Call it the year of the Americas.
Long overshadowed by other continents with larger greenhouse gas emitters, more vulnerable ecosystems or more investment-attractive energy markets, Latin and South American countries have not historically been recognized as major players in international climate talks.
Analysts say that's about to change. When Mexico hosts the next major climate summit this December, a new U.N. chief from Costa Rica will orchestrate the proceedings. Brazil will wield an influential role among large developing nations. Colombia will maneuver behind the scenes to find compromises. And Bolivia -- joined by Nicaragua and Venezuela -- will lead the charge for climate "justice."
"The Americas are moving, and they're moving strongly. Latin America is making its mark," said Jose Alberto Garibaldi, a former member of Mexico's delegation to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and now the director of Energia Research.
It's not clear, though, what that mark will look like. Unlike, say, Africa, where climate change is recognized as one of the biggest threats to the continent and leaders have bonded over the quest for adaptation funding, the Americas is far more diverse.
While impoverished countries like El Salvador and threatened small island nations like Barbados push for climate funding, Brazil will dominate the debate over deforestation. Mexico, as host of the 16th Conference of the Parties, will claim the stage in trying to force countries to a compromise on a treaty -- even as it grapples with its own responsibilities as a middle-income nation.
Meanwhile, members of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, otherwise known as ALBA, have become a force to be reckoned with ever since they prevented the United Nations from adopting the political agreement known as the Copenhagen Accord last year.
The group of leftist nations has styled itself as the champion of Mother Earth (even as oil-rich countries in its ranks like Venezuela routinely team up with Saudi Arabia to thwart ambitious measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions). ALBA is widely expected to block any climate deal that falls shy of the most ambitious.
'Not easy' to have a common position
"What you don't see is a common position for Latin America, which is normal, because it's a very big region with very different types of countries, and even climate change may have very different implications depending on the country," said Maria Netto, a climate change specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank. "It's not easy to have a common Latin American position," she said.
Netto and others contend that the diversity of the Americas is perhaps the main reason why the region has not been viewed as a major actor in the climate talks like Europe or Asia.
To be sure, individual Latin and South American countries have played important roles in specific areas over the years.
During the crafting of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, Argentina became the first developing country to indicate it would be willing to commit to binding emissions targets. The Clean Development Mechanism program, which allows industrialized nations to reduce emissions by funding clean energy projects in developing nations, morphed out of a Brazilian proposal.
Peru, facing serious water scarcity and the threat of Andean glacier melt, has been a strong voice for adaptation funding. And Costa Rica, while small, became an inspiration to many when it vowed to become carbon-neutral by 2030.
Particularly at a technical level, Netto said, "This is a region that has always been very active in the negotiations in very different ways."
But the fact is, analysts acknowledge, Latin America often gets short shrift. Sarah Ladislaw, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she was asked to give a presentation this year about the role of Latin America in the climate negotiations. She spent half the time talking about China.
"That's where the majority of the economic growth and energy use is," Ladislaw said. "It's Asia, it's not in Latin America."
She argued that with the exception of Mexico and Brazil, the region has few major players. Meanwhile, energy market privatization in the region has been halting, making it hard to attract investment for renewables. And while some countries are severely threatened by rising temperatures, the consequences there are not considered as dire as in places like the Maldives, which could be swamped by sea level rise; Bangladesh, where climate change could spark mass migration; or Africa, where rising temperatures could decimate crop yields.
"It kind of falls off the table in all different directions," Ladislaw said.
But she and other observers of the climate talks also noted that the dynamics also are shifting. Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Resources Institute's climate and energy program, said that over the past two or three years, new coalitions have formed within Latin America that almost are microcosms of the politics within the broader and even more diverse Group of 77 developing countries.
New fault lines
Some of the new fault lines could be seen at last year's climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. Colombia and Chile, for example, worked as part of a larger group of countries looking for compromises, with Colombia's environment minister working the "secret rooms" with a select number of world leaders. Several observers said Colombia worked hard to try to convince ALBA countries to accept the political agreement known as the Copenhagen Accord. The attempts failed, but Colombia won the affection of the U.S. State Department, whose climate officials have publicly praised the country's work several times.
Analysts say the goodwill goes beyond climate change. "In the region, Colombia is probably the U.S.'s closest ally, and that closeness spans a number of different issues," from trade to the war on drugs, noted Ana Maria Kleymeyer, a senior climate change adviser at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva and a former member of the Argentinian climate change delegation. "The U.S. probably sees them as a strong ally in getting more developing countries close to what the U.S. can accept in a climate deal."
Peru, as well, has been hustling behind the scenes, coordinating positions and trying to score a compromise on deforestation, Garibaldi said. He and others attributed the new energy to the larger phenomenon of climate change awareness that has swept the globe. Latin Americans, he said, "started to realize they have much to lose by being silent."
Netto, meanwhile, noted that as climate change caught on at a higher political level globally and finance ministers or heads of state -- rather than just environment ministers -- became involved, the Americas stepped up its game.
"You see that the delegations become more sophisticated," she said. "They're bringing pretty high-level people and people from other high-level technical areas. They've becoming more committed at home, but also more sophisticated in the negotiations."
Even the ALBA countries -- dismissed by the United States and Europe as spoilers -- are having a serious influence, Kleymeyer said. "We're never going to see a climate agreement that says, 'We respect the rights of Mother Nature,'" she said, a nod to the platform Bolivia presented at its World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth earlier this year. But, she said, some concepts may, in fact, work their way into a final text.
"I see it almost like a political race," she said. "There are a number of candidates who are not going to win, but their platforms are contributing to the debate in a way that enriches the whole debate."