The big question in Durban is whether an extraordinarily obstructive Obama administration is days away from killing this long climate process and burying its corpse next to the Doha round of trade talks.
The stakes really are that high. Chris Huhne, the UK's Energy and Climate Change Secretary, and his colleagues are facing a host of complex issues. But for me, three stand out. Do we keep the Kyoto protocol alive? Can we set up a fund to pay for poorer countries to cope with climate change and build clean energy? And when do we sign the next deal, the one that really nails the carbon beast? But in the end a good deal can't be struck here unless President Obama orders his delegation radically to change course.
First, Kyoto. The popular misconception is that this treaty expires next year. In reality, the first period of emissions cuts under the treaty runs out in 2012, but it was always the intention that we'd then have other commitment periods, each one forcing countries to cut their carbon deeper. Regressive governments have come to Durban determined to make Africa the graveyard of the protocol, to be replaced with some kind of wishy-washy voluntary agreement. But keeping Kyoto is important because it's the global rulebook on how to cut carbon across dozens of countries in a way that's verifiable and legally binding. If you kill the KP you take us back to square one, and a new rulebook to replace it becomes almost impossibly hard to agree.
Next up, the Green Climate Fund. This is a body set up to administer a pot of money to pay for the poorest countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change. One of the essential things Durban should achieve is for this fund to be made operational. That means agreeing how it works based on the recommendations of a committee of experts which has been working all year on developing its architecture. But some countries are trying to reopen negotiations on what the recommendations are, meaning ministers may not now be able to sign off on the fund this week.
Which countries are blocking this process? Saudi Arabia, of course, but the US has also thrown a monkey wrench into the push to get the fund on its feet.
Finally, the last of those big three issues: the signing of the next deal, the mega-agreement, the one that will do what Copenhagen was meant to do. In Durban, the alliance of small island states (facing nothing less than eradication this century) want the new deal signed next year. The EU is pushing the timetable a bit, and wants it signed in 2015. But there are other countries (foremost the US) which say we should only start talking about that deal at the end of this decade, with a view to signing it some time later.
Yup, you thought Copenhagen was the last chance. Now Obama's team and its allies are aggressively pushing for the deal we were meant to get back then to be signed more than 11 years later, and to be weaker than the one we needed in 2009.
An indication of how far Obama has strayed from his election campaign rhetoric (how the oceans would now stop rising) came when his senior negotiator here, Jonathan Pershing, opened the talks with a claim that there are "infinite pathways" to a deal that don't include deep carbon cuts before 2020.
The real issue is not simply that Obama can't sign an ambitious deal because Congress wouldn't ratify it – it's that he's actively sabotaging the efforts of more progressive countries to take this process forward. That could change with a single call from America's first African- American president to the delegation acting in his name.