Not quite the end of the Third World

Formal negotiations for an international agreement on climate change begin once again at the end of the week in Bonn to try and assess what’s happened since. Jacob Werksman, from the World Resources Institute, makes the point that while the Copenhagen Accord might not have legal standing, it nonetheless cannot be ignored and will still provide a basis for trying to move forward.

But the other big question is where the big divisions will lie among the parties, as a sign to the nature of disagreement that will persist or dissipate. In a piece for the e-ir website posted last week, I argue that the Third World coalition, i.e. the G77 and China, still has legs in it, and that while Tuvalu might have caused quite a stir four months ago at Copenhagen, I don’t see its actions (in calling for the suspension of the conference) as the portender of any longer term, more fundamental rupture among developing countries on climate change. I’m not completely re-posting it here, but here are a couple of choice bits:

One of the few things to catch the imangination out of last December’s UN climate conference in Copenhagen certainly was Tuvalu, standing up to make a desperate plea for its continuing existence. But despite Clive Hamilton’s claim that this marks the ‘tectonics plates’ shifting and a rift emerging within the Third World, it is more likely that Tuvalu’s actions will come to be little more than a wistful memory. Hamilton’s argument is an intuitive one. But it deserves far greater caution and skepticism, because the longer course of the climate negotiations has had its share of apparent ruptures between developing countries.


That Tuvalu forced the suspension of the whole conference is noteworthy, but its stance is nothing new. The small island states and least developed countries have long been aware that it is they who will bear the brunt of climate impacts. They have long advocated targets and measures that are far stronger, and at a pace far quicker, than what the rest of the world has been willing to contemplate. At every meeting they express their frustration with the inching pace of progress. The tragedy is that all that their ‘brave stand’ will earn is an ovation.

And for the small island states, they may occupy the moral high ground. But the high ground, even if behoven of campaigners and the media, leaves them dangerously isolated. Without substantial finance for adaptation imminent, a retreat back into the G77 may be the only option. Without substantial finance for mitigation, however, the rest of the G77 are unlikely to play ball and be willing to take steps on making mitigation commitments of their own. It all presents a very tall order for the industrialised countries who are supposed to find the hundreds of billions for both types of finance.

The G77 is undoubtedly an “awkward alliance”, but one in which the “stridency of the weak” will  find little support. Instead, the “imperative of maintaining the appearance of G77 unity” still casts a spell over most of its members, one that has yet to wear out. As Mark Twain might have put it, it would appear that rumours of the Third World’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

It’s a response to a piece by another author, The End of the Third World, which portrayed Tuvalu as exposing the rifts of Third World solidarity and exposing the intransigience of the large, rapidly industrialising developing countries. This is an accurate observation, but I don’t think it it will be decisive on its own or will have any long-lasting effects.

Who’s right on this? Watch this space.

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One thought on “Not quite the end of the Third World

  1. […] NQETW is my rather catchy acronym from a previous post, Not Quite the End of the Third World, which is the jumping-off point for a new, occasional series of themed posts on the continuing […]

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