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Fiddling while the planet warms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The UN’s annual climate conference ended in failure yesterday, with big decisions on how to slow the relentless rise of global temperatures pushed off to 2020 and beyond.

Why it matters: World leaders gathering at global forums like the UN often frame climate change in existential terms. But their views of what remedies are necessary and fair tend to be colored by their own national interests.

  • Brazil and Australia — which both appear to be headed in the wrong direction on climate change — were accused of thwarting a proposed carbon trading system by insisting they be allowed to recycle past credits.
  • India, the world’s third-biggest carbon emitter, opposed more ambitious emissions targets and called for an "examination of whether richer countries have done enough," per the BBC.
  • Saudi Arabia and Russia, both big oil producers, also opposed new targets.
  • China, the world's top emitter, will watch what direction the U.S. takes on climate after 2020 before deciding on its own commitments, analysts tell the NY Times.
  • The U.S. — the second-biggest emitter and the only country pulling out of the Paris Accord — helped block a proposal that would see developing countries compensated for extreme weather events linked to climate change.

Zoom out: The sense of urgency is much more acute in some parts of the world.

Leaders from small island nations expressed dismay over the lack of progress.

  • "Water covers much of our land at one or other point of the year as we fight rising tides,” President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands said in Madrid.
  • “It's a fight to the death for anyone not prepared to flee. As a nation, we refuse to flee. But we also refuse to die."

Meanwhile, the defense ministers of Finland and Sweden described climate change as a top security concern on a joint visit to Washington last week.

  • Russia is investing heavily in military capabilities in the Arctic, they told reporters, and countries are eyeing natural resources opened up by melting ice.
  • Asked by Axios about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's description of a warming Arctic as an “opportunity” for the U.S., Finland’s Antti Kaikkonen said he hadn’t seen Pompeo’s speech but added, “I see climate change more as a threat than a possibility.” His Swedish counterpart concurred.

What to watch: Meaningful progress on climate change will mean less burning of fossil fuels. That won't be easy.

The bottom line: 2019 saw a surge in activism around climate change, but not the results to match.

Go deeper: Marathon UN climate talks sputter to a close but avoid collapse