02/04/2011 02:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Lonely American

New Delhi, India -- That's me, the lonely American, as I watch heads of state, environmental ministers, and political luminaries from nation after nation deal head on with the issue of rescuing the climate from impending disaster. They all acknowledge that this is the biggest challenge humanity faces.

Yesterday it was president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai who was willing to look forward and discuss the need for low carbon development, in spite of the catastrophes plaguing his country. Today, others joined Karzai and Afghanistan. Guatemala, with 0.2 percent of the world's carbon emissions, laments its fate as one of the five nations most vulnerable to climate disruption. Farooq Abdullah, India's Minister of Alternative Energy from Kashmir, says "Kashmir no longer has the snows that used to require us to get up in the middle of the night to shovel off the roof so it would not collapse." Juan Elvira, Mexico's Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources, described the two metrics he is using to measure progress towards a sustainable future: how many green jobs Mexico has created, and how much it has cut its carbon emissions. Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile, warns that the rigid distinction between rich and poor nations in terms of their contribution to climate change is rapidly eroding.

I listen to the former prime minister of Finland, Esko Aho, lay out a European view of the core dilemma:

Tomorrow's voters and shareholders don't vote. It is much easier to be a leader who says, 'where do we all want to go?' rather than a leader who says 'There is the lighthouse we must steer by. We must stay on course.' But it is the latter, long term type of leadership we need.

A dissenting voice on the definition of sacrifice comes from Bhutan's Minister of Agriculture and Forests, Lyonpo (Dr.) Pema Gyamtsho, who begins by warning that "We have become indifferent to the fate of other living beings." He then goes on to describe his nation's commitments: a) 60 percent of his country must remain under forest cover for perpetuity; b) elimination of pesticide use for the entire nation of Bhutan; and c) half of country must be preserved in parks or natural reserves. Bhutan has, by and large, achieved UN Millenium Development Goals while also achieving this sustainability record, and entrusting its future to its highest governmental planning body, "The Growth National Happiness Commission."

As usual, the most pungent comments came from India's Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, who is very much in political crosshairs for his willingness to stop outrageous mining and public works projects if they violate India's environmental frameworks. Ramesh said:

I don't think in any other country you would be in the news for implementing the law as a Minister... the Prime Minister has a program to green India. The biggest way to green India is to stop degreening India. We need to stop destroying forests. It's hard to increase forest area in a country like India where we have so many competing uses for each hectare. What we can do is to improve the quality of our forests... 40 percent of India's forest is degraded. Improving forest quality is our biggest opportunity.

But Ramesh warns that forest restoration has to accommodate the presence of human communities. "The classic forester wants to protect his forest by having no people in it. But in India 250 million people depend on the forest for their livelihoods. We can't just expel them all."

Ramesh concedes, "Cancun was a political success but an environmental disappointment." He thinks the negotiating process must continue, but there will be no single jump to a final deal. "There is no magic bullet agreement, because objectives are conflicting. Negotiators must worry about economic and political as well as environmental issues. In Cancun, my heart was with Bolivia, but my head was not."

Ramesh also pointed out that India has already levied a tax on coal, and is open to a global carbon price. This point becomes the focus for the next set of interventions, from representatives of the industrial world.

Canada's Stephane Dion then offers just the sort of magic bullet Ramesh is skeptical of. Dion proposes aiming for eventual harmonization through a global carbon price. Instead of setting hard limits, change the incentives and cut carbon emissions dramatically. Begin, Dion says, by eliminating the $312 billion in fossil fuel subsidies -- "just bad public policy." Then establish a global carbon price. India will agree, he says, and "I think China will too, as long as the money they collect stays at home. Developing countries keep the money, and spend it as they need. And it gives the industrial governments a funding source to help the developing countries with both adaptation and mitigation."

Britain's Lord John Prescott joins the chorus for comprehensive action: "We cannot leave with the politics of despair. We can do a global agreement, even if not on the timetable we had hoped, as we did in Montreal with CFCs."

But whether you are an incrementalist like Ramesh, or a great-leap-forward advocate like Prescott, there is one thing you agree on: The United States is AWOL, and that is the biggest challenge.

As I said, it's a bit lonely being an American in the global climate conversation.