Cancun's white beaches and resort hotels provide a fitting setting for a global argument over the rich world's responsibility for damaging the Earth's environment and the extent of its "climate debt" to poorer nations.
Divisions between the rich and poor – so apparent in such sunny vacation spots – have fuelled bitter debates that threaten to block progress at the United Nations climate summit under way on the Mayan Riviera.
Many leaders from the developing world and Western activists are demanding trillion-dollar reparations for the developed world's damage to the Earth's atmosphere at the expense of the poor. Their argument is an extension of the anti-globalization, anti-corporate credo that assigns moral blame for the vast gap in global living standards.
Representatives from developing countries arrived at Cancun determined to hold rich nations to account for their role in causing what scientists say is a growing climate crisis, one that will hit poor nations the hardest.
However, the United States and the European Union are mired in the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. The heightened level of economic insecurity – and the perception that China is overtaking Western economies – will make it increasingly difficult for those governments to win public support for massive climate-related transfers to developing countries that would have been politically problematic even before the global slump.
At Cancun, negotiators hope to conclude some "building block" agreements on issues of financing and technology transfer that will pave the way for an overarching, binding climate treaty down the road.
Below, a guide to issues, and conflicts, that stand in the way.
The recognition of differing levels of responsibility between developed and developing countries has been embedded for decades in international agreements that deal with the growing climate crisis.
Based on 160 years of fossil-fuelled economic growth, the industrialized world has emitted an estimated 75 per cent of the man-made greenhouse gases that remain trapped in the atmosphere.
Globally, energy-related emissions have climbed to 29 billion tonnes a year from 200 million tonnes in 1850 as the developed world relied on coal-fired electricity and oil-fuelled transportation to deliver unprecedented prosperity to its citizens.
Governments in the U.S., Europe and Canada have long acknowledged the imbalance and have agreed that the rich world needs to make deep cuts to emissions by 2050 in order to allow for an overall reduction in global levels even as developing countries increase their consumption of fossil fuels such as coal and oil.
The historical argument is being overshadowed by the realization that China has become the world's largest emitter this year and will continue to outpace the United States as it industrializes its economy. However, China's income per person and its emissions per capita remain far below the levels of the United States or Canada.
Bolivian President Evo Morales has been leading the case for the prosecution, calling not only for reparations but also a "people's tribunal" to impose monetary and criminal sanctions on offending rich-world governments and corporations.
Last April, Mr. Morales played host to the People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which issued a manifesto calling on rich countries to finance the "decolonization of the atmosphere." The Cochabamba Accord was endorsed by activist groups throughout the developed world.
"There is both a legal and a moral obligation to deal with climate debt," says Janet Redman, a co-director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, who helped to draft the document. Among the speakers at Cochabamba was Canadian activist Naomi Klein, a vocal advocate of the need for reparations.
While most developing world leaders steer clear of Mr. Morales's broad denunciation of capitalism, they share his view that the climate debt of the developed world is a fundamental issue at the Cancun talks and cannot be addressed by shuffling aid budgets and offering loans.
The Group of 77, which represents an alliance of poorer countries, has called for annual financial transfers of up to 1.5 per cent of rich countries' gross domestic product by 2020. Applying that figure to Canada in 2010 would require new aid spending of $18-billion, while the American government would have to come up with $210-billion (U.S.).
For many climate change skeptics, demands from the Group of 77 for massive transfers amount to clear evidence of a United Nations-perpetrated hoax that used dubious science to justify a socialist reordering of the global economy.
U.S. Congressman Joe Barton, a leading proponent of the do-nothing approach who is running to become chair of the powerful House energy and commerce committee, rejects the view that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that should be regulated, as the Environmental Protection Agency intends to do.
As a committee member, Mr. Barton has supported British conservative Christopher Monckton, a former political adviser to Margaret Thatcher who has attacked the science of climate change as "flawed" and has accused President Barack Obama of planning to sell out U.S. sovereignty to usher in world government.
Other conservative critics – while not denying the climate-change science – argue that any global agreement that includes large financial transfers would simply be unacceptable.
"Essentially, the right is exploiting the issue of distribution as a way to underscore their belief that any kind of international, UN-based program is going to be inefficient and unworkable," said Jon Entine, a fellow at the conservative, Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. "But a lot of that opposition is from climate deniers who are looking for anything to hang their hats on."
Canadian conservatives have also been suspicious of international demands for major financial transfers. When he was opposition leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper roundly con-
demned the Kyoto Protocol, particularly its mechanism for having rich countries purchase emission credits from poorer ones. Instead, he promised a "made-in-Canada" solution.
As Prime Minister, Mr. Harper has agreed to provide "Canada's fair share" of financing for mitigation and adaptation efforts in the Third World, but critics complain that the $400-million allocated so far is largely redirected from other aid programs and comes in the form of loans rather than grants.
In international negotiations, Mr. Harper's government also has been adamant that Canada expects major emerging countries such as China and India to accept binding commitments to rein in emissions, something they were exempted from under the Kyoto deal.
In a speech before last year's Copenhagen summit, Bruce Carson, a former senior adviser in Mr. Harper's office, argued that the Kyoto treaty was fatally flawed because it had set unrealistic targets and that "there were legitimate issues as to whether it was simply a wealth transfer scheme – with nothing to do with climate change."
In Cancun, the Canadian government is looking to scrap the Kyoto deal, rather than extend it past 2012, as the Group of 77 is demanding. Such a move would erase the decades-old distinctions between developing and developed countries.
Cancun and beyond
An agreement on financing is absolutely critical if the Cancun summit is to be declared a success, and to set the stage for further co-operation.
Negotiators are working on a proposal that would raise $100-billion a year by 2020 through a variety of taxes – on financial transactions, on air travel and shipping – and funnel it through the World Bank and other development agencies. However, leaders from the developing world want the money to be managed by the United Nations itself and are insisting that most of the financing should come from Western treasuries.
U.S. negotiator Todd Stern has insisted that any financial package must be accompanied by an agreement that countries would allow their efforts to be monitored and verified by the UN, a demand that has been rejected by China and India.
Without compromise, the future of the UN process itself is in jeopardy. There are already calls for negotiations to move to the Group of 20, which includes all major emitters but excludes many of the states that are most vulnerable to climate change. But most of the same cleavages that threaten the Cancun talks would exist at the G20.
The more likely outcome is that countries will move in fits and starts to implement their own climate strategies. That approach is bound to fall short of the deep emission reductions that scientists say are necessary to avoid climate catastrophe.
Shawn McCarthy is The Globe and Mail's global energy reporter.