement that a future free of the fear of climate change requires full decarbonization of the economy and the transition to 100% renewables by 2050."

Kerry slammed deniers as "so out of touch with science that they believe rising sea levels don't matter, because in their view, the extra water will just spill over the sides of a flat Earth."

But his bold rhetoric only worked to reflect the weakness of the U.S. government's pledge, activists said. Ash continued, "The force of his words is not matched by the U.S. financial commitments. The $800 million he announced, doubling the current commitment, is a positive step but it's just a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed. It is clear that the U.S. administration is a climate leader when it comes to rhetoric but sadly not when it comes to bold action."

Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica added, "Countries from around the world had high ambitions for the United States to pursue a climate agreement principled on fair shares, justice and ambitious reductions, based on the principles of common but differentiated responsibility. To date, the United States has not delivered on these ambitions and looks like it we will further undermine these basic tenets through the rest of the talks."

"While I appreciate the doubling of U.S. grants for adaptation to more than $800 million by 2020, it is still well below the U.S.'s fair share," Pica said.

Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), said, "Responding to the climate crisis demands an urgency and an acceptance of scientific and human realities that we have yet to see in the United States' participation here in Paris."

On Twitter, communications director Jamie Henn wrote, "Only a U.S. politician has to spend a big chunk of his speech going after climate deniers. In the rest of the world it isn't an issue."
"It is clear that the U.S. administration is a climate leader when it comes to rhetoric but sadly not when it comes to bold action."
--Kyle Ash, Greenpeace

As Henn explained in an op-ed published Wednesday, the $800 million commitment appears significant, but it doesn't reach what the U.S. government owes to frontline nations already burdened by the impacts of climate change--and it doesn't come at the expense of federal subsidies for the fossil fuel industry or the military.

"The speech was a good reminder of how far we've come since the failed 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, when President Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent most of their air time defending a lack of US action," Henn wrote. "Now, our politicians are swinging for the fences when it comes to their words and rhetoric. Sadly, their actions can look more like bunts or singles at best."

Henn continued:

$800 million [is] a lot of money for you and me, but it's still pennies compared to the billions that the U.S. spends every year on subsidies for the fossil fuel industry (or military spending, for that matter).

[....] As usual when it comes to climate, numbers speak louder than words. Secretary Kerry's speech had many of the right nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Now let's see the right numbers to back them up: 0% fossils, 100% renewables, by 2050.

Following the release of the draft text, foreign and environmental ministers will have two days to iron out details, the Associated Press reported Wednesday, "like how to spell out who should do what."

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