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

Small Islands Discover their Power in Copenhagen

The UN's Copenhagen climate conference has suddenly become a thrilling place to be. And it's a whole week till President Obama arrives, so the thrill has nothing to do with the power of the US. Quite the reverse. It's the small islands that are making waves here - islands so small and low-lying that they will be drowned if dramatic action is not taken.

This morning the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) held a press conference at which they offered a new proposal, in two parts.

The first part reassures the world that AOSIS is in favour of the Kyoto Protocol: they are not wanting to break away from the Kyoto route, as some nations had speculated earlier in the week. Although they have called the second part of their proposal the "Copenhagen Protocol," it is not a new route, but rather a initiative to strengthen the Kyoto route.

This may seem to be just a matter of semantics, but it is a vital issue: if the AOSIS, like the US, were to back off from Kyoto, many more years could elapse before a new law binding treaty were on the table. It is essential for small island states - and frankly, for us all - that a new legal treaty is ratified as soon as possible. So they are sticking with what is already a legally binding treaty, but with drive to make it stronger.

So what does their draft Copenhagen Protocol say? The heart of it is this:
  1. Global average temperatures limited to well below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels
  2. Long term stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations to well below 350 ppm
  3. Global emissions peaking no later than 2015
  4. Global emissions reduced by at least 85% below 1990 levels by 2050
  5. Developed countries to reduce overall emissions by at least 45% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Till now, the goalposts had been sliding farther and farther over to one side - a side which would have condemned hundreds of millions of impoverished people to drought or drowning, homelessness and hunger. Now these goalposts have been uprooted and firmly replaced way over on the other side, potentially saving the lives of all these children, women and men, the people who were innocent of causing the crisis, and yet are bearing its brunt.

It helps that they are acting so carefully, though determinedly, through the official negotiating process: using their formal democratic powers as players with votes equal to those of their heavy-weight opponents to transform the potential outcomes of the UN's Climate Change Conference. It's climate jujitsu - using the bigger players' weight against them.

They are not walking out. They are not breaking windows. They are not singling themselves out for special consideration. They are insisting on this being part of a global "shared vision," a formal consensus bringing a better future for the most vulnerable - and everyone else.

Many in civil society have been asking for stronger leadership from the politicians. Indeed, one NGO stunt at the conference has involved a group of people dressed as aliens (in white with green faces) demanding to be taken to our climate leaders, making the point that we don't have any. But now AOSIS seems to be walking into the leadership vacuum - offering ambitious and humane targets.

Will they succeed? Well, anxieties that there was a split in the global south, with China and India setting themselves apart from AOSIS, have proven to be unfounded: they all want to hold the developed countries to a FAB (fair, ambitious and binding) deal. The differences are only a matter of tactics.

But some northern industrialized countries, like Russia, Japan, Canada and Australia, still want to kill Kyoto - even though killing this route could mean killing millions of people - so the chances that they will back the AOSIS proposal are minuscule.

As for the US, we'll have to see what happens next Friday. So far there is no real sign that the US will do anything other than dilute whatever the outcomes are from Copenhagen. But who knows what will happen if enough people show the politicians the way.

Watch this space!