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Opinion: Pollution means power

As developing countries discovered in Copenhagen on Monday, being in the right doesn't buy much.

A boy looks for recyclable items in the polluted waters of the Yamuna river in New Delhi, Dec. 9, 2009. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

ROME, Italy — When representatives from the world’s poorest countries walked out of the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen on Monday, they may have thought they were making a point. It’s more likely that they were only making an exit.

The half-hearted boycott by a bloc of developing countries might be the last significant contribution to the discussion by poor countries, whose leaders once held hope that the battle against climate change would be characterized by concepts of fairness and historical responsibility.

At issue is an attempt by a group of industrialized countries, including the United States, to bypass the Kyoto Protocol, which requires cuts in greenhouse gas emission from rich countries, while allowing developing countries to continue to grow. In its place, negotiators for the developed world want an agreement that would require commitments from all nations, not just the richest.

That would be a departure from the model that has dominated previous rounds of talks, which took as given that the countries that had pumped the most greenhouse gas into the atmosphere should take the lead in reining in production.

As a moral case, the developing world’s position is a strong one. Industrialized countries are not only responsible for the lion's share of the carbon dioxide in circulation, it was only by releasing the greenhouse gas to begin with that they attained their wealth. Responsibility for a solution lay with the world’s rich, who anyway produced far more emissions per person than the rest of the world.

The problem is that being in the right doesn’t buy much. Monday’s walkout is unlikely to have more than a symbolic impact. It’s the latest in a series of efforts by the world’s most desperate countries to call attention to their plight. This fall, the government of the Maldives held an underwater cabinet meeting to call attention to rising sea levels. Earlier this month, Nepal’s top politicians hauled oxygen tanks up Mount Everest to highlight the danger posed by melting glaciers.

Yet while poor countries have participated in climate change treaties, all that has been required of them so far is to be willing to receive funding. That means that when they stage a walkout, there’s little they can take off the table.