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World Bank Energy Lending Still Veering in Wrong Direction

April 11, 2014 ·

(Flickr/Claudio Schwarz)More than one billion people around the world still lack access to modern electricity.

At this week’s spring meetings, discussions between environment and development civil society groups and the World Bank highlighted tensions between those who seek to tackle energy poverty using every energy option available, and those advocating for the Bank’s financing to focus on clean, sustainable solutions for these developments.

In 2013, the World Bank released a report describing how the institution’s energy sector activities have shifted — except in special circumstances — away from coal and toward renewable energy and “lower carbon” fuels.

But analysis of the World Bank’s energy investment tells a different story. Oil Change International points out that the Bank spent $1 billion last year alone financing oil, coal, and gas exploration projects.

Vijay Iyer, Director of the World Bank’s Sustainable Energy Department, argued on a panel at the spring meetings that energy lending must focus on reliable access to affordable modern energy at volumes that cover people’s needs. According to Iyer, fossil fuel options — particularly expansion of greenhouse gas-emitting natural gas — must stay on the table in order to keep power affordable. He cited the relatively high up-front investment needs of renewable energy installation as a barrier to clean energy access for the poor.

But Oil Change International managing director Elizabeth Bast, also on the panel, underscored that despite the Bank’s rhetoric on reaching the poor, only 8 percent of the Bank’s energy portfolio is actually focused on energy access.

If the World Bank were serious about bringing energy access to the poor, it would dedicate the majority of its lending to do so. For the rural poor, that means providing small and medium-sized businesses the capital — and investors, the guarantees — to build mini- and off-grid renewable energy systems.

Talking Points: Tensions Rising, Wars Escalating, Occupations Expanding

April 4, 2014 ·

Phyllis speaking at an AIPAC protest on March 2, 2014“May you live in interesting times,” goes the Chinese proverb — or curse, depending on your perspective. These ancient, nameless Chinese prophets were at least partly right: Living in “interesting times” can be a curse, but not necessarily so. We’re living in challenging times — wars escalating, occupations expanding, U.S.-Russian tensions rising. But changes on our side are rising as well: The discourses of war, peace, and occupation are being transformed — and don’t forget that the Chinese character for “conflict” references both danger and opportunity.

U.S.-Russia Relations: Lessons from Ukraine

A new U.S.-Russia cold war is not yet fully inescapable, but there is growing danger. As is so often the case, Russia’s aggressive posture in the current Ukraine crisis is an unfortunate but not at all surprising response to two decades of U.S. arrogance, hubris, and post-Cold War triumphalism. The U.S. disregard for post-Soviet Russia’s regional (and global) position; its failure (willful or not) to acknowledge Russian history, interests and strategic priorities; and most of all, the U.S. insistence on continuing to expand NATO right up to Russian borders all shape the roots of the Ukraine crisis. It is further complicated by a resurgent Russian nationalism that increasingly authoritarian political culture has exacerbated.

I’m no expert on Ukraine or Russia — I leave to others the close-in analysis of the various popular forces, the relative power and influence of the neo-Nazi and other fascist elements so visible in the new parliament in Kiev, the balance of forces between opponents and supporters of Yanukovych’s decision to reject the U.S./European/IMF bailout in favor of a Russian bailout, the assessment of whether or not the Crimean population is as overwhelming pro-Russian as it appears, the impact of the $5 billion Washington brags of having spent “building democracy” in Ukraine, and more. 

But there are a couple of things in this new emergency that aren’t so different from lessons we’ve learned in earlier crises:

  • The U.S. admits to spending at least $5 billion on so-called “democratization” projects in Ukraine over the last decade, and certainly that means destabilization and some version of regime change was high on its agenda. That’s an outrage and something we should have been opposing years ago. But that doesn’t mean everyone protesting Yanukovych’s rampant corruption was somehow a U.S. agent. U.S. spies can’t claim credit for everything that happens. We must be careful to remember that people in Ukraine have agency as well — even with $5 billion, the U.S. couldn’t pull so many people (in at least some areas) into the streets to protest if there were not legitimate grievances.
  • The U.S.’ continuing interference, backed by NATO and parts of Europe, must be challenged, but that opposition doesn’t mean that President Putin, by contrast, is some kind of anti-imperialist good guy. Putin has fostered a plutocracy, enabling crony billionaires to undermine Russian democracy, equity, and environment by controlling Russia’s fossil fuels and minerals. And Putin’s military response to U.S. intervention doesn’t change that. 

    The need to fight against U.S. interventions AND simultaneously be rigorous in our critique of others at the same time, has been a difficult lesson we’ve struggled collectively to learn in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. (It does mean we should have been publicizing and challenging the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and other U.S. agencies’ undermining the Ukrainian regime much earlier.)
  • We must not accept the mainstream media’s drumbeat of “a new Cold War” being inevitable. The current Ukraine crisis certainly could lead to a dangerous escalation between Washington and Moscow, as could the U.S.-Russian clash over naval bases and competing proxies that is one of the six wars being waged in Syria. But that escalation is not inevitable:  President Putin has reached out to President Obama and they have agreed to high-level talks to tamp down the tension on Ukraine. Will it work?  It’s too soon to say, but the fact that they’re talking at this level is a good thing, and it means that the Cold War-style demonization of Putin and threats against Crimea and all things Russia need to be challenged.

Given the continuing devastations exploding across, at least, the wider Middle East/West Asia/Central Asia/North Africa arc of crisis, the impact of the Ukraine situation is already affecting regions and emergencies far from the Black Sea.  Even if not yet a new Cold War, the U.S.-Russia tensions over Ukraine could threaten the Iran negotiations and/or the currently-stalled Syria talks.

The U.S. needs — and has been counting on — Moscow’s cooperation in both negotiations: How likely is this cooperation to survive escalating U.S.-led sanctions against Russia?  Even Kerry’s sham talks, disguised as the Israel-Palestine “peace process,” may be affected. Those talks will fail anyway, but when the failure is official and the U.S. recalibrates its “strategic partnership” with Israel, it’s pretty certain no one in the White House, Congress, or anywhere else in official Washington will have any interest in pressuring Israel while the U.S.-Russian relationship remains tense.

No News is Bad News

Wars sometimes seem to become a permanent part of our global landscape. The long and devastating wars of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the surrounding countries of Africa’s Great Lakes region stopped getting attention in the U.S. press and public long before its victims reached the multi-millions, and these conflicts continue to be largely ignored.

The humanitarian disaster in Syria — whose millions of refugees are close to overtaking Afghans as the largest refugee population in the world — faces a crisis of “donor fatigue” among potential donor governments. Beyond that, it also faces an attention fatigue among ordinary people. We may well be shocked by the reports of barrel bombs, besieged neighborhoods, and children dying for lack of food and medicine, but too many people simply turn away, uneasy and uncertain of what can be done because there are seemingly “only bad guys.” Not to mention, the alternatives proposed are usually limited to escalating dangerous U.S. military involvement. 

In Iraq, years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation continues to fuel violent sectarianism, with corruption and civilian casualties approaching the worst years of the war. In Afghanistan, casualties rise as well, with warlords running for office in next week’s elections. Its corrupt government remains incapable of ruling. 

The U.S.-imposed sham talks on Israel-Palestine have pretty much already failed, but on the ground, Israel’s occupation forces are escalating their house demolitions, settlement expansion, and constant humiliation of Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and the besieged and surrounded Gaza Strip. While the discourse is changing quickly for the better, the day-to-day reality of Israel’s harsh and illegal practices against Palestinians remains largely out-of-sight for most people in the U.S. 

Sometimes — and perhaps the harshness of today’s continuing economic disaster is part of the reason why — it seems that with public attention fixated on immediate domestic problems, only one international issue at a time can gain a foothold on public attention. Right now, it’s Ukraine. Other critical ongoing  crises — the Syrian civil war, the sectarian violence in Iraq, the drone war in Afghanistan and beyond, the Israeli occupation and apartheid — just don’t make the cut, sometimes.

Cheerleaders for War

There is on-again/off-again talk in Washington about cutting the military budget — a little bit — and reducing the size of the army — a littler bit — but none of it is very serious. Overall, as I wrote in Common Dreams recently, the new Pentagon plan is for a few less troops, but the same old empire.

In Afghanistan, the military wants to keep at least 10,000-12,000 U.S. troops (and presumably a number of convenient military bases) there, on the spurious grounds of not wanting to lose the so-called “accomplishments” of the war so far. Hard to take seriously, given the military’s utter and long-anticipated failure to accomplish any of the claimed goals for the illegal war while they occupied the country with as many as 150,000 troops over the last 13 years.

According to the CIA, Afghanistan today remains the worst country in the world for infant mortality. Warlords responsible for horrific crimes are returning to leadership and running for office in the U.S.-backed elections. And no one is secure. Over the weekend NPR interviewed Bilal Sarwary, Kabul correspondent for the BBC, about an attack last week that killed another Afghan journalist. After describing the horror of the attack, he noted “The people of Afghanistan have been born into war [and] the people of Afghanistan continue to bear the brunt of this conflict.” Signing off, his response to NPR’s anchor, broadcasting from the network’s comfortable secure Washington studios, reflected the terrifying reality of warning when saying good-bye in war-torn Afghanistan: “Be safe,” he told her.

Content to continue in Afghanistan and with the escalating and expanding drone war, the Pentagon leadership is not directly pushing for new wars — but plenty of its friends are. Military contractors and war manufacturers always want to produce ever more tools of war that reap such a killing profit: bombs, rockets, missiles, bullets, guns, tear gas, etc.

Neo-con pundits, most of them former and hoping-for-future-position officials, want to remake the world — and especially the broadly-defined Middle East — as faux-democratic vassal states that will strengthen the U.S. empire around the world. And that means more military bases, more military intervention, more “no-fly zones,” more war. 

Israel — along with AIPAC and the rest of the pro-Israel lobbies — wants the U.S.’ global power, alongside its regional power, as a partner to police, control, and maintain a nuclear weapons monopoly over the entire Middle East. (The real threat to Israel, if Iran ever decided to try to build a nuclear weapon — something U.S. officials agree Iran has not yet even decided it wants — is not an existential threat to Israel or Israelis, but simply a threat to Israel’s current nuclear weapons monopoly in the region.)

The Decline of AIPAC

 

As I discussed on the Real News, AIPAC is losing, including in its effort with Israel to push the U.S. — specifically, Congress — towards war instead of diplomacy with Iran. A new round of talks between Iran and the P5 + 1 has concluded, with all sides expressing satisfaction that the technical-level negotiations went as-planned. A new Zogby poll indicates more than 50 percent of Washington insiders  believe AIPAC’s influence is declining. Even more significant for those tracking AIPAC’s dwindling legitimacy, 74 percent of those insiders admit they have seen members of Congress take positions not in the public interest partly or fully because of AIPAC’s pressure.

Keynoting the AIPAC convention, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spent a good third of his speech on Iran. However, the call for Congress to impose new sanctions, guaranteed to scuttle the Iran talks, demanded by Netanyahu and thousands of AIPAC lobbyists who descended on Capitol Hill the next day has failed. After such a definitive defeat of its campaign to get the U.S. to bomb Syria last summer, AIPAC is so far losing again on war in Iran.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest round of Israel-Palestine “peace talks” is coming up to its official deadline, and the only question now is: How will that failure be announced?  Four possibilities:

  • Admit that the U.S.-brokered talks failed (very unlikely: these talks have too much connection to legacies — Obama’s and Kerry’s among them — for that.)
  • Claim a great victory that the going-nowhere talks are being extended (possible: 23 years of failed U.S. diplomacy are about to become 24.)
  • Announce that a “framework,” but not a just, comprehensive solution, has been agreed to, with the understanding that both sides can “accept” it with reservations — meaning the whole thing can be rejected while still technically “accepting” (not impossible: because it will so diverge from the meaning of an actual agreement,  the two leaders might just decide they could get away with signing it.)
  • Announce that there was a framework agreement, but that only one side (more likely the Israeli side) was willing to sign on (also not impossible: the U.S.-defined “peace” is, after all, grounded in continued Israeli occupation, apartheid and domination.)

For more details on what the so-called “framework” might look like, take a look at my earlier blog on this subject. But, regardless of Kerry’s announcement later this month, the response of those of us committed to challenging U.S. support for Israeli domination remains unchanged:

  • We would welcome any agreement that was based on international law, human rights and equality for all. But weighed against that standard, this agreement fails. It is not just, comprehensive, viable, lasting, or in keeping with international law.  In a different context, Netanyahu is right: “A bad agreement is worse than no agreement at all.”
  • This lack of a serious agreement, highlights the failure of U.S. diplomacy. This is the “Einstein Edition” of peace talks: Negotiating on the same terms over and over again and expecting different results. We need an entirely different kind of global diplomacy, based on international law, human rights, equality for all, and conducted not by the U.S., Israel’s “strategic partner, but by the United Nations.
  • More than 60 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since this round of peace talks began last year. This shows the disparity of power and control in favor of Israel. 
  • There is a serious danger that the abandonment of fundamental Palestinian rights (to equality, self-determination, return, freedom) reflected in this agreement will from now on be the official starting point for U.S. policy. 
  • There is a danger that if the U.S.-Iran negotiations succeed and lead to a comprehensive deal that normalizes relations between the two countries, that Washington might feel politically pressured to provide Israel with a consolation prize — a gift likely to be paid in the currency of Palestinian rights.

War or Diplomacy?

In these interesting times with the new challenges regarding Russia and Ukraine, as well as the longstanding catastrophes underway in Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, and beyond, the most important question we face is: What can we do to support diplomacy over war?

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke on this very question. In sum, changing the discourse isn’t enough — our democracy is too flawed for that. But it is a vital first step towards winning the victory for diplomacy over war. The great British fighter for peace and justice, Tony Benn, who passed away last month, knew the right tasks were always the same:  Educate, agitate and organize. To have a chance against the well-funded behemoth that is the U.S. war machine, we must:

  • Mobilize to stop every U.S. invasion, occupation, military attack, or escalation in its tracks
  • Show solidarity with international movements like the global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel in support of Palestinians.
  • Make a real commitment to responding to humanitarian disasters, like those in Syria.
  • Give voice to those whose voices are too often drowned out by war, including Syria’s brave non-violent activists, Afghan civil society, and more.
  • Include nuance in our understandings — opposing U.S. military threats or strikes doesn’t necessarily mean that the leaders on the other side somehow become “good guys.”
  • Call for real alternatives beyond just saying “no” to U.S. military actions:
    • In Syria, it means demanding new diplomatic efforts alongside an immediate ceasefire, an arms embargo on all sides, and much more humanitarian support for those on the ground.
    • In Israel-Palestine, it means a UN-based solution grounded in international law, human rights, and equality for all

Public discourse on U.S. wars has already shifted massively in recent years: 52 percent of people in the United States now say that the Iraq war failed, and far more than that say it was based on lies. More than 50 percent now say that the war in Afghanistan — remember, the war that 88 percent of people supported when it began? — was not worth fighting.

There are plenty of reasons, of course — the lies, the lives lost and damaged on both sides, the continuing violence in both regions, the wars’ failure to make Iraqis or Afghans (let alone people in the U.S.) any safer or “freer.” But at the core of this shift are the organizers and activists who continue to stand up and speak out against war — and we cannot rest because the war machine certainly does not. As ever, we have more work to do.

White House Says Raising Tipped Wage Helps Women

March 27, 2014 ·

President Obama speaks on raising the minimum wage (Flickr/Maryland GovPics)President Obama recently announced that he supports raising the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to $4.90The White House focused on how this move would help women who make up the majority of tipped workers.

This announcement comes at a key moment, as Congress is expected to vote on the Fair Minimum Wage Act sometime this spring. The Fair Minimum Wage Act would raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 and would bring the tipped wage to $7.07 – 70 percent of the full minimum.

The White House’s announcement is long overdue. The tipped wage was always meant to rise along with the minimum wage.  Instead, it has been frozen in place at $2.13 for more than 20 years because of the National Restaurant Association’s lobbying efforts to make it so.

Back in the 1990s, no one predicted that the $2.13 figure would become permanent. Today, few seem to question it.

It’s about time we started paying attention to the tipped minimum wage: The restaurant industry can certainly afford to pay more. In 2013, the industry reported record profits of more than $660 billion — yet continues to spend millions on lobbying against any minimum wage increases.

Tipped workers have struggled more than other workers in our economy. They are three times as likely to fall into poverty and twice as likely to be on food stamps. It is shameful that tipped workers find themselves in this situation, and the American people need to stand behind a raise for them.

The White House correctly points out that increasing the tipped minimum wage would affect women more than anyone. Of the 3.3 million tipped workers in the U.S., nearly 2 million are restaurant servers. Of those, more than 70 percent are women.

The report from the White House noted that 26 percent of all tipped workers have dependent children, including 31 percent of female workers. About 2.8 million single working parents would be affected, 80 percent of whom are female. For over 20 years, the National Restaurant Association has ensured that tipped workers receive no more than $2.13 per hour. Their party needs to end.

Let’s stand behind tipped workers and their families and give them the raise they deserve. 

The Budget Wars: The Congressional Progressive Caucus is Ready for Paul Ryan

March 12, 2014 ·

Better Off BudgetThough the champions of Fix the Debt are now on the run, proponents of the grim-and-tired “We’re broke, we can’t afford it” line of argument continue to throw their weight around our federal budget debates. 

The Obama administration tried for several years to accommodate the Fix the Debt crowd. This year, the administration more-or-less gave up and delivered a budget that dared to declare that balancing the budget should not trump all other national goals. “Dead on Arrival” was the right wing’s rather predictable response.

Through all of this unproductive budget wrangling, one group—the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC)—has, year after year, performed the feat that no other group of our legislators seems able to pull off. The CPC produces budgets that balance significant deficit reduction over a ten year period with substantial investments in the near term to create jobs, strengthen the safety net, and reduce inequality—the kinds of investments that the budget austerity folks tell us we can’t afford. This group of seventy-plus progressive House members just released this year’s version, the “Better Off Budget.”

The CPC is able to reach their investment targets, in part, by going after areas of wasteful spending that other legislators won’t touch — for example, the enduringly large war budget (aren’t those wars ending?), tax havens for the rich, and oil company subsidies.

Other highlights from the CPC’s proposal include:

  • Fixing overspending in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). Though we are finally winding down the longest period of war in our history, the OCO (the President’s war budget — separate from, but added to, the “regular” Pentagon budget) has hardly shrunk at all. 
  • Investing in the repairs needed for our deteriorating water, energy, and transportation infrastructure and creating jobs in the process.
  • Implementing a small tax on financial transactions. More than 30 countries around the world already have this tax, and it would slow down reckless speculation while also generating revenues.
  • Improving the Affordable Care Act by adding a public health insurance option into the health insurance marketplaces.
  • Imposing a tax on carbon with 25% of the revenues applies to refundable credits for low income families, which would also serve to strengthen the market for clean energy and transportation.
  • Enacting public financing for campaigns to curb the ever-more- corrosive effect of money in politics

In a couple of weeks, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan — the true champion of “We’re broke” — will unveil his budget. As he’s already promised, it will slash programs like Head Start and job training (presumably because they sap the initiative of three-year-olds and the unemployed.) A clear alternative, a Better Off Budget, will be there ready to take him on. 

A Devil's Bargain on the Climate

February 24, 2014 ·

This blog originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.

(Friends of the Earth International/Flickr)Two years ago, environmentalist Bill McKibben caused a stir when he revealed the “terrifying new math” of climate change. McKibben calculated that to have a reasonable chance of staying below what climate scientists call the “tipping point” of global warming — a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels — humans can only send 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution into the atmosphere.

Here’s the catch: The oil, coal, and gas reserves that fossil fuel companies and petro-states already have on their books account for about 2,795 gigatons of CO2. If they dig up — and we burn — those reserves, we’ll release five times more carbon than the atmosphere can handle. Hello, climate disaster.

That means that between 60 and 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves are “unburnable” if the world is to have a chance of avoiding the tipping point. That’s why students, religious leaders, philanthropists, and everyday folks with retirement savings are doing the math and demanding that their investment dollars not prop up an industry that threatens life on earth as we know it.

These voices are joining community activists, Indigenous Peoples, and workers in the Global South — many of whom are on the front lines of climate chaos — who are calling on international institutions not to bank on fossil fuels to drive their economic development. It’s alarming, then, that a new UN Green Climate Fund that is being set up to help transition economies away from fossil fuels may itself support fossil fuel projects.

There’s no future — financially or ecologically — in development projects that warm the planet and destabilize the environment. If the UN wants to help developing countries make the leap to renewable energy, it should take a lesson from divestment activists all over the world and keep its checkbook closed to dirty energy projects.

A Bad Bet

For some, divestment will seem like leaving money on the table. Leaving those fuels in the ground, after all, makes for a lot of “stranded assets.”

The UK-based Carbon Tracker Initiative calculates that these unexploited reserves are worth about $4 trillion in share value and support $1.27 trillion in corporate debt. If you’re the financial officer of a university endowment or a pension fund manager, you might protest that your job is to raise money — and fossil investments still generally outperform renewable energy.

But in the long term, dirty energy investments won’t be so sure a bet. As more and more countries feel the impacts of climate change, serious efforts to curb carbon pollution could make those investments less appealing. Leaders of some of the most important international development and climate institutions recognize this and recently took the stage at the World Economic Forum to bring together the ecological and economic sides of the divestment case.

UN climate convention chief Christiana Figueres said investors would be “in blatant breach of their fiduciary duty” if they failed to pull their money out of fossil fuel-linked funds in the face of “clear scientific evidence” of global warming. And Dr. Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, called on long-term investors to “rethink what fiduciary responsibility means” in the face of climate change and to address the financial risk associated with their carbon-intensive investments.

Climate Fund for the 21st Century

Ironic, then, that the new UN Green Climate Fund could, perversely, become a major source of funding for fossil fuel infrastructure.

The mandate of the fund is to support a transformational shift in the global south away from fossil fuels and toward clean, climate-resilient development. But tucked away in the fine print of the fund’s governing document is support for technologies like carbon capture and storage (aka “clean coal”) — a technology that is not viable at scale and does nothing to address the cradle-to-grave environmental and social devastation that coal wreaks.

In fact, any mention of phasing out fossil fuels is conspicuously absent in the new climate fund, even as other international financial institutions are finally moving to wind down some of the coal-fired excesses of their energy portfolios.

There is, however, a window of opportunity to remedy this as the Green Climate Fund board members work toward final design elements at their meeting this week in Bali. One of those elements could be an exclusion list of dirty energy projects it simply won’t finance. Another is to agree on a framework of indicators of success (in board-speak, the “results management framework”) and strict performance standards that rule out dirty energy.

Most importantly, the board must adopt strong environmental and social safeguards for the projects it supports. In addition to avoiding fossil fuel projects, that might also mean refusing to promote projects like large hydroelectric dams that can cause large-scale displacement of people and loss of land and livelihoods.

An Uphill Battle

The task of keeping dirty energy out of the Green Climate Fund will not be easy.

Several board members have vested economic interests in maintaining the financial viability of “less dirty” energy approaches like “clean coal” and natural gas. And large transnational corporations, including Bank of America (dubbed “the coal bank” by activists), play a significant role in shaping the fund.

Scientists are telling us that we must get off fossil fuels fast. We’re already witnessing the devastating impacts of climate change on our neighbors and friends across the world. And for many national governments, funds to deal with the climate crisis are scarce.

The opportunity is clear. And common sense, not head-in-the-sand economic interests, must dictate action. The Green Climate Fund should take a lesson from ordinary investors all over the world who see that there’s no future in fossil fuels — not for their portfolios, and not for the planet.

Janet Redman is the director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies. Oscar Reyes, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, helped launch climatemarkets.org.

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