The Valencia science meeting is just a prologue to a meeting of diplomats from some 180 countries in Bali, Indonesia, to hammer out a new international agreement to control climate change. The current Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997 and took effect in 2005, expires in 2012. The US and Australia did not ratify it, but many developed nations that did ratify have not met their treaty obligations to curb greenhouse gas emissions, while developing nations such as China and India are not required to reduce their emissions.
Finding agreement in Bali will hardly be easy. But it will come at a crucial juncture. Years of effort by carbon-emitting industries and the Bush administration to cast doubt on the basic science of global warming have met with scant success. The key science findings now are widely accepted, and the IPCC and former vice president Al Gore earned a Nobel Prize this year for their efforts to educate the public about the issue.
The politics have evolved along with the science. In the U.S., Democratic and even some GOP candidates for president are touting their proposals for achieving energy independence and fighting climate change. In China, a Communist regime in power for half a century has been facing questioning from the grassroots on environmental issues, and even major anti-pollution riots. President Bush's effort in September 2007 to replace the established U.N. "Framework Convention" treaty-negotiation process with his own vision of "aspirational goals" went nowhere, according to most diplomatic observers. Bush may not be able to keep allies such as Canada and Australia in the "do nothing mandatory" camp much longer, as those countries too, face internal political pressure to change.
But still deeper obstacles remain. While low-lying nations grow increasingly desperate to stem the sea-level rise likely to swamp them, developing nations like China and India remain unwilling to forego the economic growth which would raise their people from poverty. Oil-producing nations in the Mideast also continue to oppose mandatory emission limits.
Another sea change in the past year has come on economics. The Bush administration and the fossil-fuel-dependent industries have long argued that carbon controls would wreck the U.S. and world economies - but others increasingly are staking a claim to the opposing argument. In October 2006, the British Exchequer's office issued a report by economist Nicholas Stern that said the effects of uncontrolled climate change could cause far more expensive damage. And perhaps most importantly, a growing number of industries and entrepreneurs have begun rushing to bet real capital on the proposition that there is money to be made - lots of money - in developing and marketing post-carbon energy technologies.
The Bali meeting is technically known as the 13th Conference of Parties (COP-13) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - the procedural matrix within which the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated.
Delegates will not arrive in Bali to consider a draft text, but rather to try to come up with a new "road map" for negotiations to arrive at a successor agreement. As indicators of success, look for agreement on procedures for future negotiations, and for commitments by key nations to engage in those negotiations.