Everyone knew that the world's tiny island nations would play a visible role at Copenhagen—after all, with sea levels rising, they arguably have the most to lose from a warming planet. But no one predicted that Tuvalu, of all countries, would single-handedly grind the climate talks to a halt. That's what happened this week, after Tuvalu's repeated insistence on an even stronger, binding treaty dissolved the ongoing discussions in acrimony.

The main disagreement between small island states and developing nations like China and India concerns the "two-track" system at Copenhagen. Under the current plan, there would be one set of discussions for updating the Kyoto Protocol (which is a binding treaty that largely involves the wealthy industrialized countries) and then a parallel track to hammer out a non-binding political agreement that would cover developing countries like China and India. Yet, given recent warnings that the climate is changing more rapidly than expected, island nations like Tuvalu now want an even stricter agreement—specifically, they want any emissions pledges for countries like China and India to be legally binding. And that's not going over well.

Oddly enough, Tuvalu actually does have the power to grind the talks to a halt, because the goal is a consensus among all 192 participating nations. So talks have been suspended until Saturday. Meanwhile, industrialized countries like the United States have stayed silent on Tuvalu's proposal, which has fueled theories among developing countries that they're secretly behind it. It's true, the United States can't be unhappy to see some pressure exerted on China from other corners—although U.S. negotiators don't want to alienate China and India completely, which is why they've said that the goal of the conference is a political agreement and not a new binding protocol.

Meanwhile, a new draft agreement released today makes a small concession to the island states by including a 1.5°C temperature rise (as opposed to 2°C) as the lower bound of a possible agreed upon threshold for global temperatures. India and China say the goal is unrealistic because it would require them to cut not just their energy intensiveness but their total emissions. Maybe so, yet countries like Tuvalu are arguing that they don't have the luxury of making that choice.

 (flickr photo credit: solargenerationrocks)