Opinion: Pollution means power

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.

Poor countries need the rich world to implement steep cuts in emissions and to provide the funding to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change, but there’s little they can offer in return. With the exception of countries where deforestation is an issue, they don’t produce much greenhouse gas.

In the short term, global emissions can be cut without the participation of countries like Kiribati (disappearing beneath the waves), Bangladesh (vulnerable to catastrophic flooding) or Sudan (home to what might be the first climate conflict). But it’s these least resilient parts of the globe, that are most threatened by the thermometer’s rise. A breakdown in talks would fall heaviest on those that participated in the walkout.

As a result, poor countries are finding it difficult to make their voices heard. Last week, America’s chief climate negotiator Todd Stern dismissed “the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations,” and reiterated that the U.S. would not join the Kyoto Protocol — a treaty the U.S Senate rejected on the grounds that it did not require emission cuts from the developing world.

Drafts of a possible agreement suggest transfers of $10 billion a year to help developing countries deal with the impacts of warming — far short of the up to $100 billion poor countries and the World Bank say is needed.

More importantly, emission reductions are still far short of the levels needed to avert catastrophic climate change. While the European Union is said to be considering emissions of cuts by 2020 of 30 percent from 1990 levels, the United States is offering less than 5 percent, and negotiators have made clear that they don’t think they can get more past the Senate.

If the talks are to succeed in stopping the mercury’s climb, it won’t be because the world’s poorest threatened to walk. It will be because another set of countries decided to participate: the rapidly growing parts of the developing world that are projected to soon produce the bulk of the world’s greenhouse gas.

Industrialized countries would like to see populous giants like China and India agree to limit the growth of their emissions. That makes those countries uniquely in a position to extract the concessions needed from reluctant rich-world countries. In a negotiation where pollution means power, their future emissions have given them a seat at a table.