WARSAW, Poland -- The top U.S. negotiator on climate change has effectively ruled out any new American pledge this year to a U.N. fund for helping poor countries cope with global warming, but vulnerable nations and human rights groups gathered for the climate summit here refuse to accept that.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called climate finance "critical" in his first press briefing of the summit today.
Pointing to Typhoon Haiyan, which he said puts "an anguished human face" on climate change, he said, "I would really hope all this tragic devastation would really give us a wake-up call."
He avoided directly speaking to the finance fight here but said of the call from developing countries for clarity about how the rich world will deliver $100 billion annually by 2020, "I sincerely hope the developed world should keep their promise so all the nations of the planet Earth can move together."
But U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said in a speech last month at London's Chatham House that the "hard reality" is that the world's wealthiest nation will not increase its climate aid by an order of magnitude "anytime soon."
"The fiscal reality of the United States and other developed countries is not going to allow it," he said. The U.S. contributed $2.7 billion in climate change aid last year, which was an increase over most years.
But those who advocate for countries that will bear the brunt of climate change say such statements show that industrialized countries whose emissions have driven global warming are trying to abdicate responsibility.
Speaking on the first day of high-level negotiations, green groups lamented today that the environmental ministers filing into Poland's National Stadium have not come armed with promises of new aid in the near term or with details on how they plan to help supply $100 billion a year in assistance by 2020, some of which will be funneled through the Green Climate Fund.
And a few countries, notably Australia, have even rescinded past offers of climate-related assistance.
"It's sort of like a football game, except nobody is scoring goals and some countries are scoring against their own goals," said Liz Gallagher, a senior policy adviser at the U.K. think tank E3G. Her analogy was tailored to the stadium venue for this year's Conference of the Parties (COP) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Developing countries and their supporters are particularly stung because they say this year was to have been "the finance COP." They have won few concessions from their wealthier counterparts in recent years, they note, on stemming the emissions driving the rise in sea levels, more frequent storms and diminished water supplies that threaten the livelihoods of their people. But last year's round of talks in Doha, Qatar, did end with a pledge that this year would include a first-of-its-kind ministerial meeting during which they could air their concerns.
That meeting is set for tomorrow, but advocates say it will be an empty gesture if no one comes armed with new pledges of assistance.
"This token of faith is actually proving to be a big lie," said Alix Mazounie of the Climate Action Network. "We have no climate champions here in Warsaw."
'I don't know what they're waiting for'
The United States, meanwhile, has entered this year's round of talks in a relatively strong position.
Stern and his team -- supported by top administration staff members like White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley -- have touted President Obama's new Climate Action Plan. And although it has been viewed as a pariah in past rounds, the world's largest historical emitter enters this year's talks within striking distance of its promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Australia and Japan, meanwhile, have drawn ire for backing away from their pledges.
But climate-vulnerable countries say that if the United States does nothing additional to help poor nations deal with the unavoidable results of past emissions, efforts to curb future emissions will not be enough.
Asked whether the introduction of Obama's climate plan made any difference in the talks, Lucille Sering, secretary of the Climate Change Commission of the Philippines, said it did not.
"Somehow, when they negotiate, they always find some way to excuse themselves from doing anything," Sering said. "It's always either they can't do this or they can't do that."
Speaking after a press conference on the Philippines' effort to rebuild after this month's massive Typhoon Haiyan -- which killed thousands -- Sering said that the Philippines would use its co-chairmanship of the Green Climate Fund to accelerate development of the fund so that money could flow through it as soon as possible. The United States and other countries have said they prefer not to make concrete pledges to the post-2020 fund for adaptation and mitigation finance until they know how the fund will be organized and administered.
But Sering dismissed these concerns as excuses by wealthy nations not to provide what they should in light of Haiyan and new reports like the one released earlier this fall by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that showed increasing certainty that human-caused emissions are driving dangerous warming.
"We don't know what else that we need to prove that this is happening and that support is needed," she said.
Sering noted that the United States has provided substantial assistance to the Philippines since Haiyan hit -- a sum that now totals $37 million in pledges.
"We're very grateful, because somehow, when push comes to shove, everybody acts," she said.
But when it comes to preventive funding to shore up vulnerable nations against the effects of climate change, she said, "I don't know what they're waiting for."
African adaptation needs
Nor are island nations like the Philippines the only ones that will feel the humanitarian and financial pain of changing weather patterns.
African leaders today unveiled a U.N. Environment Programme report finding that adapting to the impacts of climate change could cost the continent $350 billion annually by the end of the century if emissions continue on course.
Already, the report found, Africa faces between $7 billion and $15 billion in expenses like protecting lands from increased flooding or developing new crop varieties. And even if countries rein in rising greenhouse gas emissions to keep global temperatures from rising beyond the level that scientists call catastrophic, costs to Africa will still be $25 billion annually in the 2040s and $200 billion annually by the 2070s.
"What is really mind-boggling is that in recent days, we have seen the Philippines typhoon," said Uganda Minister of Water and Environment Ephraim Kamuntu.
Linking Haiyan -- one of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded -- and climate change, Kamuntu said, "The cost of not doing anything, the cost of waiting is much more than if we act and prevent. Just stretch your mind and see what is waiting for us if we don't take action."
Tosi Mpanu, head of the African group of negotiators at the U.N. talks here, said he remains optimistic that money will come through for vulnerable countries, or at minimum, clarity about how much money will come and when.
He pinned hopes on a ministerial-level meeting tomorrow on finance, saying a key element will be defining how much wealthy countries will give poor ones in the years leading up to 2020. By that year, rich nations have pledged to mobilize public and private dollars totaling $100 billion annually.
"But what is the pathway?" Mpanu asked, noting that poor countries received about $10 billion last year. He called for a pledge in the range of $50 billion to $60 billion annually by 2015 so countries can be sure that the so-called fast-start financing that poured in over the past three years for immediate needs won't disappear.
Right now, there is no clarity on post-fast-start financing. "We don't know if this year we are going to fall off the cliff," he said.
Saleem Huq, a senior fellow at the U.K. think tank International Institute for Environment and Development who works with a group of least-developed countries, agreed, saying: "What's the in-between number? Give us a figure."
Pleas for U.S. compassion
The United States has objected to putting a new mid-decade pledge on the table, and there have been no signs this week of a willingness to bend. Nor has it given even a tentative figure for what it might contribute to the Green Climate Fund.
Ruth Davis of Greenpeace yesterday said it is disappointing that the United States has not become more willing to commit to adaptation efforts even after its experience last year with Superstorm Sandy, the massive storm that ravaged the Eastern Seaboard, launching a recovery process that is still ongoing.
It is also discouraging, she said, because the $100 billion a year was an American proposal made in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009.
"One has to start with just the simple fact of remembering that [then-Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton was involved in making that pledge toward 100b of climate finance by 2020," she said. "We have seen really very little from the U.S. in terms of a concrete view of how they're going to achieve their fair share of that."
Former Irish President Mary Robinson, speaking this weekend at an event on climate and business in Warsaw, called on the United States to show more compassion for the world's poor, who will suffer the most in a climate change-altered world.
The world's richest nation has shirked that duty, she said, even when it comes to protecting its own poor citizens. Some parts of New Orleans are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, even though the landmark storm occurred more than eight years ago, said Robinson, who now heads a foundation on climate justice that bears her name.
"I would welcome more leadership from the United States," she said, adding that she hoped that a disagreement between rich and poor countries over assessing and compensating loss and damage from climate change would not derail these talks.
"That is becoming an issue now for communities that know that there is probably going to be a complete undermining of their livelihoods," she said, calling Haiyan "a portent of things to come."
"We're going to see more of that, and we know that," she said.
'There is not going to be any money'
But while some advocates attending the summit expressed impatience with the United States for what it has not done, others applauded it for what it has done.
"I wouldn't be as pessimistic as most people," said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There is real money flowing to clean energy in the real world."
Schmidt noted that the federally backed Overseas Private Investment Corp. has taken steps to spur solar energy investment in India and Chile. Obama's plan also all but ends U.S. backing for coal-fired power plants overseas.
Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that the main barrier to future pledges of climate aid is Congress, especially in the current era of tight budgets and partisan rancor.
"I think in this current budget situation for this current fiscal year, it's probably pretty tough," he said.
But he held out hope that even Republican lawmakers might look at adaptation and green energy funding more favorably in the future. Business could help by talking about the job-creation possibilities of investing in green technology for overseas markets, he said, while the faith community could reach out on adaption.
"So you see some constituencies that are part of the Republican political base entering into this with arguments that are different perhaps from the ones Republicans are expecting to hear from the environmental community, for example," he said. "A purely environmental message may not resonate."
But GOP strategist Mike McKenna said in an email to Greenwire that Republicans are unlikely to back climate change aid anytime soon. "I give that a zero chance of happening," he said.
"We are having trouble finding cash for the farm bill. For American farmers," he added. "We have lots of members of Congress who want to spend more money on defense. American defense.
"There is not going to be any money (beyond maybe a symbolic pittance) for climate finance in the developing world," he said.