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May Jeong Headshot

Despite Stern Rejection, Leak, and Protest: Climate Talks Continue

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COPENHAGEN - At a news conference on Wednesday, Todd Stern, Climate Envoy to the United States, dismissed the notion of developed countries owing financial reparations - otherwise known as climate debt - from CO2 emissions currently responsible for the current state of climate affairs.

"I reject the notion of debt or reparations or anything of the like. Let's just be mindful of the fact that for most of the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant to the fact that emissions caused greenhouse gas effects. It is a relatively recent phenomenon. The way I look at this, we are absolutely aware of our role in the emissions in the atmosphere up there now, but the sense of guilt, or debt, or reparations, I categorically reject that."

The above comment by Stern exposes the deep rifts that pit major negotiating blocks against each other. Many member states to the Convention have accepted the idea of a climate debt as a given - also referred to as common but differentiated responsibilities in the land of UN alphabet soups. As such, that a country responsible for over 20 per cent of world's carbon emissions is openly dismissing a fundamental principle that supports the architecture of the Kyoto Protocol, is perceived as troubling.

This announcement comes at a critical juncture in current climate negotiations, as many countries strive to navigate the still uncertain terrains of COP15. With only a day left to prepare for the basic text for the ministers to build upon when they arrive this weekend, tension has been rising at Bella Center, where the negotiations are taking place. There are even rumours of suspending accreditation to observers (NGOs, youth constituency, and such).

Just last Tuesday, UK newspaper Guardian broke a story on the "leaked Danish text," causing stir in the media. While draft submissions at this stage is a common occurrence, the fact that this particular text had been circulating in an insular circle between United States, United Kingdom, and others has been seen as an alarming lack of inclusiveness. That it was authored two weeks ago by the host of the conference, who is supposed to exercise objectivity, raises further eye brows.

The leaked document incident was followed by another intervention that highlighted the emerging division amongst negotiating parties. The negotiations came to a temporary halt on Wednesday when, frustrated by what was deemed destructive advances by developed countries, Tuvalu called for the suspension of the plenary. It proceeded to submit a proposal of their own that called for a bold and binding treaty, which caused China and India to refute its membership to the G77, a heterogeneous group that includes some countries that are oil producers, others consumers, and all of who do not agree on the nature of the proposal. This friction led to the second unsanctioned protest on conference premises (the first being that of the Pan African Justice Alliance on Monday).

Upon Googlemapping Tuvalu, the country appears as specks of white in a sea of blue. Scroll east, and the Marshall Islands are but segments of a Pollock painting. Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, along with other 41 small island nation states make up the negotiating block, Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

Headed by the Grenadian Chair Dessima Williams, AOSIS has been at the forefront of progressive proposals with ambitious targets. The "1.5C to survive" tagline has become the rallying cries of island states that have bore witness to the empirical effects of global warming through erratic climate patterns, loss of coral reefs, and a subsequently dwindling tourism sector. Williams furthered her impassioned plea by noting that the world was now 0.8 C warmer than its pre-industrial days, at which level many islands have experienced the negative impacts of sea-level rise. When asked about the concept of historical debt, Williams argued that the principal beneficiaries of climate change, not the least advantaged, must take the principal responsibility (in ironic fate, the least responsible are the most affected when it comes to climate-related disasters).

Referring to the globe that is featured prominently at the heart of Bella Centre, Williams commented, "AOSIS countries are not even on the globe. How can you have a world map with 43 countries missing? It was the same situation in 1991. Why do we have to come to Europe and not see ourselves? Why?" Upon visiting said globe, this reporter found that whether inspired by her comment, or through sheer foresight, some Good Samaritan had etched in the words "Cook Islands" where they belong. The other islands, however, still await inscription.

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