These plausible, if worst-case, scenarios demonstrate a marked difference in preparedness between the richest and the poorest countries of the world. In the last decade, advanced democracies—the type that perch atop the U.N.’s annual development rankings—have braced for climate change. The Netherlands has pioneered floating houses; the British government plans to spend $500 million on a flood defense system for the Thames River; and the United States, despite its reputation as a foot-dragger on green issues, has invested, via the February economic stimulus package, more money in alternative fuel production and energy-saving infrastructure than ever before. And this week, Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson formally announced that carbon dioxide will be classified as a dangerous pollutant, a move that could result in sweeping new regulatory authority for the EPA.
Poor nations, however, still shoulder the biggest risks. “Africa has not contributed significantly to global warming, and yet Africa is paying the highest price,” says Woods. “If you are an African country, you have much more at stake than a rich country,” adds Saleemul Huq, head of climate change at the British International Institute for Environment and Development. “Poor people in particular depend on natural resources for their livelihoods,” said Julia Martin-Lefevre, president of the World Conservation Union, after a meeting with the African Development Bank this fall. “Managing and conserving these resources in a sustainable way can contribute to building resilience against the effects of climate change.”
Brazil has been a good example of leadership in this new development paradigm. Despite being populous and poor, conservation and reforestation of the Amazon rainforest has long been part of the national conversation on the environment, and ethanol production from its sugar cane reserves could be a future source of trade revenue. Much of its success, however, has come as a result of public will. In a recent HSBC-sponsored poll, some 90 percent of Brazilians favored their government committing to “meet or significantly exceed” a 50–80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. In the United States and in many less developed countries, this kind of awareness is still lacking.
Another factor in the preparedness gap comes from the vastly different economic conditions between the relevant groups. Many developing nations, including parts of rural China and India, are not yet fully electrified, and heavy manufacturing is a less significant factor in their carbon footprints. The introduction of an economy-wide “cap and trade” system of curbing emissions, as has been proposed in the U.S. Congress, is less realistic in such emerging markets.
President Barack Obama, who will attend the Copenhagen summit next week, has sought to partner with smaller states and nontraditional powers on the issue of climate change. Still, when it comes to forging the kind of global treaty necessary to stave off the worst effects of global warming, “the divide between developed and developing countries … is still alive and well,” said Todd Stern, chief climate negotiator for the United States, when testifying before Congress last month.
The funding plan on the table at Copenhagen is a potential game changer: Such a fund “will help countries leapfrog, from importing essential green technology, to helping to promote green jobs, to a broader swath of issues that will not only help mitigate the impacts of climate change, but help African and other countries in the global south transition to a new green economy,” says Woods. What’s more, this could be a mutually beneficial arrangement, says Naveen Nayak, director of global warming for the League of Conservation Voters. “A lot of the developed nations see it as not only important to a final deal but an opportunity to create the markets that they are trying to attract as they develop green technology. It’s very central to the whole conversation.”
But in the midst of a global recession, the question of how to raise the money is still unresolved. The United Nations is estimating that some $170 billion per year might be needed to realistically prepare the developing world for climate change. And climate aid is not the primary aim of the conference. “We’re not going to build a deal around aid,” says Nayak, who is in Copenhagen for the week. “But if we are going to build a deal around reducing emissions targets, we need to make sure it’s fair and equitable.”
UPDATE 12/9: A leaked document (the so-called “Danish text”), outlining negotiating terms for several rich nations—that include weak emissions reduction targets for wealthy countries and more stringent terms for poor nations—hit the conference like a bomb early this week, prompting Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, G77 chairman, to declare such terms a “suicide pact.” If established science is correct, unprepared developing nations would, under the terms suggested by the draft proposal (from which no country claims to be negotiating), experience levels of warming that put millions of lives at risk. Di-Aping later called it “certain death for Africa.”
The impact of this new development on a final deal in Copenhagen is unclear. A strong, unified voice from the global south could prove decisive during what will be a tense fortnight spent balancing the economic, cultural and political interests of nearly 200 nations attending the summit.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.