15 DECEMBER 2010


What a tough life for climate change experts!

From Bali's preparatory gatherings to Copenhagen's formal Talkfest to balmy Cancun in the very cold month of December, then back to the drawing boards in sunny Bali.

The main accomplishment, in the meanwhile, was not theirs to claim. It was a blend between a determined persistent effort by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a publicity-shrewd Al Gore team that placed Climate Change in the mainstream of media attention. That was a major accomplishment. But then, very little happened to move it substantively forward. U.N. mechanisms remained in its predesigned orbit, their leadership appointments remained politically expedient -- and the only change was in the individual charged with overall co-ordination. Yves de Boer left, Christiana Figueres took over. The Executive Secretary of what is known as UNFCCC went from a man from Europe to a woman from Central America. That's it.

This time last year, all rhetoric was on "Hopenhagen." Despite sincere advice to lower expectations, the thrust of the U.N. effort was to "Seal the Deal." Clearly, there was no deal. Even the least binding of proposed documents received a "take note" rank of attention.

Approaching Cancun, there were no pretensions. "Small Steps" became the announced strategy. Wisely. For even the Prime Minister of Japan, host of the first attempt of a U.N./FCCC in 1997 was indicating that his government was not interested in extending the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2011. When the conference opened in the Mexican resort, our Secretary General was in Kazakhstan attending a summit of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. At least, he would meet some decision makers there. In Cancun he would be surrounded mainly by Sherpas, forever climbing up that Sisyphus track. He joined later at the High-level segment -- where the only other high-level attendee was the obligatory one by the President of the host country, Mexico.

Analysts and analysis abound. Basic issues remain unaltered: 1. How much should countries reduce emissions? 2. What is the time frame? 3. Who would monitor action taken?

By their very nature, conferences are tempting invitations to serious experts with innovative proposals, as well as to gimmicks and P.R. self-promoters. Groping for anything new, Cancun vigilantes discovered "REDD" -- Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation! India had originated that sleeper issue two years ago in a document called "REDD, Sustainable Management of Forests, Afforestation and Reforestation." If you think that topic boring, wait till you review submissions by other countries. In fact, wait till you find out how many NGOs find their way to these Conferences under one guise or another -- mostly well-intentioned keen and talented people who are outflanked on occasion by fringe groupies.

The thrust, however, remains on the positive. While progress is excruciatingly slow, basic issues continue to be reasonably tackled. One area of progress is a realization of a need to share technology to produce clean energy. Another is the need to pay more attention to poor, less developed countries. An equally practical step is more readiness to make more funds available to face inevitably forthcoming problems on a collaborative international scale.

More important is the substantive fact that from all that overly expressive folkloric, sometimes farcical atmosphere, there is actual progress accomplished in giving -- and getting -- more attention to the potential hazards of climate change.

And that's an accomplishment that, quite fairly, belongs in great part to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.