The rich nations have less to spend on imports from poorer countries. It is a vicious circle, says Fran O'Sullivan.
Helen Clark is leading the push to extract financial reparations from "rich countries" - like New Zealand - for the damage climate change has wrought to poorer nations.
Just months into her new role as administrator of the UN Development Programme, Clark seized on the potential for "climate finance" to bolster the diminishing funds the UN has to splash about on assisting developing countries.
She doesn't bang on about the sin of carbon gluttony. That's left to propagandists like Naomi Klein who wants the impenitent West to prostrate itself by chucking billions of dollars at poor countries in atonement for destroying "entire ways of life".
In any case, Clark would find that position a stretch given the failure of her own Government to make any real headway on mitigating climate change, or reducing New Zealand's tally of greenhouse gas emissions.
But when I caught up with her in New York recently, she was looking forward to the Copenhagen summit.
She had found convincing the big UN donor nations to keep up the face value of their aid pledges a frustrating task at a time when many economies were still in the grip of recession.
Big donors, like the United States and Britain, have historically put aside a percentage of their countries' GDP as aid. The problem is when GDP goes down, so too does the absolute quantum of financial aid the UN has to distribute. The rich nations have less to spend on imports from poorer countries. It is a vicious circle.
One of the UNDP's key mandates is to work on the environment and sustainable development.
Clark says this has resulted in a big portfolio of climate related issues ranging from adaptation and disaster risk management, through to low carbon growth strategies, energy and how to access carbon finance.
She has been emphasising that climate change effects cannot be dealt with in a separate silo from poverty reduction and the Millennium Development goals, "because if you don't get the sustainable development side right, you'll never sustainably reduce hunger or achieve any development goals".
Clark is an astute politician.
While the UN Climate chief Yvo de Boer tells journalists rich countries must "put at least US$10 billion a year on the table" to help poor nations cope with the effects of climate change, Clark says the annual figure should be US$75 billion to US$100 billion. She believes "climate finance" has the potential to replace official development assistance.
But convincing "the West" to play ball is a different matter.
First, the UN's own record on administering development funds has not always been snow-white.
Second, accountability is lacking in many poor countries.
Frankly, donor nations, like New Zealand, should put the acid on Clark to ensure any "climate finance" they stump up is project-related.
The fact is the "big C" that has really stymied development in many poorer countries is not "climate change" but "corruption".
As Clark's boss Ban Ki-moon said this week, corruption kills development and has been one of the biggest obstacles to achieving the Millennium Development goals to lift people out of poverty by 2015. "When public money is stolen for private gain, it means fewer resources to build schools, hospitals, roads and water treatment facilities. When foreign aid is diverted into private bank accounts, major infrastructure projects come to a halt."
Clark agrees that corruption undermines governments' ability to act and serve their people by siphoning off the finance intended to reduce poverty, and, discouraging investment in economies.
A welter of recent articles (particularly in Africa) portray Clark as having been a strong international and domestic leader on climate change before she took up her UN role ... She insists it is in the West's interest to come to the party. If not, there is a real security risk that more states will fail.
Problem is that while Clark wants to work upstream with governments, the World Bank is also positioning itself to be the major climate funds manager.
The vexed issue of "climate debt" does not rank highly on the list of concessions that New Zealand has signalled it's prepared to make at the UN Copenhagen Summit. New Zealand wants any financial contributions from the taxpayers' purse to primarily be devoted to funding research to reduce agricultural emissions. It is not alone on this score.
But the notion of "eco debt" has crept its way onto the official UN agenda. Terms like "emissions debt", "equitable burden sharing", "historical climate debt" and "a more equitable utilisation of the global atmospheric resources" pepper the official text of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Problem is how many western Governments are going to step up to the plate and fund Clark's US$100 billion of annual climate penance, when their own countrymen are feeling the pinch and the political leaders worry they will face voter wrath if they can't sell the rationale for reducing domestic greenhouse emissions?
If Clark can swing this one - she's probably a sitter for the next UN Secretary-General.