The 2010 UN climate change negotiations in Cancun have concluded, and the most optimistic view is that it wasn't a step back, and that the steps forward, while miniscule compared to the challenges, represent progress of a sort.
Members of government, scientists, and leaders from 194 countries attended this 16th annual UN meeting on climate change, following last year's much higher profile gathering in Copenhagen. In contrast, this year's meeting elicited few if any mentions in the major U.S. news media. As in the past, farmers, peasants and citizen's organizations and their demonstrations were kept far from the negotiations; a march of several thousand mainly agricultural workers was kept miles from the meeting site.
The minor progress made was on two related fronts: one was the establishment of a fund, provided by the major developed countries, to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate the results of climate change. The other front was a related fund focused on subsidizing efforts to stop deforestation.
Even on some of the decisions agreed to in Cancun, many crucial details were postponed at least until next year's round of negotiations.
While this might seem like important progress, no provisions or decisions have been made yet on where or when the money is actually going to come from. This is like claiming a new empty glass is half-full, just because everyone agrees that someone should put water in it. Bolivian president Evo Morales stated that the lack of strong agreements amounted to "ecocide." He led a group of left-leaning Latin American countries that protested their exclusion from many closed-door negotiations.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that the developed countries should "stop their squandering and irrational consumption of the planet" and that the main causes of climate change are "unsustainable patterns of production and consumption of the developed world." He went on to say "the time to act ... is running out, another year has been lost since the Copenhagen deception ... the peoples cannot wait for the powerful." In contrast, Ban Ki-moon, UN General Secretary, called for compromise, saying, "The world, particularly the poor and vulnerable, cannot afford the luxury of waiting for the perfect agreement."
Many developing countries called for a renewal of the Kyoto Accords, due to expire in 2012. These accords are the only existing legally binding treaty on climate change in existence, and place requirements developed countries. Most major developed countries oppose an extension because it would place no requirements on rapidly developing countries such as China and Brazil. China is now the single largest contributor of current global warming gases, though still much lower per capita and historically than the U.S., Australia, Japan, and Western Europe.
As well, an extension would continue to leave out the U.S., since Congress never ratified the Kyoto Accords. While many U.S. cities and even a few states have committed to abiding by the reduction targets in the accords, the likelihood of senate ratification of any climate change treaty has decreased significantly following Republican gains in the fall 2010 elections. While Republican elected officials almost universally reject the science of climate change, many Democratic senators from coal-producing states also vehemently oppose any limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
This occurs against the backdrop of growing damage to the environment from global warming. 2010 is on track to be the hottest in the 131-year record. Extreme weather events are increasing and increasingly damaging. Sea levels are rising. Ice sheets are melting. The world's oceans are acidifying. Permafrost is thawing, releasing both carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, on top of the escalating releases of greenhouse gases from industrial and farming practices. The Kyoto Accords, despite being legally binding, have not resulted in any slowdown in greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, emissions are growing, due to the rapid industrial development in China, India and other parts of the world, from escalating deforestation and from continued consumption of fossil fuels.
Climate change is creating some unique challenges to the world - for example, the legal quandary posed by small Pacific Island nations that will likely disappear sometime during the course of this century. Some of these countries exist only a few feet above current sea level, and their existing supply of fresh water is being eroded by incursions of rising ocean water, which may force emigration even before their land disappears under rising the oceans. If the peoples of those nations are forced to migrate, does the nation still exist, or will it disappear into whatever country its people migrate into?
The next report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most authoritative (and some claim, conservative) estimate of climate change, is not due until 2014, but all indications are that the worst case scenarios of the 2007 report will become the most likely scenarios in the next.
Image: From Oxfam International. A giant message in a bottle from millions of the world's poorest people washes up on a Cancun beach. Oxfam is calling for a climate fund to be established in Cancun to help poor communities adapt to a changing climate and to help pave the way to a fair ambitious and binding global deal to tackle climate change. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0