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Climate change creeps up the U.S. – Latin America agenda

May 3, 2011

In Santiago, Chile, President Barack Obama was unequivocal about the urgency of tackling climate change and embracing a more secure and sustainable energy future in the Americas.

The U.S. president stressed that regional expertise on renewable energy and biofuels was being pooled and shared under the U.S.-led Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) launched in 2009.

Prior to arriving in Chile, President Obama and his Brazilian counterpart, Dilma Rousseff, had agreed to launch a Strategic Energy Dialogue, that was to focus on cooperation on biofuels and renewable energy, energy efficiency, civilian nuclear energy and the development of Brazil’s deepwater oil and gas resources.

The Obama Administration has certainly invested significant political capital and financial resources into different aspects of the ECPA. In 2009 a senior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was quoted as saying ‘there is free trade fatigue and anti-drug fatigue in Latin America’ but that ‘energy opens a new path to relations with the hemisphere and is consistent with the president-elect’s overall energy and climate change objectives’.

In 2010, the Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, reaffirmed the Administration’s commitment to the Initiative. The vision of the ECPA is to bring countries from across the region together to accelerate the deployment of clean energy, advance energy security, and reduce energy poverty by sharing best practices, encouraging investment, and cooperation on technology. It is shaped around seven pillars ranging from renewable energy to adaptation and sustainable forests and land use.

The U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, states that Latin America is a significant focus of funding with over US$60 million spent in 2009-10 on climate-related bilateral assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean with over US$100 million requested for 2011.

Such expenditure has not gone unchallenged. At a House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere Assistant Secretary Arturo Valenzuela had to defend the Administration’s decision to allocate further funds to the ECPA when the chairman of the Subcommittee, Republican Connie Mac, questioned why US taxpayers’ money is being spent on climate change initiatives.

Latin American countries have generally endorsed the ECPA. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago have announced initiatives and/or are involved in projects supported by the ECPA.

They reflect the view recently expressed by the Panamanian Minister for Commerce and Industry, Roberto Henríquez, that the Partnership is positioning energy and climate change among the most important issues for the region through a multilateral channel of coordination.

Yet despite the resources and energy going into the initiative, the level of attention paid to the ECPA is currently minimal.

The relative decline of U.S. hegemony in the region, political reluctance in the U.S. on climate and greater independence by Latin American governments would appear to be fundamental elements in explaining why the ECPA has not generated greater attention by the press and commentators on hemispheric relations.

Although Obama’s popularity in the region is an asset for the U.S. administration, the U.S. is deemed responsible for triggering the financial crisis and has lost trust following Iraq and Afghanistan and the impact of its drug policies have not helped its image as a genuine and reflective partner.

As former director of the Inter-American Dialogue, Peter Hakim, points out, in his first year in office Obama had to contend with multiple obstacles that have frustrated change in U.S. relations with the region. There have, for example, been domestic issues such as the delay to fill critical U.S. diplomatic appointments, disagreements over Honduras, Cuban OAS membership, Latin American opposition to the U.S.-Colombia defense pact, and Iran’s ties to Brazil. All have been particularly challenging and in two years there has been little progress made on these issues.

The Obama Administration also faces a massive challenge to make progress on domestic climate change policy with the Republican Party bent on sabotaging constructive dialogue at every turn. The recent vote to cut-off funding to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests things have reached a new low.

Most countries in Latin America today consider the U.S. less relevant to their interests. Latin American governments are also taking initiatives to create their own regional institutions that both complement but also compete with organizations like the OAS.

The low level of attention also suggests that Latin American countries may be disappointed at the U.S.’s inability to achieve more on outstanding security and migration issues so are reacting ambivalently to the ECPA.

Those following hemispheric relations from the U.S. may also feel that other pressing issues such as trade, drugs and immigration are the real priority and discussing climate and energy concerns are a distraction. A leading commentator on hemispheric relations, the Inter-American Dialogue, for example, has paid very little attention to energy and climate issues in the region.

Elsewhere it is argued commentators in the media cannot be bothered to pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the initiatives that the current administration is working on.

The Obama Administration has stated that there are four over-arching priorities in the region, which includes securing a clean energy future. It is time this issue was up-graded by the press and observers to reflect the importance it has been allocated.

The scant media coverage of the ECPA and consequent lack of pressure in support of the initiative is regrettable. Even despite the paucity of publicity, there have been some positive signs that the Partnership is achieving success and its ambitious goals reflect the growing awareness of the urgency of global warming and clean energy for the hemisphere.

The ECPA is also a useful diplomatic tool to rebuild confidence and improve trust between the U.S. and Latin America and may support the creation of more constructive political conditions to generate progress on other hemispheric issues.

Taking into account Latin American expertise on both climate and clean energy policies, the ECPA provides scope for these countries to press for greater change in the U.S. particularly on domestic climate policy, which is inextricably linked to success at the UNFCCC and a new global climate deal. In that sense the ECPA offers considerable potential.

However, while airtime for the Partnership remains insufficient, the ECPA will be unable to benefit from greater scrutiny, analysis and attention that the media and commentators provide for other regional issues. In the interests of hemispheric relations this needs to change immediately.

 

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