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Bali climate deal marks a geopolitical shift

Developing countries flexed their muscles in unprecedented ways at the climate talks, suggesting the old north-south power equation is changing.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2007

Nusa Dua, Indonesia

In a tumultuous, overtime finale that capped two weeks of intense talks, ministers from more than 180 countries headed home this weekend with a framework for negotiating a new global-warming agreement by 2009.

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In the process, the talks appear to have sealed a major shift in the geopolitics of climate change.

In part, this change has come about because the US is now more intensely involved in talks than at any other time during the Bush administration, says Artur Runge-Metzger, who heads the European Commission's climate-change programs.

But the big shift has come from developing countries, known collectively as "the G-77 plus China."

Led by China, South Africa, Brazil, and other rainforest-heavy countries, the group is beginning to flex its muscles in ways observers here have not seen before.

In the past, analysts say, industrial countries cut the deals and essentially presented developing countries with the results. No longer. Nowhere was the change more apparent than on the unplanned 13th day of the conference.

At issue was wording on adaptation, technology transfer, and financing. Developing countries offered text changes that the US had opposed throughout the talks on the floor of the final plenary session.

When the head of the US negotiating team, Paula Dobriansky, took the floor, she said the US couldn't support the change. Since decisions here must be made by consensus, it looked as if the US would derail the process.

Developing countries were already fuming that, due to US insistence, the road map was confining scientific recommendations on necessary emission cuts by industrial countries to a footnote.

They also took umbrage at a comment made by a senior member of the US delegation at a press briefing Wednesday. James Connaughton, head of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, told reporters that "the US will lead" on global climate change, "but leadership requires that others fall in line and follow."

Dr. Dobriansky's "no" met with a chorus of boos. Other developing countries took the floor to support the change and roundly criticize the US.

South Africa said that the US position "was most unwelcome and without any basis." Then Kevin Conrad, who headed Papua-New Guinea's delegation, rose and turned Mr. Connaughton's comment on its head.

"We seek your leadership," he said. "But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way."

Meanwhile, Europe threw its support behind the change. Japan remained noncommittal. Canada and Australia, which ratified the Kyoto treaty earlier this month, sat silent. The last three had supported the US position for much of the talks.

Confronted with the prospect of overwhelming isolation, Dobriansky relented, saying, "We will join the consensus."

Many longtime observers say it was the most stunning reversal they had ever seen at one of these meetings. And it showed that the old north-south divide at climate talks may be eroding, given the alliance between Europe and the G-77 plus China on the issue.