Why Cancun matters

It is only human to feel a little “climate fatigue” after a year that has included several disappointing failures on the climate front. The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks to achieve binding agreements, the failure of the United States Senate to even vote on a comprehensive approach to limiting carbon pollution, and a fresh crop of new Members of Congress that doubt that climate change is even happening, despite the disappearing glaciers from Glacier National Park or the stuttering of Old Faithful. In the face of persistent unemployment, public support for acting now to head off catastrophic global warming later in this century has softened and the caucus of deniers has hardened. Meanwhile, the science is unforgiving and risk of climate-driven disasters grows.

As the public tunes out, the evidence of the costs of inaction pile up. A new Oxfam report estimates that climate-related deaths doubled last year to 21,000. A new website launched by Greenpeace has a counter which shows not only the human toll of delay, but also the economic cost. Meanwhile, our remaining old-growth forests, grasslands and other natural ecosystems – places we rely on drinking water, agriculture, biodiversity, and the nourishment of human spirit that that comes preserving a few untrammeled wild places for generations to come -- are all threatened by the unsustainable burden of unchecked carbon pollution.

Against this gloomy backdrop, renewed hope can be found this week in Cancun, Mexico, where the nations of the world have assembled once again to seek agreement, cooperation and action to head off global warming. “COP 16” – this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference – opened on November 29 and will run through December 10. It is the official meeting of the parties to the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change, a 1992 agreement that now has 194 signatories including the United States.

It is easy to be cynical about the prospects for change, and the expectations for this conference are low. But the mere fact that the world has not given up, but rather has rededicated itself to finding a path forward, means that there is real hope for mankind eventually recognizing the folly of unchecked fossil fuel emissions and changing course.

The president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, opened the conference with these words:

“All humanity will be attentive to the results we achieve here as the representatives of nearly 200 participating nations. This means that we are not alone, we are not alone negotiating here in Cancun. Billions of human beings who want each of us to speak not only on behalf of their own interests as a developed or developing country, but to speak on behalf of all humanity, of people who are suffering the ravages of climate change, of indigenous people living in forests and jungles of the world.”

A year ago, there was no binding agreement, but there was an accord – the Copenhagen Accord – which recorded pledges by emitting countries to reduce emissions while also establishing a mechanism to assist developing nations to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The emissions reductions made in the form of these pledges, even if carried out, would not be sufficient to meet the goal of holding global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). But they represent a starting place for the talks in Cancun.

You can follow the progress of the Cancun Conference here. And here are some of the steps we can look for during the negotiations in Cancun.

Step 1: The U.S. reaffirms its pledge to achieve a 17% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020;
Step 2: A Global Climate Fund is established to assist developing countries to adapt to climate change impacts and control their emissions;
Step 3: Developed countries begin to meet the financial pledges needed to kick off critical activities such as reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), improving the resiliency of countries impacted by climate change (Adaptation), and sharing clean energy technologies that increase prosperity without new emissions.

These steps may seem small, and they are definitely not enough. But even the longest journey begins with one small step.