One year ago, conservative and industry-backed opponents who shuddered at the prospect of a coordinated international effort to address the causes and impacts of climate change were busy conducting a witch hunt against climate scientists, looking for the bad practices of a few and trying to discredit the whole field. Remember how doggedly Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, FOX News, and others hawked the sorry saga of the emails originating inside the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit revealing instances of some scientists tweaking research methodologies to support published conclusions, or the gleeful, finger-wagging exposes on the steamy semiautobiographical novel and questionable management style of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) head Rajendra Pachauri? The heated media frenzy on the eve of the 2009 U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen didn't change our understanding of the fundamentals of climate science -- which remain as ominously compelling as ever -- but might have briefly warmed the planet's temperature a half-degree or so. Yet for all the attention and expectations, Copenhagen was a disappointment.
Now, as the next meeting of delegates to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change -- called the Conference of the Parties (COP) -- gets underway in Cancún, Mexico, there is an eerie quiet on the climate front. There are no sequels to "Climategate," no high-profile mudslinging, fewer squealing conservative talk-show hosts, no major revelations of IPCC blunders, no frenzied debates over the pace at which Himalayan glaciers will recede. Alas, that's not because climate scientists and environmentalists have won the battle so much as because there seems to be so much less at stake at these meetings. In short, climate skeptics have realized they don't have to work as hard to derail the process.
Many environmentalists once believed Copenhagen could change the world. In the run-up to last December's meetings in Denmark, both supporters and opponents of a U.N.-backed treaty to set internationally binding carbon-emissions targets were convinced that something momentous was on the horizon; much time and effort was expended trying to educate the public, or quibble with the science. Newspapers dispatched phalanxes of correspondents to cover the minutiae of the conference's proceedings and, during slow moments, the hijinks of costumed demonstrators marching on the Bella Center. The two-week summit drew several heads of state, including U.S. President Barack Obama. Official country delegations tallied some 8,000 participants; meanwhile several thousand more NGO representatives, clean-tech entrepreneurs, and jet-set protesters came on their own.
In the end, there wasn't much to write home about. At first it seemed nothing was happening, and newspaper dispatches largely focused on protesters unfurling colorful banners. At last on the final evening, Obama walked into an unannounced meeting of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and South African President Jacob Zuma -- together these five leaders assembled a lukewarm, last-minute deal (sidestepping the question of emissions targets). But even that wasn't officially adopted. When their text was presented on the final morning to the representatives from all 192 countries, a handful -- Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, Venezuela, the Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu -- balked and blocked the consensus process necessary for the United Nations to officially adopt the agreement. Their objections ranged from Tuvalu's desperation that more should be done (we're almost underwater!) to Venezuela's ideological outrage at America's "imperialist" pushiness (President Hugo Chávez famously accused Obama of acting like an emperor "who comes in during the middle of the night ... and cooks up a document that we will not accept, we will never accept"). And so the summit concluded with a non-legally binding document, the Copenhagen Accord being "noted" by participant countries, which then later offered voluntary pledges to curtail carbon emissions, or at least the rate of emissions growth. No one was satisfied, save maybe Rush Limbaugh.
Still, those who had invested great energy before Copenhagen initially tried to cast the outcome as beacon of hope. As Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) President Frances Beinecke put it: "The world has said enough is enough. We have taken a vital first step toward curbing climate change for the sake of our planet, our country and our children.... This agreement is not all we had hoped for. There's still more work to be done. But it strikes a credible blow against the single greatest environmental ill of our time."