Meet the U.N.’s New Caribbean-Born Climate Czar
Former Grenadian Environment Minister Simon Stiell is expected to push for reparations.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Grenadian official Simon Stiell prepares to push for climate reparations at the United Nations, new U.S. sanctions on Paraguayan politicians spark confusion, and Argentine scientists discover the remains of a new (old) dinosaur.
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‘Island Time’ Becomes Urgent
This week, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres named former Grenadian Environment Minister Simon Stiell as the new chief of U.N. climate negotiations. Stiell’s appointment surprised some observers, because he will be the third consecutive person from the Americas to hold the position. His predecessor, Patricia Espinosa, was a former Mexican foreign minister; she was preceded by Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres.
But Stiell was an especially strong candidate for the position for at least two reasons, observers have noted. He has a background in both the private sector and government, having worked in Silicon Valley and elsewhere before his nine-year stint in politics, including five years as government minister for climate resilience and the environment. And he embodies the advocacy of small island states at recent U.N. climate negotiations, where they have pushed richer countries toward more ambitious goals. These include limiting global warming to 1.5—rather than 2—degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and providing more financial support for historically smaller emitters, which bear less responsibility for climate change but are often more vulnerable to its effects.
Stiell was a co-chair of the “high-ambition coalition” of countries at last year’s climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. On Twitter, Rachel Kyte, the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a high-level advisor to Guterres on climate, called Stiell “a proven manager/leader.”
Stiell’s appointment suggests rich countries may have more difficulty blocking their poorer counterparts’ demands for climate reparations than they have in the past. Grenada, alongside its Caribbean neighbors and other small island states, has for years advocated for money to be set aside within the U.N. framework not only for preventing future warming and adapting built environments for its effects, but also for compensating countries for those consequences of warming that are impossible to adapt to, such as hurricanes.
In U.N. climate lingo, these three categories of climate finance are known as mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, rich countries pledged to provide $100 billion in financing per year for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries by 2020. But no monetary amount was ever agreed upon to be exclusively devoted to the third category, in part due to consistent opposition from richer countries, including the United States.
Publicly, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry maintains that the United States supports discussions on loss and damage, though the Financial Times reported in February that Kerry said focusing on the matter could “delay” other kinds of climate action. Poor countries slammed his comments, suggesting rich countries just don’t want to pay.
That could change with Stiell at the helm of the U.N. climate talks. “The issue of Loss and Damage will not go away. We will be back!” Stiell tweeted after rich countries once again stalled on addressing the issue in Glasgow. After a June conference to prepare for this November’s U.N. talks in Egypt also yielded no progress on loss and damage, Caribbean nations including Grenada held a summit this week in the Bahamas to organize their efforts to press rich countries harder. “Our very survival” is at stake, Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis said.
The Bahamian economy is still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Dorian in 2019, which caused damages that amounted to around one-quarter of the country’s GDP. And Grenada suffered for years from a debt hangover after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which cost the island twice the amount of its annual GDP.
International humanitarian funding following those crises was insufficient to fully account for their damage, and, going forward, the scale of global financial damages caused by climate disasters is projected to increase dramatically. That’s why countries such as Grenada have pushed for a new loss and damage financial pool specifically devoted to climate disasters.
Such funding could take many forms. The Alliance of Small Island States, of which Grenada is part, has proposed a global insurance program for loss and damage since as far back as 1991; in its most recent workshops on the issue this month, it also weighed the possibility of debt-for-climate swaps as a funding mechanism, which would see portions of a country’s debt forgiven if it finances environmental projects. Jamaican environmental studies scholar Stacy-ann Robinson and co-authors wrote in the journal Climate Policy this month that new taxes on airline travel and fossil fuel extraction would most appropriately meet the loss and damage needs of small island and developing states from a climate justice perspective.
Even as the energy upheaval caused by the war in Ukraine has downgraded expectations for ambition at the upcoming U.N. talks in Egypt, Germany’s new government has said it will put support for loss and damage at the center of its climate policy—a change from last year. Alongside Stiell’s appointment, that could give the issue a boost.
In recent years, slow, savvy political pressure has cleared seemingly intractable impasses in climate finance. One example came in 2015, when the first ever climate disaster clause was written into an island nation’s sovereign debt contract, allowing the country to freeze its repayments in the case of a hurricane. The country was Grenada, and Stiell was in its cabinet.
Sunday, Aug. 28: Brazil holds its first televised presidential debate.
Sunday, Sept. 4: Chile holds a referendum on its proposed new constitution.
Wednesday, Sept. 7: Brazil marks 200 years of independence from Portugal. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has called for his supporters to rally at a Rio de Janeiro military parade.
What We’re Following
Election misinformation. On Monday, nongovernmental organization Global Witness announced that Facebook has failed to detect disinformation related to the upcoming Brazilian election.
As part of an investigation, Global Witness successfully submitted ads for approval to Facebook that contained incorrect information on when and where to vote—though the organization stopped short of posting them. Separately, Meta (Facebook’s parent company), Google, TikTok, Twitter, and Kwai (a TikTok competitor) refused to provide detailed information to Brazil’s leading newspaper Folha de São Paulo about the scale and type of content-moderation measures they are enacting to combat election-related disinformation in the country.
Last month, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen criticized what she called insufficient content moderation in Portuguese, telling Folha de São Paulo, “I guarantee there is much less protection in Brazil against efforts to interfere in the elections than in the United States.”
Fake news circulated widely on both Facebook and WhatsApp ahead of Bolsonaro’s election in 2018. This later led Meta to limit the number of times messages could be forwarded on WhatsApp and Brazilian election authorities to prohibit the use of WhatsApp for election spam.
The campaign period for Brazil’s Oct. 2 presidential and legislative elections officially kicked off this week, so we’ll soon have more data on how much false news is making the rounds. On Tuesday, Meta said that it would henceforth ban ads calling into question the integrity of the election.
Security purge. Under new Colombian President Gustavo Petro, efforts to reform Colombia’s security services have so far included installing fresh directors of the country’s military and police, a move that due to a procedural requirement triggered the forced retirement of 23 police generals. In Colombia, no police generals can have been active in the force longer than its director.
Petro said his efforts were meant to guarantee that security forces in the country were free of corruption and human rights violations. However, he acknowledged that the purge was a blunt instrument for a restart, saying, “I’m not going to say they are perfect decisions,” and he thanked the outgoing officials for their service. He also appointed a famous anti-graft investigator as defense minister.
As one point of comparison, Petro’s moves appear to be more ambitious than Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s much-trumpeted promise to demilitarize and reform his country’s own security forces using the slogan “hugs, not bullets.”
López Obrador founded a new security force at the start of his term that he touted for being under civilian, rather than military, control. But last week, López Obrador said that he would put the force under military control by executive order if the legislature did not support his plans to do so. At present, it appears he does not have the votes in Congress necessary for the move.
Argentina’s ancient inhabitants. Researchers have discovered the remains of a previously unknown armored dinosaur in Argentine Patagonia. It appears to have measured under 5 feet long (including its tail), walked upright on its back legs, and weighed about as much as a house cat.
The discovery reveals a new dinosaur lineage that is related to the stegosaurus. Lead paleontologist Sebastián Apesteguía named it Jakapil kaniukura, which is includes the word for “crest of stone” in the Indigenous Mapuche language.
Findings of new dinosaur species are relatively common, and Apesteguía was also part of a joint Argentine-Canadian-U.S. research team that published the findings of a massive, 36-foot-long “giant dinosaur eater” in July. It was once one of the largest meat-eating lizards in South America.
Question of the Week
Both dinosaurs that Apesteguía recently discovered lived during the Cretaceous period. When was that?
The Cretaceous period ended with the world’s most recent mass extinction, around 60 million years ago.
In Focus: A Sanctions Shake-Up in Paraguay
A round of U.S. sanctions designations have shaken up Paraguayan politics ahead of the country’s 2023 presidential election—and prompted musings about Washington’s role in its internal affairs.
Though officials in the Biden administration have said on several occasions that promoting good governance and fighting corruption are its policy priorities in Latin America writ large, Washington has largely limited its official corruption-related sanctions to actors in a handful of countries. They include those in Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—from which Washington wants to stem outward migration, as well as countries whose foreign policy clearly tilts away from the United States, such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba.
That changed this summer, however, when the U.S. State Department announced a new round of travel restrictions against politicians in Paraguay’s ruling right-wing Colorado Party. Last month, the United States imposed sanctions on former Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes, a member of the party, accusing him of corruption, obstructing investigations, and involvement with foreign terrorist organizations, without giving further details.
Last Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the sanctions were being extended to Vice President Hugo Velázquez and his associate Juan Carlos Duarte, alleging Duarte offered to bribe an investigator probing Velázquez. Velázquez denied wrongdoing but said he would resign from the vice presidency; then, on Thursday, he walked that back a bit, saying he wanted to see the evidence that served as the basis of the U.S. accusations first. Velázquez also said he shelved his candidacy for Paraguay’s presidential election next year.
Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez said the sanctions announcement caused “pain” but that “we are going to put ourselves at the disposition of the U.S. government,” calling Washington an ally and partner. A prominent opposition politician called the sanctions “a magnificent opportunity.”
Washington’s choice to sanction the two politicians puzzled some observers. “How much is indeed fighting corruption and how much is interfering with local politics?” Bloomberg News managing editor for Latin America JP Spinetto tweeted. “Where to draw the line? Why Paraguay yes and not other bigger & more obvious examples?” Many corruption schemes have been well documented by media and state prosecutors across the region—from Peru to Colombia to Brazil—without prompting U.S. sanctions.
Speaking to ABC Televisión, Paraguayan political analyst Camilo Soares said the sanctions show the United States “wants to be the actor that organizes the state of play” in Paraguay. He noted that when former Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica said Paraguayan politics were corrupt in 2012, Mujica was met with a flood of criticism from Paraguay’s political elite. The fact that that elite did not respond in the same way to the Biden administration reflects a far more unequal power relation, Soares suggested, saying, “It’s geopolitics, stupid.”
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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