12/08/2010 05:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Climate Talks: U.S. Must Transform From Diehard Recalcitrant To Inspirational Leader

Size is not everything.

With so much attention here at the Cancun climate summit focused on the convoluted politicking between such colossuses as the United States, China, India and the European Union, it's easy to overlook the small guys.

Therefore, hats off to the organizers for giving first slot at the high level plenary proceedings to President Marcus Stephen of Nauru, the smallest member of the United Nations.

Speaking on behalf of the Pacific Small Island Developing States, Mr. Stephen gave an impassioned plea for the world to save these often-forgotten nations from being overwhelmed by rising sea levels caused by global warming.

Located just south of the equator, Nauru's is home to barely 12,000 people. But with almost half of the world's population living within less than 50 miles of the ocean, the plight of this diminutive, oval-shaped atoll is surely a wake-up call that cannot be ignored.

Climate change triggers flooding, erosion, rising water tables and salt water intrusion and is threatening to compromise the habitats of billions. No wonder that President Stephen was afforded such prominence at these talks.

In spite of an elevation in awareness of the consequences of unbridled climate change, it is difficult for the average American to understand its real human and financial costs over the coming decades. Unlike the people of Nauru, much effort is needed to make this issue relevant to Middle America.

At the heart of these negotiations are the apparent differing interests between rich and poor nations. As the producer of more than 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases with less than five percent of the world's population, it is no surprise that there are such huge expectations for the United States to take some significant responsibility for the problem.

But this is not a moral crusade to get the fat cat to alleviate the troubles of the less fortunate. In this interconnected global era, we all know that it doesn't take much for a crisis on one side of the world to go viral. The disintegrating viability lands where so many people live is bound to have a universal impact.

America doesn't live in a bubble, and it is in this nation's interests to curb instability, quell uncertainty, and narrow the gap between the secure and the vulnerable. The price that those most exposed to the immediate perils of climate change will be much more than shared by United States, should it fail to make real commitments to resolving the climate change conundrum.

It's still too early to consider mass relocation of the people of Nauru, and if the escalation in global temperatures can be harnessed, experts believe that this nation could be saved from such a fate. But as I write this, some other Pacific island nations, like Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, are already beginning to evacuate.

Even the most introspective of legislators on the Hill surely cannot fail to appreciate the consequences that mass movements of people will inevitably have on the United States. And even the most bucolic cannot be blind to the high price this great nation will end up paying if it chooses to turn its back on humanity's most vexing of issues.

I sense growing frustration at the apparent wheeling and dealing being done by Todd Stern, Obama's Special Envoy at these climate talks. If he has the best interests of the United States at heart, then he needs to use these final days in Cancun to transform its image from diehard recalcitrant to inspirational leader.