10/31/2013 04:49 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due: U.S. Government Funds for Climate Change Adaptation

I completed two masters' degrees in three years. This is not because I'm an overachiever. More so, it's thanks to university rules that let me become a dual-degree student and "double count" some of my course credits.

Turns out, the U.S. government does a bit of this too.

The US government agreed to financially assist least developed countries in adapting to the impacts of climate change and to jump start their important efforts to acquire cleaner energy at the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009. The U.S. government reports to the international community each year on how much money it contributes to these international Fast Start Finance efforts. From 2010-2012, a little less than half of the money designated for climate change adaptation efforts was for direct climate activities. This was appropriated by Congress as part of the Administration's Global Climate Change Initiative.

The rest of the money designated for climate change adaption in the U.S. government's tally was what the U.S. government calls "indirect" climate finance. These are co-benefits that arise from the integration of adaptation efforts in other development sectors. In other words, a certain amount of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) investments in food security and water initiatives, for example, was also counted as climate change adaptation. Just like my course credits that counted for both degrees.

Now, I would strongly argue that double-counting for my (extremely challenging) water resource economics course toward a policy degree and a natural resources degree was entirely appropriate. Similarly, ensuring that development efforts are blended with climate change considerations is critical in supporting both climate change and poverty alleviation goals over the long-term. For example, disaster risk reduction efforts will be stronger when they account for changing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Strategies for reducing hunger will be more successful if farmers are better prepared to cope with agricultural changes that result from rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns.

In grad school, however, in order to double count my class credits, I had to prove that it made sense: I learned the material, I submitted papers and passed tests (most of them, anyway). I had to show my work, and it needed to meet accepted standards.

Likewise, if the U.S. government is going to take credit for adaptation co-benefits in its international financial reporting, it needs to have systems in place to ensure that such co-benefits are actually delivered in development efforts. A new Oxfam analysis -- The Integration Imperative: A Snapshot of USAID's Progress in Mainstreaming Adaptation to Climate Change -- sheds light on the US government's progress in supporting adaptation co-benefits across its development portfolio. It finds that while good intentions exist and some progress has been made (particularly in Feed the Future, the U.S. global initiative on global hunger and food security), much work remains to be done in both supporting integration efforts and improving reporting and financial transparency on climate change co-benefits.

As the U.S. government prepares for the next round of climate change negotiations in Warsaw in November, questions of finance, transparency, and accountability will be front and center. Unfortunately, U.S. negotiators have been sending signals that public resources to support climate assistance are likely to be limited in the future. Given this context, continued lack of clarity on how public climate investments are directed and measured is even more troubling. The U.S. negotiating position -- and the prospects for a meaningful global climate agreement in 2015 -- will be strengthened when the U.S. can lead by example in sustainable, transparent and accountable development efforts that reduce climate risk and strengthen the resilience of the world's most vulnerable people.

As it stands now, the U.S. government is taking credit for climate adaptation in its development programs, but how much credit is actually due?