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The Lost Years of Climate Change: Are We Just Going to Talk Our Way to Oblivion?

Did it stir something in the memory, by any chance, the extraordinary heat of a fortnight ago, when Britain met with its hottest-ever October day, and numerous places experienced their hottest day of the whole year? Did the sheer, seasonal abnormality of its glare give pause, and revive a concern which has faded almost completely, in the face of skepticism and the economic crisis – the concern that the climate might be drastically changing, with potentially deadly consequences?

If so, I suspect that the revival was brief, and that most people have gone back to worrying about their jobs. Global warming is an issue which has dropped off the pubic agenda almost completely. Yet in less than eight weeks' time it will dominate the headlines once again, when, at the UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa, the gaping split in the world community over how to tackle climate change will come to a crunch.

CO2 knows no bordersphoto: Liz | populational

The essence of this split is simple; developing countries (like India, say) think the rich, developed countries should do it; the rich developed countries (like us) think that everyone should do it. The first position was enshrined in the current climate treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, in which the rich world agreed to cut its carbon emissions, while the developing countries were obliged to do nothing; and now Kyoto, which in its present version runs out on 31 December 2012, is up for renewal.

Is there to be a new Kyoto? Or is there to be something else, a more comprehensive treaty obliging the developing countries also to cut their soaring carbon emissions? This was the issue on which the global climate negotiating process came within a whisker of total collapse at the Copenhagen conference in December 2009; the process was damaged, but mended at the subsequent meeting in Cancun, Mexico, last December, by the expedient of parking the Kyoto question, shoving it on one side.

Now it can be avoided no longer. At Durban, the issue of Kyoto 2 will come to a head, and the positions which countries have been taking in advance are not encouraging. China and India, and a group of Latin American nations led aggressively by Bolivia, are insistent on a renewed Kyoto. Britain and the European Union, and a large group of other states, will accept a Kyoto renewal as long as there is also a parallel agreement to move to a comprehensive new climate treaty which would oblige all countries to act to cut carbon. But Japan, Canada and Russia will not be part of a new Kyoto, which would oblige them to act while major economic competitors did nothing.

That's a car crash in prospect. Wait for the bang. Looming car crashes can be avoided, though: brakes can be slammed on, steering wheels wrenched around. The best we can hope for out of Durban is disaster-avoidance, fudge: an agreement to disagree, perhaps, which allows the painfully-constructed climate negotiating process to continue.

Yet even two years ago, it wasn't like this. Then we were looking for the Copenhagen conference to deliver a solution, as thousands of young people flocked to Denmark and rechristened the city Hopenhagen: a global agreement to cut CO2 sufficiently to hold the world's temperature rises below the danger threshold of two degrees Centigrade.

Instead, what we have ended up with (if it doesn't fall apart in South Africa) is a long-term talking shop, like the World Trade Negotiations, which may at some date in the future bring about an agreement where all the countries of the world agree to cut their greenhouse gases in a legally-binding framework.

But it won't be now, it won't be in the next few years, which as everyone involved with global warming knows, are the years in which action would have to be taken to be successful; and they are slipping by, as we (entirely understandably) focus on the economic crisis and see our hottest-ever October day as a surprising but welcome anomaly. These are the lost years of climate change.

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