WARSAW, Poland -- Acrimony between rich and poor nations over how to compensate for unavoidable climate-change-related disasters reached new highs here overnight as frustrated developing countries briefly suspended negotiations.
Described by some as a "short break" and others as a "walkout," the 4 a.m. breakdown was brought on primarily by Australia. Activists and some negotiators said members of the Australian delegation attended the formal discussion in T-shirts, ate and laughed loudly while blocking a series of possible agreements.
"The negotiations were actually going on reasonably well ... in what I think was a spirit of cooperation," said Saleem Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development who works closely with blocs of poor countries.
"Then at the end, the Australia delegation just put brackets around everything," he said, describing the process by which diplomats can signal that language remains in dispute. "All that negotiation just went to waste. That was the last straw that broke the camel's back at 4 a.m."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the fight over what developing nations call "loss and damage" is that the United States is not at the center of the storm.
The U.S. opposes large parts of the proposal from developing countries to create a new, independent mechanism to both study and address -- some say pay reparations for -- impacts from climate change that cannot be avoided, such as the aftermath of storms like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or relocating the citizens of sinking islands.
Todd Stern, the State Department's special envoy for climate change, said he believes the loss-and-damage issue is intrinsically linked to adaption, or helping to make vulnerable countries more resilient to storms, droughts and the like.
The U.S., Europe and Norway are among the areas pressing for the new structure to be placed under an existing program that deals with adaptation. And, Stern cautioned, there is no chance that developed nations will pony up more than the $100 billion annually by 2020 they pledged to help mobilize from public and private sources by 2020.
"That's what our financial commitment is. That's not changing," Stern said today.
Developing countries want to see an independent body that operates under the U.N. climate regime. They argue that wealthy countries are really just trying to shove the sensitive topic under the table by inserting it with a range of other programs.
"This is not a technical issue. In a way it's symbolic, but symbolism counts," Huq said. "What we the developing countries are asking is a different playing field. What [wealthy nations] are offering is a sandbox in a playing field that is already crowded."
And although Australia has come under withering criticism for its opposition, few have taken serious shots at the Obama administration. Most say they recognize that America won't sign on to anything that smacks of compensation for climate change -- a notion that could lock countries into fights over legal liability for greenhouse gas emissions -- and aren't fighting that.
"Everybody knows where the U.S.'s 'red line' is. My sense is, though, that they are trying to do the right thing," said a developing-country negotiator who described the U.S. delegation as speaking "with sincerity" in closed rooms about the need to address the problem.
But in a process that has for so long seen the U.S. portrayed by developing nations as the hub of an axis of evil, some compliments were decidedly backhanded.
"Australia is making the U.S. look quite good. Not because they've done anything, but because everyone is moving backward around them," said Tim Gore of Oxfam International.
Harjeet Singh of ActionAid added: "They're showing a lot of sincerity. But let's see what Stern has brought in his bag. Sincerity has to be demonstrated in concrete actions. Blah, blah, blah won't help anyone."
Ministers last night started to arrive in Warsaw for the high-level segment of the negotiations, and diplomats have kicked the sticky issue over to them.
South African lead negotiator Alf Wills said, "Part of the international climate change response needs to be not only an adaptation to slow changes in climate, but also to sudden events."
He noted that South Africa's corn belt, the heart of the country's agricultural sector, is expected to shift about 250 miles south because of rising global temperatures, making it more difficult to access corn storage facilities, transport facilities and other infrastructure.
"Do we have to rebuild it?" Wills asked. "We think that it is vital we have an international means, as part of the international response to the climate crisis ... to deal with these particular situations."
Negotiators say they believe that there will ultimately be an agreement on loss and damage. But Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser and longtime observer of the negotiations, said it won't happen until developing countries drop the idea of redress.
"Demands for reparations rarely produce desired results," Bledsoe said. "It seems more likely this is a gambit to extract additional financing from developed countries for climate adaptation through the Green Climate Fund rather than an actual expectation of language codifying any compensation or climate reparations."
Reporter Jean Chemnick contributed.