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Venezuelan climate envoy recalls 'bloody palm' incident, has high hopes for Cancun

For the bleary-eyed diplomats, activists and journalists watching the final, bitter dawn of last year's climate change conference, the blood dripping from Claudia Salerno's palm was the most surreal moment of them all.

"Do you think a sovereign country has to actually cut its hand and draw blood?" the lead Venezuelan negotiator angrily demanded of the Danish hosts and U.N. officials after repeated calls for a point of order were ignored. Holding up her palm that morning, Salerno declared, "This hand, which is bleeding now, wants to speak, and it has the same right of any of those which you call a representative group of leaders."

Nearly a year later, Salerno said she is still stunned by her own outburst in Copenhagen -- as well as by the raucous events of that evening, which, she said, forced her into a decidedly undiplomatic position. As negotiators prepare for the next major U.N. climate conference in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of this month, Salerno said she feels significant trust between nations has been restored.

"I have to admit, I am one of the few that are optimistic about the process," Salerno told ClimateWire in a recent telephone interview after visiting Washington, D.C., to promote global action on climate change.

"Mexico has done a fantastic job. They've been doing a lot to put parties together to help us talk to each other and understand our positions. Now we are going to Cancun feeling comfortable with the presidency and trusting them, which is the major thing, because we didn't have this feeling in November of last year," she said.

A leader who helped block the Copenhagen Accord

Venezuela this year leads the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, or ALBA, a group of Latin American nations that last year successfully blocked the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from adopting the Copenhagen Accord.

Salerno said her opposition to the political agreement forged by President Obama and the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa has not changed. And she pointed out that while more than 100 countries have "associated" themselves with the agreement, that description means different things to different countries and often comes with a number of caveats.

Still, Salerno also emphasized that she is not opposed to the substance of the agreement as much as to the method that produced it. In addition to the four emerging economies and the United States, the all-night closed-door talks that preceded the Copenhagen Accord included leaders from all parts of the world, but they were not selected within the U.N. system.

"It just was the fact that 24 countries could talk, that they could impose on the rest of the world what they had negotiated behind closed doors," she said. "Now we have options. Now we can discuss the ideas behind it in an open and democratic way."

In fact, she said, Venezuela was the country that in the end allowed the United Nations to "take note of" the accord, a compromise that allowed the agreement some measure of formal recognition and the breath of life to see it forward.

"That was a huge flexibility for my country, because I recognized that this was a huge political issue," Salerno said. "I showed them that my issue was not the content. I was not against the fact that some countries gathered together to solve an issue, but that that was not the way to proceed at the United Nations."

Exactly what will become of the Copenhagen Accord is unclear. The document records the pledges of all major emitters to either cut carbon or carbon intensity, and to openly monitor and report those efforts. In return, industrialized countries vowed to mobilize about $100 billion annually by 2020 for vulnerable countries.

'Nobody has any expectations' of the U.S.

The United States and developed countries hope to formalize the elements of that agreement into a series of decisions. They are pushing for what they call a "balanced package" -- that is, no money without a promise of targets and transparency. Developing countries, meanwhile, are pressing to focus first on the money and work on other issues down the road. Meanwhile, few know what will be the fate of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the first commitment period of which expires in 2012.

There have been quiet signs from Europe that the European Union might be willing to agree to a second commitment period in Cancun while working on a broader, new agreement. Salerno called that "a very amazing sign" but acknowledged there was little consensus.

The absence of climate change legislation in the United States, she predicted, won't have much of an impact on the talks. Cap-and-trade legislation died in the Senate earlier this year, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently declared future prospects "dead for the foreseeable future."

"That lowered the expectations of the U.S., but nobody has any expectations of them," Salerno said. "The ones that were always saying, 'The U.S. will not do anything,' now are just saying, 'I told you so.'"

The Obama administration has maintained it is not backing down from its Copenhagen pledge of about 17 percent emission reductions below 2005 levels by 2020 and more than 80 percent by midcentury. It is eyeing U.S. EPA regulation and moving legislative "chunks" of energy policy through Congress next year.

Venezuela's submission to the UNFCCC regarding the accord was a 10-page Hugo Chavez-inspired attack on capitalism -- under which, according to the entry, "Mother Earth is just the source of raw materials and human beings are just a means of production and consumers."

The fifth-largest oil producing country in the world insists upon working to stabilize temperatures to a 1- to 1.5-degree rise over preindustrial levels -- though without making any proposal that cuts demand for oil. Instead, the submission outlines dire predictions about what could happen to biodiversity and country stability if temperatures rise too high, and denounces the Copenhagen agreement as illegitimate.

Salerno also indicated that the other ALBA countries that blocked the Copenhagen Accord -- Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba, which joined with Sudan in opposition -- are ready to again stand between the United Nations and any other agreement they deem unacceptable.

'I completely forgot I was a diplomat'

"We are very strong countries, and we are ready to blame whoever needs to be blamed to say we need a good agreement, not any agreement," Salerno said. "We will not sell our emissions for any money." But she also said she is loath to see another conference like the one she experienced in Copenhagen.

That final night, she recalled, after watching President Obama announce the Copenhagen Accord on closed-circuit television at about 11 p.m., the other negotiators -- surprised by the event -- waited about four more hours for some direction. The Danish Prime Minister finally arrived at about 3 a.m. and presented the accord and told the gathered diplomats he would reconvene the plenary in an hour so they could rubber-stamp the agreement. Then he moved to adjourn.

Salerno recalled that she raised her country flag and was ignored. Other countries raised their flags. The prime minister appeared oblivious to the U.N. parliamentary procedures, which say a meeting can't be suspended until a point of order is heard. With the microphone still open, the Danish leader told a U.N. official he would not be recognizing the waiting countries. That's when all hell broke loose.

"The mic was open, and everybody listened to it," Salerno said. "I felt so offended by this guy doing that. I took the nameplate of Venezuela -- you know, the plastic nameplate in front -- and I took it and started banging at the table, and some other countries started joining me, as well."

"I was banging and banging and banging, and I was wearing a big ring, and actually, the ring got inside my finger. I was so mad that I didn't even feel it," she said. Finally, the prime minister returned and gave the floor to Venezuela. Salerno said a colleague pointed out to her the blood running down her hand.

"At that moment, I was like, 'What is happening here? I am in a U.N. conference. This is the United Nations; [Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon is sitting there, and I have to bang on a table to speak?' I was so offended at the whole situation, but mostly that I had to bang on the table. We're diplomats here, and at that moment, I completely forgot I was a diplomat."

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