An international climate change conference of the United Nations Framework Convention is currently underway in Warsaw, Poland.  With the recent devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines as the backdrop, negotiations are tense on critical issues like cutting carbon emissions, devising compensation from the worst polluting countries to countries affected by environmental disasters, and generating a commitment to a Green Climate Fund by all nations. The current impasse is over a new catchphrase, “loss and damage,” translating to a global agreement on which nations are liable, and who needs to foot the bill for what some refer to as grave “climate injustice.”

The G77 + China, a group consisting of 133 countries walked out of the conference yesterday in protest as developed nations refused to enter negotiations on the “loss and damage” that vulnerable countries will continue to face from extreme storms, desertification, salinization and erosion, and other indicators of climate change. The United States and other wealthy countries are opposed to creating new mechanisms for compensating affected countries given the reality of their own financial constraints and the domestic political challenges they would face to support such a venture.  Todd Stern, the United States Special Envoy on Climate Change, at a meeting last month at Chatham House, an independent policy institute in London, was quoted as saying: “The fiscal reality of the United States and other developed countries is not going to allow it [compensation]. This is not just a matter of the recent financial crisis. It is structural, based on the huge obligations we face from aging populations and other pressing needs for infrastructure, education, health care and the like.”

Advocates from the developing world want the industrialized countries to honor a 2009 commitment made in Copenhagen to provide up to $100 billion in aid by 2020 for environmental disasters. They argue that developed countries have a moral responsibility to shoulder the financial burden, given their enormous carbon footprint in the world.  But, emerging economies like China and India also contribute heavily to carbon emissions in the world, which blur the lines between culprits and victims, and make the issue of compensation difficult to negotiate.

The urgency felt at Warsaw is not just about recent weather-related disasters. A few weeks ago, a leaked draft of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that that in the coming decades climate change will affect food security by reducing crop production by 2% each decade and driving up food prices even as the world population is expected to grow from 7.2 billion today to 9.6 billion in 2050. The report also finds that it is not too late for countries to agree to cuts in carbon emissions to help mitigate the risks of climate change.

Expectations are low at the Warsaw Conference to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol with a new climate change agreement to be signed in 2015. The issues of funding and assigning blame for the world’s environmental disasters are at the heart of the impasse. The situation at the Warsaw conference begs an urgent need for strong leadership that can cut through rhetoric and posturing and bring about a consensual vision for change. Climate change is real: environmental disasters like Hurricane Sandy in the United States, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or Cyclone Phailin in India to steadily rising sea levels that threaten to submerge Small Island States to drought in Africa impact hundreds of millions of people across the globe, who bear the brunt of the devastation in their communities and livelihoods. There is too much at stake here for the world’s climate change leaders to walk away from the Warsaw conference without coming to any agreement on reducing risks, helping poorer and more vulnerable nations, and sharing technological advances to combat climate change. The time to act is now.

Share your reactions to the proceedings at the Warsaw conference, what role should the United States play in finding solutions to the current divisions that exist on climate change, how can we bridge the divide between rich and poor countries on the emissions issue, and finally, how do we finance compensation payments to countries that have faced an environmental disaster.

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Best wishes for the Thanksgiving holiday,