Secretary Clinton’s Announcement: A Shot of Adrenalin for Climate Talks

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought a diplomatic defibrillator of sorts to Copenhagen on Thursday. She announced that the United States would participate in a global fund that reaches $100 billion a year by 2020 to help low income people cope with climate change.

The offer is good, though, only if the 200 countries represented here for global climate talks strike a deal to cut carbon emissions in a transparent way. That means countries share information so everyone knows for sure who is matching words with deeds.

The new U.S. proposal gave a shot of adrenalin to the talks, setting the stage for President Obama to show up Friday in hopes of sealing a meaningful deal.  

For days the talks appeared at risk of bogging down.

Developing countries have complained that the United States and other wealthy nations aren't doing enough to help the world's most vulnerable people deal with the ills of climate change.

The impact is all too real.

As deserts widen across sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, crops wither, grazing lands bake and watersheds go dry. When floods and storms increase in intensity, poor people pay the price, in low-lying parts of places like Bangladesh and Indonesia. And as climate shifts, so does habitat for the kinds of insects that carry disease that falls especially hard on the poor.

A lot of research has been done on this. We know climate change is causing or exacerbating misery for hundreds of millions of people struggling for survival on the front lines of environmental devastation.

For a good look at how this plays out in the lives of real people, take a look at the World Bank's 2010 development report and the Human Impact Report published last May by the Global Humanitarian Forum.

These people need our help. Here's what Clinton proposed.

The United States would chip in on a global fund that would reach $100 billion a year by 2020. That means the fund would start small -- $10 billion a year is the global total on the table for openers -- and grow from there.

The money would come, Clinton said, from the public -- government revenues as well as alternative sources -- and private sectors. She didn't get specific, but it could potentially include money raised from the sale of carbon emission credits, for example, or from easing federal subsidies to oil companies.

She didn't say how much of the fund U.S. sources would provide. In World Bank and United Nations aid programs, however, the United States typically ponies up for about 20 percent of the global tab. That's a rough reflection of our percentage of global economic output.

Of that portion, taxpayers would cover part and the rest would come from private sources and alternative pools. She didn't elaborate.

Boiled down to essentials, American citizens, corporations and foundations would provide money to the fund. The amount would start low and ramp up, with the U.S. portion reaching about $20 billion a year by 2020.

That's a lot of money. To put it in perspective, though, the U.S. economy will kick out $14.3 trillion worth of goods and services this year. A $20 billion payment is 0.14 percent of that.

So here's the question: Are we, as a nation, willing to devote 0.14 percent of our treasure to help hundreds of millions of the world's most vulnerable people cope with the mess we helped create?

I have to believe the answer is yes.