How faith-based groups secured global climate funds

TORONTO — In July 2015, a bipartisan group of United States senators ensured the future of a billion dollars of U.S. support for the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund. They did so by championing an amendment in the appropriations sub-committee responsible for international climate finance that would eventually pave the way for President Barack Obama to draw two $500 million installments from the State Department to pay the GCF. But, if the climate-conscious lawmakers were the driver of this critical moment, the renewable energy that powered their cause might be attributed to a higher power.

Behind the scenes, faith-based groups spent the better part of the year informing senators — particularly Republicans such as Susan Collins, of Maine, and Mark Kirk, then, of Illinois — of the importance of supporting the fund. Now, with the remaining $2 billion that Obama previously committed to the GCF severely under threat by the Trump administration, as are climate change issues as a whole, the faith community is gearing up for a long-term fight. 

“It will be a matter of encouraging and working with this current administration, but at the same time standing up for what’s right because we have to protect our children’s health and lives around the world,” said Mitch Hescox, president and chief executive officer of the Evangelical Environmental Network

From the One Planet Summit, held last month in Paris, to the Global Climate Action Summit that will take place next September in California, finance is one of the key issues perpetually being debated within the climate change community. And with good reason. Climate change finance, in particular funding for the GCF, is critical to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Developing countries can’t meet their emission reduction targets, as part of the agreement’s overall aim in maintaining temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius, without outside financial and technological support from developed countries.  

With the Donald Trump administration unlikely to provide funding for the GCF and the ultraconservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch funding organizations that are attacking the science of climate change altogether, American state and businesses leaders are increasingly conscious of the need to provide additional support for climate action in the developing world. But, long before they stepped into the fray, the faith community — with the support of civil society organizations — was a key leader of the cause.  

“There’s no doubt that the faith community’s support for the GCF was a critical element of continuing to ensure that there was bipartisan support for the fund,” said Heather Coleman, climate and energy director at Oxfam America.  

Can they do it again?

Two years ago, a distant dispute brought ecological advocate Chloe Schwabe’s attention to the GCF. She had just started getting involved with climate change issues when she found out about a controversial hydroelectric dam project in Guatemala. Still in its preconstruction phase, the project was already plagued with problems, including the forced displacement of indigenous families. When Schwabe learned that the GCF uses the same environmental and social safeguards as the dam project, she knew that she had to take action.

“Not just around getting funding in Congress, but also to make the fund better,” said Schwabe who’s now the director of the faith-economy-ecology project at the Catholic organization, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

Schwabe raised the topic with an interfaith working group on the environment. It was the spring of 2015 and there wasn’t a whole lot happening domestically with regards to international climate change issues. The highly anticipated Paris climate conference was several months away and she thought the GCF was an issue that all faith-based organizations, or FBOs, could rally around. They did. More than a dozen FBOs from the energy and environment working group of the Washington Interreligious Staff Community began making frequent trips to Capitol Hill to inform Republicans and Democrats on the Senate appropriations sub-committee and their staff about the importance of the GCF. Other FBOs that operated independently of WISC also began advocating for the GCF on Capitol Hill.   

It may come as a surprise to some, but the U.S. has actually enjoyed bipartisan support for climate change investments since the George H. W. Bush administration. The reason is just as practical as it is altruistic: Climate change is a global problem and as the national security community has repeatedly pointed out, a threat multiplier. That means climate change will increase the damage caused by existing conflicts and thrust unstable countries toward disaster. We saw this happen in Syria and are now seeing it unfold in other parts of the world such as Guatemala and Nigeria.  

Helping developing countries mitigate and adapt to the effects of intensifying cyclones or longer periods of drought is clearly a much cheaper strategy than containing the conflicts that will inevitably erupt. That type of assistance is also easier to deliver than coping with a global migration crises that is bound to get worse as climate change worsens. The U.S. government knew what was a stake, and from 2010 to 2015, dedicated $15.6 billion to international climate action. That includes supporting bilateral and multilateral climate funds, such as the Global Environment Facility, which is the longest running dedicated public climate change fund, and the Climate Investment Funds at the World Bank.  

But, the GCF was different. It managed to press on all the raw nerves of climate skeptics at once: It’s a new, global, multilateral institution, which is not something that Republicans tend to support; it’s not necessarily donor driven, unlike the multilateral funds that U.S. legislators do support; and it has equal leadership from developed and developing countries. Even the fund’s name with the words green and climate at the forefront make it an easy target. 

Rather than being deterred by such obstacles, FBOs were invigorated. They’ve been active on climate issues since the mid-90s, yet their support for the GCF was of an unprecedented level. That’s because FBOs didn’t perceive it as another obscure, wonky fund. They saw it as a distinct fund with country ownership that elicited a moral call to action on a phenomenon that the faith community as a whole accepts is disproportionately impacting the poor and most vulnerable.  

FBOs were strategic in their approach. Jose Aguto worked with Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light, a network of religious institutions that spent a lot of time lobbying then Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. Mikulski, who was then the vice chairwoman of the Senate appropriations committee, had publicly stated her concern over climate change, but was not particularly interested in the GCF, according to Aguto. To try to win her over, FBOs employed what he calls an “inside out” strategy. 

The “inside” part of the strategy involves the faith community lobbying on Capitol Hill with the support and encouragement of their respective constituents. It also involves collaborating closely with other interested parties, including the development, environmental, and business communities. To complement these efforts, the “outside” part entails having constituents meet with their Congressional representatives in their state and district offices. At the time, Senator Mikulski had six offices in Maryland. Ever persistent, GWIPL helped faith constituents visit four of them. 

“One staffer said this is the most impressive meeting she had ever experienced in her life,” recalls Aguto, who is now an associate director at the Catholic Climate Covenant. “That people of faith who ordinarily don’t lobby are doing so from the leadings of their faith can make a huge impression on people.”  

Mikulski, who retired from Senate in early 2017 and is now a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University, told Devex, “In my career in the U.S. Senate, I did what I could to save the lives of people and our planet. As vice chairwoman of the Senate appropriations committee, I was a strong advocate for the Green Climate Fund, though right-wing politics often prevented me from achieving what I wanted.” 
That is of little surprise. Climate science was, and continues to be, attacked in Congress while the validity of international climate action was questioned in other hearings. In one memorable instance, Rep James Inhofe of Oklahoma, then chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, threw a snowball on the Senate floor in a misguided attempt to disprove climate change.  

But, FBOs pushed forward. The Evangelical Environmental Network’s Hescox said that he personally worked “very closely” with Senator Kirk and his office to support the GCF by constantly updating him and his staff on the critical importance of the fund to the faith community. In fact, the evening before the fateful vote in the appropriations sub-committee, Hescox was in Kirk’s office urging his staff to support the GCF. A few days prior, a group of Kirk’s constituents, top rabbis from Chicago, spoke to the Senator about their passion and support for the GCF. Kirk couldn’t be reached for comment, but Hescox doesn’t think the timing was a coincidence.  

“In many of these times you have to draw your own conclusions, but we certainly believe in our formal efforts in meeting with [Senator Kirk] and sharing our thoughts were very valuable and we’ll continue doing that,” he said. 

It’s been over two years since that vote; in the interim, the U.S. political landscape has been turned upside down and inside out. Climate advocates lost one of their few Republican supporters in Kirk, who didn’t win his re-election bid in 2016. They also lost a president who was a staunch supporter of the GCF and the Paris climate accord. Obama’s successor, President Trump, has scorned both the fund and the accord. In June, he announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the landmark Paris agreement, turning the country into an international pariah.  

For some senators, meanwhile, one of the biggest obstacles to securing GCF funding in Congress is the overarching influence of the Koch brothers. The Kansas-based conglomerate Koch Industries reportedly rakes in more than $100 billion in annual sales revenue, a significant portion of which is derived from oil and petrochemicals. 

“The Koch brothers are really in charge of the U.S. Senate and they don’t want to allow anything that promotes clean energy or renewable energy or taking on global warming,” Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who is on the appropriations sub-committee that oversees international climate, told Devex. “All that works against their interest in extracting and burning fossil fuels. We’re starting from a difficult position because the Koch brothers funded the vast majority of the seats that the Republicans have won in the last couple of years.” Merkley reiterated this stance at November’s climate summit in Bonn.

Going forward

The senator encourages the faith community to keep pushing forward and to be vocal about their support for climate action and the GCF. 

“It’s so important for senators to hear that we have a responsibility as representing the American people, that [climate change] is a threat to our planet that we must take on,” said Merkley. “It’s not a threat that differentiates between blue and red parts of the country. It is a major assault on forests and fishing and farming. It is a real threat to the economy of rural America and we need help from the senators who represent areas that far more rural.” 

FBOs concede that securing funding for the GCF for the next fiscal year is virtually impossible and their attention lately has been split between the overwhelming number of issues, such as health care and tax reform, that are threatened by the Trump administration. But this is Washington, FBOs like to point out. People don’t back out of a fight just because the prospects look grim.  

Moving forward, FBOs are overwhelmingly gearing up for a long-term fight rather than fixating on a particular appropriations cycle. After taking a break to regroup, over the past few months, they have re-commenced with congressional visits to talk about the GCF and the importance of other types of foreign assistance. Many view Trump’s vitriolic attacks on the GCF as a sign that there needs to be more basic understanding about the importance of climate change and hence are focusing their energy on getting more members involved in the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus. For instance, in November, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest, hosted a dialogue between two members of Congress from opposing parties to discuss bipartisanship and climate change. Meanwhile, Catholic Relief Services is making it even easier for Americans to request their representative to join the Caucus, by offering pre-written email messages that constituents can quickly use on their website. 

“We see it as an avenue that has momentum,” said Eric Garduno, senior policy and legislative specialist at CRS, referring to the Caucus. “They’re not all necessarily going to be on the same page about what to do about climate change, but it is a forum for them to have a dialogue and find areas where there is common ground.”  

Maybe in due time, they will also find common ground on the GCF. 

“From our standpoint it will change,” said Garduno. “We just have to keep working at it.”