Photograph: Elizabeth Ruiz/EPA
The United Nations climate summit in Cancun, Mexico began yesterday, the talks will continue until 12 December.
As climate talks start this week in Cancún, the common refrain that pervades the media and some negotiators is of "low expectations." I wonder whose expectations they are talking about. Do they think the one million people in the Bolivian city El Alto, who face increasingly chronic water shortages from the disappearance of glaciers, have low expectations? Do they think Pacific islanders whose homelands will soon disappear beneath the rising sea have low expectations? I believe that the majority of humanity demands and has high expectations that our political leaders should act to stop runaway climate change.
The reality is that the talk of "low expectations" is a ploy by a small group of industrialised countries to obscure their obligations to act. They are playing politics with the planet's future. If the Cancún talks set sail with no wind, then no-one will be angered when they stall. Sadly, rather than express moral outrage, much of the media and even some environmental organisations have subscribed to this cynicism of the powerful. Last year we had Hopenhagen and worldwide public outrage when the richest nations failed to act. This year will it be Can'tCun and a whimper?
Visible evidence of climate change is all around us.It can be found almost daily on the TV screens of people in rich countries – Pakistan's floods, Russia's heatwave, the unprecedented Arctic snow melt – in Bolivia, we are struggling to cope everyday with limited resources and ever more unstable weather. This year a drought throughout Bolivia meant we had to provide emergency food aid to hundreds of thousands of people. As we see our high Andean mountains, revered as apus or spirits by our indigenous peoples, lose their white peaks, we feel a visceral loss of our culture and our history.
Every year we fail to act will only worsen an already serious crisis – and mean any measures we have to take must be even more radical. Yet in looking at how to break the logjam in Cancún, one constantly comes up against the US. Not only does the US have the largest historical responsibility for carbon emissions, its political leaders are also the least prepared to act. While developing countries like China are imposing electricity blackouts to meet climate targets, many in the US are still debating whether climate change exists.
Unfortunately the US responsibility goes further than just inaction; it effectively sabotaged international progress on climate change. At Copenhagen and in the year since, the US has been the prime instigator behind attempts to end the Kyoto protocol, the only binding mechanism on climate change. Instead they harangue, bully, and insist that any climate negotiations must be based on the non-binding Copenhagen accord which would take us backwards in the fight against climate change. Analysis by the UN of the pledges made so far under the Copenhagen accord show that temperatures would rise by four degrees – a level that many scientists consider disastrous for human life and our ecosystems. Countries like mine that have refused to accept this death wish have had our climate funding withdrawn by the US.
It is important to remember that we have been in a similar situation before. In the negotiations for the Kyoto protocol in the 1990s, the EU proposed relatively ambitious targets of 15% emissions reductions by 2010, and argued rightly then that domestic action should be the main means of achieving emissions targets. The US at first opposed any targets or timetables, then pushed for lowering overall targets for developed countries to 5% cuts by 2012, and insisted on allowing fraudulent carbon trading mechanisms to meet the targets. Their bullying prevailed, but it was all for nought, as the US Senate failed to ratify the protocol and in 2001 President Bush formally withdrew. The rest of the world bent over backwards to involve the US, and even then they failed to act.
We can't allow this to happen again. It is wrong for a small handful of US senators to hold the rest of humanity hostage. If the US cannot do what is right, it must step aside. Meanwhile, developed country blocks, such as the EU, must stop hiding behind US intransigence. They must commit urgently to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% before 2017.
Earlier this year, Bolivia held a Peoples' Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which brought together more than 30,000 people from 140 countries to advance effective proposals on climate change in the wake of the Copenhagen fiasco. It was inspiring because of the passion and commitment of the delegates, and because it was completely focused on tackling climate change and its root causes. Too often, subjected to intense lobbying by big corporations, the UN conferences on climate change are more preoccupied with inventing new market mechanisms to make money rather than stopping climate change. Against these powerful interests, Bolivia believes the only way forward for saving the Earth and its people is mass popular pressure. We must insist to our political leaders that we have the highest expectations from Cancún, because nothing less than the future of our grandchildren and our planet depends on it.
• Pablo Solon is the Bolivian ambassador to the UN