Members of both chambers of the U.S. Congress are pushing bills that will dramatically slash what little funding the U.S. spends on climate change research and action. This includes major funding cuts for the EPA and other environmental initiatives across the States, as discussed in last week’s Baines Report. To this I say…

So what?

Yes, it is worrying that the United States, still the sole hegemon, is rapidly losing its hold on this position while its international reputation falters. No, I will not argue that climate change (alone) is the reason. However, if we are being honest, then we know that there is little hope that the United States, though try as it might, is going to be a real leader on climate. That is not to say that the United States is not a game changer. It is arguably the biggest game changer on climate issues. However, it’s time to face the facts that the world is continuing to address climate change without us.

Over the past weekend, members of BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) met for the first time since the December 2010 climate talks in Cancún. For those new to the climate debate, BASIC is the most powerful and vocal bloc of the non-Annex I countries (Annex I countries are industrialized and transitioning economy countries … the big polluters). This informal group of emerging superpowers first met ahead of Copenhagen in 2009, and immediately presented a formidable voice to counter what many saw as the continued dominance of developed countries at climate talks.

Representatives from Algeria, Argentina and the Maldives, powerful actors on the climate issue in their respective regions, were also present at last weekend’s meeting. Yes, the mighty Maldives – although they did hold a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the impending climate threat, so that does give them some serious coolness points. Say hello to the new faces of the international effort to address climate change.

BASIC members are the first to acknowledge that they have differing ideologies and motives for pushing the climate discussions. Yet they operate under the assumption that they are the real agenda setters.

Why? Because they are.

These countries see the climate debate as an opportunity to establish themselves as serious political contenders on the international stage, not just economic as we often think of them, and not just on the issue of climate change. They have astutely positioned themselves as middlemen between developing countries and major political actors, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan.

On the economic front, these countries had a collective 2010 nominal GDP of $9.5 billion, according to the IMF. Their growing economies force developed countries to take their demands seriously, and all the while they label themselves as members of the “G-77 + China.” More importantly, however, is that the BASIC countries have the backing of these developing countries they claim to represent.

December 2011 represents a critical juncture. The Kyoto Protocol faces impending death. The Fast Start Finance initiative, originally slated to raise $30 billion to help developing countries address climate change between 2010 and 2012, is approaching its end but has failed to get anywhere near its funding goal. We’ve just passed through two climate negotiations without any real breakthrough.

South Africa will serve as both host country and lead negotiator for the 2011 talks. Any negotiations efforts led by South Africa are sure to represent the voice and the direction pushed by all BASIC members.

It’s time for the United States to get back to the BASICs. The United States needs to figure out its strategy on how to engage the BASIC countries. Environmental funding cuts will inevitably take place here at home (although who knows to what degree), and will do little to boost our credibility on the international stage. Our melodramatic, teenage-esque mood swings on the issue is not winning us any friends. Prepare to sit at the ugly kids’ table, United States, the BASIC countries are the new kids on the block.