Copenhagen’s Class Divisions

Developing countries at the Climate Change Summit want to be heard—and compensated.

Getty Images
Getty Images

It isn’t often that Russians climb in bed with Rwandans. Yet, as the much-hyped United Nations climate summit convenes in Copenhagen this week, 56 world newspapers united against the growing threat of catastrophic climate change. An editorial urging global action to deflect the worst effects of fossil fuel dependence appeared in major news outlets, including ones in Moscow and Kigali—and in 10 other newspapers published from the African continent. “This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west,” the text, originally drafted by the Guardian UK, read. “Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone.”

The pre-Copenhagen coordination is significant for several reasons. For months, the dialogue on climate policy has largely focused on the actions of China and of the United States—powerful and dynamic economies that are the two largest global polluters. Their electricity production, transportation and manufacturing industries account for the lion’s share of world pollution—with populous India not far behind. But these actions have grave consequences for smaller countries. Water wars between Burkina Faso and Ghana, or Pakistan and India, food shortages in Niger or oil shocks in American cities are all destabilizing to the global economy and political order. As the stakes mount and the conversation deepens, a new alliance among nations from the global south is asserting a voice in the debate.

The primary instigator of this new diplomatic dynamic is the African Union. The federation of 51 African states, formed in 2002, along with the G77—representing 130 developing countries—has made a strong push for financial support as it tries to participate in the new, green world order. Chief among its requests, developed in Accra in 2008 and hammered out at a recent AU conference on the environment in Addis Ababa, is the creation of a climate fund to support the greening of emerging markets, via subsidies for alternative energy production, reforestation, drought and flood-preparedness infrastructure, and technology transfer. The precise amount of funding—rumored to be between $50 and $70 billion over several years—has not been determined, but “it carries a lot of weight that the AU is saying something,” says Mwiza Munthale, director of public outreach for TransAfrica Forum. “You’re trying to get the attention of the most powerful countries of the world that do not always look out for the developing world.”

The Obama administration’s final position on American emissions reduction targets is not yet known, though a 17 percent cut (below 2005 levels, by 2020) has been its working number. The White House has also suggested that developed nations provide some $10 billion annually by 2012 to help the global south adapt to climate change—but the G77 and AU, along with China, India, Brazil and South Africa, are pushing for more action on both fronts. “We cannot agree to [halving emissions by 2050] because it implies that … the remaining (cuts) must be done by developing countries,” said Alf Willis, chief climate negotiator for South Africa. African states boycotted a preliminary diplomatic conference in Barcelona in November based on a similar complaint. And the same bloc of nations is insisting that climate aid be a central part of any deal in Copenhagen. “These are the new shifts in global decisionmaking,” says Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. “Having one common platform has strengthened the hand of the region.”