Beyond Cancun: What's The Future Of Climate Policy?

Sierra Club activists bury their heads in sand in Cancun in protest of the U.N. Climate Conference

Sierra Club activists wearing flags, representing more than 20 countries, take part in a protest by hiding their heads in the sand in Cancun last week. The group said countries participating in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun are not doing enough to stop climate change. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP

As the climate meeting in Cancun, Mexico, begins its second week Monday, heads of state are conspicuously absent and attendance is way down from last year's meeting in Copenhagen.

  • Three thousand students and teachers at the Ryan International School in New Delhi — along with volunteers from the Indian Youth Climate Network — joined aerial artist Daniel Dancer to form an enormous elephant with rising seas, asking world leaders to notice the "elephant in the room," i.e. climate change.
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    Three thousand students and teachers at the Ryan International School in New Delhi — along with volunteers from the Indian Youth Climate Network — joined aerial artist Daniel Dancer to form an enormous elephant with rising seas, asking world leaders to notice the "elephant in the room," i.e. climate change.
    Daniel Dancer/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • Artist Bjargey XX created a "Red Polar Bear" with organic food dye on the Langjokull Glacier in Iceland.
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    Artist Bjargey XX created a "Red Polar Bear" with organic food dye on the Langjokull Glacier in Iceland.
    Christopher Lund/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • The Santa Fe EARTH event shows how the endangered Santa Fe River could look if there were water running through it. To simulate the appearance of a river, more than 1,000 people held up blue painted pieces of cardboard or tarps."Flash Flood" by Santa Fe Art Institute
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    The Santa Fe EARTH event shows how the endangered Santa Fe River could look if there were water running through it. To simulate the appearance of a river, more than 1,000 people held up blue painted pieces of cardboard or tarps."Flash Flood" by Santa Fe Art Institute
    Don Usner/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • Citizens from the Delta del Ebro region joined renowned urban-artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada to form a giant representation of the face of a young girl who wishes to see the Delta survive the threat of climate change.
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    Citizens from the Delta del Ebro region joined renowned urban-artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada to form a giant representation of the face of a young girl who wishes to see the Delta survive the threat of climate change.
    Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • In Cairo, Egypt, hundreds of students formed the image of a traditional scarab beetle, a traditional symbol of rebirth and regeneration. The demonstration is a reminder of the integral part of the sun in Egyptian history, and a call for re-examining our modern relationship to this source of clean energy.
    Hide caption
    In Cairo, Egypt, hundreds of students formed the image of a traditional scarab beetle, a traditional symbol of rebirth and regeneration. The demonstration is a reminder of the integral part of the sun in Egyptian history, and a call for re-examining our modern relationship to this source of clean energy.
    Ahmed Hayman/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • In New York City artist Molly Dilworth, famous for painting a mural in Times Square, created a design on a school rooftop that represents the New York and New Jersey coastline after a 7 meter rise in sea levels.
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    In New York City artist Molly Dilworth, famous for painting a mural in Times Square, created a design on a school rooftop that represents the New York and New Jersey coastline after a 7 meter rise in sea levels.
    Steve Amiaga/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • More than 3,500 schoolchildren and members of the community came together in Mexico City's Venustiano Carranza plaza to form a "human hurricane" — representing Mexico's vulnerability natural disasters such as the devastating hurricanes that hit the states of Nuevo Leon and Veracruz earlier this year.
    Hide caption
    More than 3,500 schoolchildren and members of the community came together in Mexico City's Venustiano Carranza plaza to form a "human hurricane" — representing Mexico's vulnerability natural disasters such as the devastating hurricanes that hit the states of Nuevo Leon and Veracruz earlier this year.
    Ricardo Villarreal T./Artist: Pablo Caballero/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • Hundreds of people in white gathered in the Dominican Republic to demonstrate the threat of sea-level rise to an island nation.
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    Hundreds of people in white gathered in the Dominican Republic to demonstrate the threat of sea-level rise to an island nation.
    Marvin del Cid/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • A satellite image shows an aerial view of the demonstration in the Dominican Republic.
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    A satellite image shows an aerial view of the demonstration in the Dominican Republic.
    DigitalGlobe/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • An aerial view of Vancouver, Canada shows a giant "footprint."
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    An aerial view of Vancouver, Canada shows a giant "footprint."
    Kris Krug/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • "350 Earth" in Australia.
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    "350 Earth" in Australia.
    Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • In Cape Town, South Africa, The Canary Project and local citizens created an enormous sun out of 70 high-powered parabolic solar cookers and table cloths. Each cooker lasts for 10 years and requires no fossil fuels, saving money for families while also protecting their health and the environment.
    Hide caption
    In Cape Town, South Africa, The Canary Project and local citizens created an enormous sun out of 70 high-powered parabolic solar cookers and table cloths. Each cooker lasts for 10 years and requires no fossil fuels, saving money for families while also protecting their health and the environment.
    Jade Wyatt-Holing/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • Nearly 2,000 people gathered in Brighton-Hove, UK and formed an image of King Canute, who futilely attempted to control the oceans according to legend. The image was designed by Radiohead's Thom Yorke.
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    Nearly 2,000 people gathered in Brighton-Hove, UK and formed an image of King Canute, who futilely attempted to control the oceans according to legend. The image was designed by Radiohead's Thom Yorke.
    Malcolm Land/Sealand Aerial Photography Ltd./Courtesy of 350.org EARTH
  • "Red Polar Bear," Iceland
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    "Red Polar Bear," Iceland
    Christopher Lund/Courtesy of 350.org EARTH

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Most everyone involved agrees that the international climate machine is sputtering, and efforts in Congress to do something big on climate have ground to a halt. So environmental activists and climate scientists are looking for bite-sized solutions to curb global warming.

The U.N. meeting in Copenhagen last year was supposed to deliver the blueprints for a new treaty to curb climate change, since the current Kyoto treaty expires in two years. Instead, the U.N. delivered practically nothing.

So at the Cancun conference, which ends Friday, expectations are modest and the head of the U.N.'s climate agency, Christiana Figueres, put delegates on notice that Copenhagen's chaos, replete with grandstanding speeches and demands for untenable cuts in greenhouse emissions, wasn't on this meeting's agenda.

"No one can afford permanently immovable positions; no one can afford to stay in inaction. And it is very clear that countries are actually willing to engage to produce a result here in Cancun," she said.

But that result will clearly not include a new international treaty with the U.S. and the other big greenhouse gas emitters onboard.

"The reality is that there's no international forum that's going to be able to force the U.S., China, India — the other big players — to do something they perceive that is not in their national interest," said Alden Meyer, a seasoned climate negotiator from the Union of Concerned Scientists, before heading off to the meeting this week.

Realistic Goals From Cancun

So climate activists are looking for more realistic commitments. They're talking about a $100 billion-a-year fund from rich countries to help developing nations adapt to climate change, and some way to transfer greener energy technology as well.

But Ken Green, an environmental scientist from the American Enterprise Institute, says even that's not going to fly.

"The international framework has always rested on a fundamentally fatally flawed idea," Green says, "that the developed countries are going to transfer voluntarily unprecedented amounts of wealth to the developing world along with turning over technology, including intellectual property."

Some big polluters aren't waiting for handouts — or directions from the U.N.

"Countries, particularly countries like China and India, are doing things to cut emissions that they are not prepared to sign up for as part of an international treaty right now," says Dan Lashof, with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We need to recognize that it's what they are actually doing that matters."

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

"No one can afford permanently immovable positions; no one can afford to stay in inaction," Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in a speech in Cancun. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

China in particular has set ambitious goals to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, and President Obama has, too — he's promised a 17 percent cut below 2005 levels over the next 10 years.

'Back To The Drawing Board'

But legislation to cut emissions died in Congress this year, and environmentalists like Mark Tercek, who runs the Nature Conservancy, says that was bad, but not the end of the world.

"With the loss of the climate bill, environmentalists had a big setback," says Tercek. "It's not all bad. It's good in this job to be humble. It's a complicated world — we all have to go back to the drawing board, and think about how we can do things differently and better."

Tercek's group will focus on protecting land and farms from flooding or droughts that may come with a warmer world. Meanwhile, California has its own laws to reduce their greenhouse emissions, and business investments in green energy technology like wind and solar power are at an all-time high.

None of these changes relies on an international, U.N.-mediated regime of emissions caps and timetables, as prescribed by the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol.

Meyer, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that if the U.N. climate bureaucracy is to have a role in these national efforts, this is their last chance.

"I mean, I think it's two strikes and you're out here, that if Cancun is perceived as a failure in the wake of Copenhagen, it really is going to be hard for the U.N. process to recover and get the political support it needs."

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