In more than two decades of U.N. climate talks, some annual negotiating sessions are invariably described as a stop on the road to another, more decisive session. So it goes with the 19th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 19, which will be held in a soccer stadium in Warsaw, Poland, later this month.

With a new global agreement—a treaty, maybe, or something looser if the U.S. has its way—supposedly to be signed in Paris in 2015, analysts are describing the next few weeks of talks as a critical stepping stone. No groundbreaking outcomes are expected. Instead, observers say they hope governments will execute a set of decisions to show the world they are serious about averting catastrophic warming.

"It's not going to be a cliffhanger, I don't think, but it is a very important one," said Jennifer Morgan, a climate specialist at the World Resources Institute. "Warsaw sends a signal that the Paris agreement is going to have numbers and commitments in it. This is it," she added. "Warsaw is the commit-to-commit."

But the path forward looks different depending on where one sits.

For the United States, in a position that its Special Envoy Todd Stern laid out in a speech last month, preparing for a 2015 deal means nations must adjust to some realities. Among them: The world no longer looks the way it did when the U.N. first convened on climate in 1992 and later divided the globe into wealthy countries that must act and developing countries that accept money for voluntary measures.

The U.S. position is that developing countries should not expect much more than they already are receiving in the way of public funding for climate change. And finally, there should be no more "lectures" about how the U.S. and industrialized countries caused climate change and must compensate for the problems now occurring because, as a group, developing nations now produce almost as much greenhouse gas emissions as do the more industrial countries.

Yet poor and vulnerable countries say they are still waiting to see the wealthy world take climate change seriously. At Warsaw, advocates said, they will push the U.S. and Europe to do more to cut carbon before a new agreement takes effect in 2020 and protect threatened communities from weather disasters brought on by rising global temperatures.

Plight of the poorest nations
At the top of the list for many poor countries is establishing a system to help countries suffering from fiercer storms, rising sea levels and other climate impacts that are unavoidable. While wealthy nations already are providing money to help poor countries adapt to climate change, activists say that because the world has gone so long without acting on climate change, there are a number of impacts—like the submersion of entire island nations—that likely can't be avoided and for which the world's polluters are liable.

Yet that concept of liability, closely linked to compensation, is one the U.S. outright rejects. The issue almost blew up the last negotiating session, and could again.

"The loss and damage is coming from the warming of the past. There is an element of historical responsibilities," said Sven Harmeling, climate change advocacy coordinator for CARE International.

"I think we are operating on international law, and parties have agreed to certain things. Since 20 years or even longer, all these parties have confirmed that climate change is a big problem, and many countries, including the U.S., haven't really done many things over these 20 years. So, there are responsibilities. I don't think one can really question such a principle."

Stern's office did not respond to a request to discuss what the U.S. hopes will or won't emerge on loss and damage. But some said a delicate compromise of the kind that was reached last year in Doha, Qatar, when developed countries avoided the issue of compensation but agreed to develop a loss and damage mechanism, could still be reached.

Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh, said he believes there is a middle road that focuses on practical work like research and figuring out what type of international mechanism would work best for vulnerable countries while avoiding talk of liability. The question of funding, he said, can be pushed down the road.

Huq said he sympathizes with the threatened countries and said the U.S., Australia and other big nations "came off looking like bullies" last year in refusing until the last minute to deal with tiny islands and poor African countries on loss and damage. But, he said, "I'm in favor of moving the negotiations forward rather than getting stuck in arguments that neither side can win."

Tasneem Essop, who is leading WWF International's delegation to Poland, called compensation "an important political ask" for poor countries, particularly because they are seeing paltry levels of funding for adaptation and wealthy nations are not putting forward ambitious emissions targets. But, she said, "I think that in the end when it comes to the final crunch of reaching a final agreement ... there might be compromises on that."

$100B vs. 'fiscal reality'
Meanwhile, countries also expect progress on a separate pot of money: the $100 billion in annual dollars that wealthy countries promised to mobilize by 2020.

So far none of that money has materialized, and although a handful of pledges from countries might materialize in Warsaw, analysts said what they really seek are high-level commitments that show a clear path toward hitting the $100 billion goal.

"That will really make our journey to the Paris COP in 2015 a bit more hopeful," said Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros, WRI's project manager of international financial flows. She acknowledged that specific pledges for the years leading up to 2020 are unlikely but said governments must tackle the politically complex discussion of which nations will do what to deliver the $100 billion pledge and what the precise role of the private sector will be.

Stern in his speech said the U.S. has given $2.5 billion annually in climate change aid since 2010 but added that the "hard reality" was that America has hit its limit. He said, "No step change in overall levels of public funding from developed countries is likely to come anytime soon. The fiscal reality of the United States and other developed countries is not going to allow it." Instead, he said, private industry will take the lead.

Environmental groups largely object to that both because they believe wealthy nations must compensate for their climate crimes and because they are skeptical the private sector will be able to meet the needs of the poorest countries.

Ballesteros, though, said she is optimistic thanks to serious changes in approach from developing nations. She noted that Brazil, South Africa and others have made submissions that outline what they already are doing with domestic dollars to make their economies less carbon-intensive.

"This actually changes the debate a little on long-term finance," she said. Rather than ask for money and then act on emissions, she said, countries are devising plans and carrying them out on their own—and then asking the industrialized world to give them an incentive to do more. "Countries are already raising their ambition, and it's moving out of this 'dole' mentality," she said.

'We have to clear the decks'
And yet some activists complain that the U.S. in particular has willfully ignored the serious steps developing countries have taken to cut carbon.

Lou Leonard, vice president of climate change at WWF, accused Stern of focusing on "small bore" issues instead of the big picture.

"It's time for the U.S. to declare victory on the fact that all countries are moving and take action," Leonard said. "Continuing to focus on every small issue that relates to developed and developing countries ... takes their attention away from being a leader on pushing for more ambition. We don't need that anymore from the U.S. We need more focus on solving climate change."

Others, though, said it is still important for Stern and the U.S. negotiating team to hold the line and avoid overpromising what America can deliver in a 2015 deal. Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund's climate and energy program, said for a treaty to jell by 2015, countries must shed "unrealistic expectations" and get pragmatic.

"Warsaw is about clearing the decks to really begin the negotiations for a flexible treaty in Paris, and by clearing the decks I mean getting realistic about things like the Green Climate Fund and loss and damage," he said.

"We have to clear the decks of patently unrealistic expectations regarding issues like a legally binding treaty or the notion of huge technology funds funded by developed countries and the whole notion of climate reparations. If we can move those issues largely to the side, then you have two years to negotiate numbers," Bledsoe said, adding, "That is ultimately what people are going to look for out of Paris."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500