03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tiny Tuvalu Shocks Climate Talks

I walked into the vast, crowded plenary hall at the UN's Copenhagen Climate Conference this morning at half-past eleven, hoping something more interesting would happen than a slow slog through sections and sub-sections. But I wasn't really expecting anything -- certainly not something that would make the audience gasp audibly.

Though that's just what happened when the small Pacific island nation of Tuvalu brought these global climate negotiations (known as 'COP 15') to a dramatic halt.

The Tuvalu spokesperson asked for "a suspension of the COP" -- which left many of us wondering whether Tuvalu was asking for the whole conference to be suspended.

Just after a quarter to twelve, urgent huddles were taking place at the top table. Eventually the COP's President Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's Minister for Climate and Energy, announced a diplomatic way through: there would be a suspension, indeed, but only of the agenda point under discussion. The conference then moved on to discuss the second agenda point. So there was indeed a suspension -- but not one that stopped the work of the delegations.

I confess I didn't wait to hear much about the second agenda point. I raced back to the OneClimate channel area, and told the team what I had just witnessed.

So what had all the drama been about? Tuvalu wanted the conference to accept an amendment that was formally made as part of the COP 15 process: in other words, an amendment that had been discussed openly and agreed by all and was thus part of the legally binding treaty they wanted to emerge from Copenhagen. They didn't want an amendment worded by a small, informally gathered group, meeting behind closed doors. They wanted an amendment that had the weight of the full COP process behind it.

Tuvalu wants the COP to agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to ensure that global temperatures won't rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius before stabilizing. They also wanted this agreed upon by the time the conference concludes at the end of next week.

You can see why. Tuvalu does not rise more than 10 feet out of the ocean at any point. If temperatures increased by 2 degrees, according to many peer-reviewed scientific projections, the island could disappear under the sea. And scientists say an approximately 0.7 degree rise is already inevitable, owing to the emissions that have already taken place but have yet to be felt. So you can't blame the Tuvalu delegation for their sense of urgency.

It made me think: I had more or less allowed myself to be brainwashed into thinking that 2 degrees was inevitable -- almost into thinking that 2 degrees was OK. But it isn't. It's not at all OK. And I had also allowed myself to be lulled into thinking that if a fair, ambitious and binding agreement could be agreed upon by next summer -- COP 15.5! -- that that would be OK. But that isn't really OK either.

Tuvalu, small as it is, had reminded the world at large that the world needed to act fast and fierce. There was no time to lose. And it also reminded us of the beauty of consensual, emergent processes: that if you have an equal voice in a powerful meeting, then you can be a powerful force for everyone's good.

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