Walkout by poor nations stalls talks in Copenhagen on climate change

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

COPENHAGEN -- Global warming talks were suspended for hours Monday because of a walkout by developing countries, as rich and poor nations struggled to reconcile the divisions that have dominated international climate policy for decades.

The largest group of developing nations, known as the G-77, brought the U.N.-sponsored talks to a halt here as they accused the United States and other industrialized countries of forsaking the Kyoto Protocol, the climate agreement that currently imposes emission limits on nearly all of the world's developed nations.

The conference's Danish chairwoman, Connie Hedegaard, resolved the issue by establishing a series of small working groups where ministers could tackle key issues such as global emissions targets and money to help poor countries cope with climate change.

Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, said the delay would not undermine the possibility of a deal, which is supposed to be finalized Friday when more than 110 world leaders convene in Copenhagen.

"They can't come here and say, 'This didn't work,' " said Wirth, a former senator and undersecretary of state for global affairs in the Clinton administration. "We always get down to the last minute . . . and at the end of this, you end up with a package."

But the shape of the package remained unclear as some participants expressed growing frustration at the pace of the negotiations. One delegate from a major developing country, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the talks, said there was no longer time for open-ended discussions.

"Now is not the time for consultation," he said, adding that none of the major countries had shifted their positions since negotiators arrived a week ago. "We wasted a whole Sunday exchanging the same rhetoric. I've heard it all before. I'm bored to death."

The U.S. special climate envoy, Todd Stern, said in a briefing "that there are legitimate concerns, that people have anxiety about how the process runs, about transparency and inclusiveness and all of those things." But, he said, "the clock is definitely ticking, sort of like a big hourglass that's running down right now, so any time that's lost, it is unhelpful."

One of the key developments that could change the negotiating dynamic would be a long-term financing offer from industrialized nations, but that has yet to happen. European Union leaders will meet Wednesday to finalize their offer, and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is unlikely to announce his country's funding package before his arrival in Copenhagen.

In the meantime, developing country representatives such as Bernaditas de Castro Muller -- who comes from the Philippines but negotiates for the G-77 as a member of the Sudanese delegation -- questioned Monday whether rich nations are doing enough to compensate for their historical contribution to global warming.

"We are trying very hard to get the best equitable deal in this process," Muller said. "No matter how small the country, they are still a part of this planet. We have to be all consulted."

While negotiators debated who bears responsibility for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, advocates released a series of scientific reports aimed at conveying the urgent need to act on global warming.

Former vice president Al Gore delivered a lecture to a packed crowd in a side event in the Bella Center, talking about a report he and the Norwegian government commissioned that shows the rate at which the Greenland ice cap has been shrinking has tripled in the last 10 years. New computer modeling also suggests summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean could disappear as early as 2014.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store, who presented the findings with Gore and the Danish foreign minister, said in an interview: "It's not coincidence this report comes out on a Monday when we're all looking to Friday. If you need solid documentation of the effect of global warming, read this report."

Separately, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature issued a report Monday highlighting how 10 species -- including the staghorn coral and Australia's koala -- will probably be hardest hit by climate change. The koala, for example, faces malnutrition and eventually starvation because the eucalyptus leaves it depends on will lose nutritional quality as levels of carbon dioxide rise.

"The image of a forlorn-looking polar bear on a tiny ice floe has become the public's image of climate change in nature, but the impact reaches species in nearly every habitat in the world's wild places," said Steven E. Sanderson, president and chief executive of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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