OP15 has officially begun. One hundred and ninety-two nations, tens of thousands of international NGO reps and delegates and an alphabet soup of UN agencies have embarked on the task of putting together an agreement that might avert global ecological catastrophe.
Yesterday, South Africa joined  a growing list of countries that have offered to cut emissions. Yet few people, other than those involved in the talks, are speaking optimistically about the breakthroughs that are needed on the two main obstacles to an ambitious climate deal: funding from rich nations to poorer ones and deep emissions cuts by the world's largest economies. One conference attendee I spoke with upended the mantra of hope-in-'hagen by predicting a "flop-in-'hagen."
During the morning's opening ceremony, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, set the tone--at once foreboding and urgent--for the next week and a half of talks.
Pachauri reiterated the findings of last IPCC report in 2007, which found that the evidence of climate change is "unequivocal" and driven by human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. These climate changes have already put large segments of the world's population under threat of weather-related disaster, he said, and, unless immediately dealt with, will place even greater numbers of people in peril over the long-term. "This conference must put in place adaptation procedures for the most vulnerable places in the world," he warned. In other words: the discussion is no longer about averting the impacts of climate change but about dealing with the effects that are already upon us and taking steps to reduce greater risk.
UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer, following Pachauri, declared: "The clock has ticked down to zero. The time has come to deliver." COP15 negotiations, he added, must result in fast, effective implementation of ambitious emissions cuts, immediate aid for technology transfer and adaptation in developing countries, and agreement on a long-term vision of a low-carbon future. "The time for formal statements is over. The time for restating positions is past," he added.
And with that statement de Boer touches on the problem that has been looming for weeks and defines the talks from here on: a huge divide remains between rich and poor countries over emission cuts and finance. So where do the missing emissions cuts come from? Who will provide the missing financing?
Ambassador Dessima Williams, chair of the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), a key negotiating bloc made up of forty-two countries most at risk of rising sea levels, told me that emissions cuts on offer from developed nations were far below what the science demands and what constituencies like hers demand. "But," she added, "Norway has pledged 40 percent. Japan was at 8 percent and has now offered 25. The European Union is at 20 but will go to 30 if other countries do the same. And Germany pushed theirs from 30 up to 40." Thus, Williams sees progress in the negotiating process.
Notice who's missing, though, from her list? Yes, the United States. While everyone who is involved in the negotiations, from Yvo de Boer to country delegate, delicately avoids criticism of the United States during press conferences or media interviews, it's transparent from whom greater emissions reductions and financing commitments need to come. The United States is the greatest per capita carbon emitter but has essentially pledged to no cut in its carbon output. Obama's 17 percent pledge from 2005 levels by 2020 is only a 4 percent cut from 1990, a benchmark year set by the Kyoto Protocol and used by many nations. The United States has also failed to specify a financial pledge for technology and adaptation in developing countries.
So what will poor and low-lying countries do, if there's inadequate movement by the United States on greater emissions cuts and financing? They have described the current proposals as a "suicide pact" that if agreed to would mean the disappearance, particularly in the case of the Maldives, of entire countries. Will these nations walk out in boycott as they did in Barcelona? Will the US and other developed countries offer greater finance in order to buy off opposition?
Last evening, I spoke with Ambassador Williams and asked her whether a walkout was a possible strategy. "The meeting is not open yet," she said. "We need to see how the negotiations proceed."
Well, COP15 has now officially begun. There are offers on the negotiating table and they are insufficient according to the science and the demands of poor and low-lying countries. Pachauri and de Boer spoke this morning of scientific imperatives and moral necessity. The question now though is one of politics: how will blocs like AOSIS respond to the inadequate offers on the table?