Advocates for nations vulnerable to climate change are accusing the United States of trying to "kill" a prominent global warming provision that would create a massive insurance program for countries that face rising destruction from natural disasters.
The controversial measure -- which currently is part of the voluminous draft treaty text leading up to international climate talks in Copenhagen -- seeks financial payments for countries that might slip underwater sometime this century, as well as for those that increasingly suffer from drought, floods and cyclones.
The program could cost the United States and other developed nations billions every year, and perhaps amount to an admission that Americans are largely responsible for warming the world. That is considered a legal pitfall that might raise questions on the scale of slavery reparations for African-Americans or financial apologies to Native Americans, some observers say.
"It's really kind of a showdown between countries like the United States, the big, powerful ones that historically contributed most to greenhouse gas emissions, and the little ones, like these small island development states, 40 of which might disappear by 2050 with certain sea level rise scenarios," said Koko Warner, a climate insurance expert at the U.N. University in Bonn, Germany. "And it's really this kind of fight."
Under the proposal, rich countries would be expected to pay the premiums of poorer ones, which would receive payments from the facility during crushing cataclysms.
Some, like the Maldives, face a grim future. The leaders of this island nation, barely 5 feet above sea level, expect citizens to relocate if waters rise. Other countries might be overwhelmed by migration away from the coasts, and still others could see chronic hunger grow worse.
Dozens of small island nations have managed to get the international insurance program included in the draft on climate adaptation, which is being parsed and consolidated this week in Barcelona, Spain, before final U.N. negotiations open in Copenhagen next month.
It has a prominent position in the 21-page document: its own section, the name of which has become shorthand among observers for being the most contentious article in the working paper.
"They're going to try and kill Section D," Warner said of developed countries. "The question is, can it get through?"
Flags, and concerns, rise
Several observers confirmed the U.S. position. American negotiators, as well as those representing several European nations, are trying to fold the section into a different text that focuses on financing other adaptation measures, like planting mangroves and irrigating fields. That could dilute the insurance provision, putting it in financial competition with other efforts, observers say.
"Flags went up in the NGO community," said Heather Coleman, the senior policy adviser on climate change with Oxfam America, a nongovernmental organization that helps impoverished people.
Developed countries have concerns about the effort to create an "international insurance facility" to address the rising risk from stronger storms, heavier downpours and swelling oceans.
Under the program, vulnerable countries would also be expected to fortify their infrastructure and change the way they use land to reduce damage and save lives. Many countries, including the United States, see that as a valuable element of climate adaptation.
But there's no proof that a worldwide insurance program would work, one negotiator opposing the insurance program told E&E. The source described that effort as premature, and said industrialized countries instead are focusing on micro-insurance programs that can help stabilize families in Africa and elsewhere struck by drought and other hazards.
With many adaptation programs on the table, should insurance be the big winner?
The French ambassador for climate change, Brice Lalonde, described the issue like this: "The question is, can you find a perfect insurance system? So that's the debate."
Even small micro-insurance projects haven't yet been proven to work on a countrywide scale, let alone a global one. A knot of developed nations believe that by zeroing in on micro-insurance pilot programs, that type of financial relief could be advanced to ease suffering on a wider basis.
The effort to relocate Section D to a different group of negotiators working on the financial aspects of adaptation is not designed to dump the insurance provision, the source said. Instead, it's meant to put it side by side with other programs that will cost money. That way, all negotiating nations can assess which programs should receive funding from a limited amount of cash, according to the source, who spoke on the condition that the source's name and country would not be identified.
Insurance might be the fallback position for countries most vulnerable to climate change. The Alliance of Small Island States has pushed for a bigger prize from the Copenhagen framework: direct compensation from rich countries largely responsible for emitting carbon dioxide.
Compensation is also included in Section D, helping it attain its reputation as the most divisive section in the adaptation text. Direct payments mean admitting fault, and liability follows. That could open a legal nightmare for developed countries.
So insurance might soothe that sensitivity. If rich countries pay the premiums for poorer nations, which would then receive protection from Mother Nature, the liability issue could be sidestepped, said Sven Harmeling, senior adviser on climate change with Germanwatch, which helps impoverished people in the Southern Hemisphere.
"It's not liability in the strict sense," he said of insurance. "Or I would say it's a way to go around this liability issue, which is very, very controversial."