​John Kerry

John Kerry, special presidential envoy for climate, testifies during a House hearing on July 13, 2023.

(Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images)

John Kerry Says 'Under No Circumstances' Will US Pay Poor Nations for Climate Damages

"This is unfair and goes against what was agreed upon at COP27 in Egypt. Climate activists especially from the Global South must stand up to the U.S. and other Western powers that want to short-change developing countries."

John Kerry, U.S. President Joe Biden's climate envoy, made clear at a congressional hearing Thursday that Washington has no intention of compensating impoverished countries for destruction wrought by the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency despite playing an outsized role in creating it and continuing to accelerate it.

During the United Nations COP27 summit held last year in Egypt, delegates agreed to establish a "loss and damage" fund through which rich nations can provide poor ones with financial resources to help cover the escalating costs of extreme weather disasters, which are growing in frequency and intensity due to unmitigated greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution. Although developing and low-lying countries bear the least responsibility for causing the climate crisis, they suffer disproportionately from its deadly consequences and remain most vulnerable to future impacts.

Asked by Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability, whether the U.S. would allocate money to eligible nations harmed by increasingly common and severe droughts, storms, floods, and other climate change-exacerbated catastrophes, Kerry emphatically rejected the idea.

"No, under no circumstances," said Kerry.

The U.S. diplomat is preparing to travel to Beijing in the coming days to discuss the climate crisis with Chinese officials, including plans for the upcoming COP28 conference hosted by the United Arab Emirates.

Last year's agreement to establish a loss and damage fund was hailed as a positive step forward even though it coincided with yet another failure by policymakers to commit to a swift and just phaseout of coal, oil, and gas—the primary sources of further devastation. Fossil fuels are estimated to cause more than $5 trillion in unpaid damages around the globe each year.

Details of the fund—including which governments will be expected to pay and which will be eligible to receive as well as how much financing will be provided and how it will be distributed—are still being worked out.

Denmark, the first U.N. member to pledge loss and damage funding, promised to allocate just $13 million to Africa's Sahel region and other areas. At the time, critics warned that a significant portion of the paltry sum is structured in a way that could enrich private insurers at the expense of those most in need.

Global justice advocates who pushed to create the fund have stressed that the U.S.—by far the world's largest historical emitter of heat-trapping gases—and other wealthy polluters have a moral obligation to provide grants, not interest-bearing loans or other predatory instruments, to help alleviate the burdens they are imposing on billions of vulnerable people who have done little to unleash climate hell.

A loss and damage fund was deemed necessary because a certain amount of destruction has been locked in due to extant emissions and atmospheric concentrations of GHGs. But it is not the U.N.'s first foray into climate-focused redistribution.

Developed countries agreed at COP15 in 2009 to disburse $100 billion in green finance per year to the developing world by 2020 and every year after through 2025, at which point a new goal would be set. However, only $83.3 billion was mobilized in the first year, and governments are not expected to hit their annual target, which has been criticized as woefully inadequate, until this year.

An analysis published last year showed that the U.S. is the biggest reason for the shortfall. If Washington were to give at a level commensurate with its cumulative contribution to global GHG pollution, it would allot $39.9 billion of the $100 billion pledge each year. That's $32.3 billion more than the estimated $7.6 billion it actually shelled out in 2020.

With his comments on Thursday, Kerry signaled that the U.S. has no plans to reverse course and start providing its fair share when it comes to the emerging loss and damage fund.

Not only have the U.S. and other rich countries refused to adequately fund climate action in the Global South, but they are also actively moving to expand fossil fuel extraction and combustion—ignoring the international scientific consensus and eliciting condemnation from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who has described existing policies as a "death sentence" for humanity.

In addition to rapidly slashing planet-heating emissions, progressives have emphasized that canceling impoverished countries' external debts would free up trillions of dollars that can help close the widening chasm between what science and justice demand and what policymakers are currently doing.

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