Gone are the days when U.S. special climate envoy Todd Stern received thundering applause for simply showing up at the UN negotiating table. The U.S. is quickly losing political capital as governments and civil society organizations question where the ambitious leadership promised during Obama’s campaign and early days in office has gone.

Far from sitting on its hands, the U.S. appears to be working hard with other industrialized countries to turn the rules of the international climate convention on their head – by attempting to pin the climate crisis on emerging economies, and blaming developing countries for deadlocking the talks by refusing to take action. But under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, an agreement 192 countries – including the U.S. – signed, the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” for climate change guides the level of action different countries should commit to.

A quick glance at the results of this year’s second round of climate negotiations, which transpired in Bonn over the last two weeks, reveals a scenario in which those most responsible for global warming aim to do disappointingly little to solve the problem. Japan formally announced a 9% cut in greenhouse gases compared to 1990 levels by 2020 – falling far short of a 45% cut that small island states are insisting is necessary to keep them from going underwater. The United States lags behind Japan with Obama calling for a reduction to 1990 levels – although no official numbers were put on the table.

The U.S. also implied that it will double count carbon market offsets as meeting their domestic emissions reductions commitments and as covering their legal obligation to finance developing country cuts – a move that could keep temperatures on the rise. EU finance ministers meeting in Brussels earlier this week picked up the idea and recommended a similar plan to their heads of State.

The G77 (a group that represents more than 130 developing countries) and China were unified in calling for dramatically deep emissions cuts in developed countries, and have submitted collective proposals for the transfer of clean technology to the developing world – which all countries agreed to at climate talks in Bali in 2007 – and a set of financing rules to pay for it.

In response, the U.S. is employing familiar “divide and conquer” tactics in a blame game that threatens the future of the planet. The latest maneuver was to schedule three days of bilateral climate negotiations in Beijing while global climate talks took place in Bonn – a move that many worried would weaken unity among the G77 nations by sending the signal that China is breaking rank to pursue its own interests. In the end, Chinese officials called for a “common but differentiated approach” to solving the impending climate crisis – implying that China still thinks there is more to gain by standing with the developing world than fragmented from it.

What’s at Stake in Copenhagen?

There’s much more at play in the UN climate negotiations than a concern for the health of ecosystems, or even the safety of the world’s most vulnerable people – and not surprisingly it has to do with massive amounts of money. What’s at stake is perhaps the largest transfer of resources from the global south to the north in history.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body that advises the climate negotiations, says there’s a limited amount of greenhouse gases that the atmosphere can absorb before global temperatures increase to the point of climate chaos – a point that most agree is set at most at two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That amount of atmospheric space has a carbon budget – like a bank account with a set balance that you can only draw down over time.

Even though we can’t see or touch the carbon, it’s worth something. Voluntary and regulated markets have already started putting a price on carbon as a way to discourage individuals and industries from polluting – the more carbon you use up from the budget, the more you pay. Businesses like carbon pricing, too. It means they can run a cost/benefit analysis of cleaning up operations versus continuing to pollute. And when units of carbon take on value and become a commodity, investors and traders can get in the game of speculating on carbon’s future price.

This year’s negotiation process is leading up to what many hope is a signed global climate deal in Copenhagen in December. There, world leaders are supposed to agree to a plan that take up where the Kyoto Protocol leaves off in 2012. It’s in large part a fight over divvying up the carbon pie and the estimated trillions of dollars its worth.

Since the industrial revolution, developed countries – where only about 20% of the world’s population lives – have been responsible for three-quarters of the planet’s emissions. Countries like Bolivia, India, Brazil, and China made it clear in Bonn that the time has come for rich countries to step back from the table so that people in poorer countries can have enough carbon space to sustainably develop and improve their quality of life.

To reach a fair and effective climate deal, the next six months of negotiations must hinge on the principle of historical responsibility. For the U.S. to push for anything less would be a failure to deliver “change we can believe in.” If an agreement in Copenhagen isn’t politically and environmentally feasible for developing countries to bring home, there’s a serious risk they will walk away from the negotiating table – and who could blame them?

Janet Redman is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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