12/01/2010 08:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will the US Go Rogue if Cancún's Climate Talks Fail?

One thing's certain about the international climate negotiations happening right now in Cancún: no one's expecting big things. After last year's failure in Copenhagen to broker a legally-binding, international agreement to reduce carbon emissions, the media, negotiators pundits and activists pretty much all agree that if anything comes of Cancun it will be unambitious. Even the former UN Climate Chief, Yvo de Boer, says negotiations should focus on "small steps" toward slowing climate change, adding, "no one will take us seriously anymore" if talks were to fail again.

We talked to Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones to see what she sees in the Cancún's crystal ball. She reiterated de Boer's warning: "There's a possibility that if nothing happens in Cancún people will turn away from the UN process." The US and China could go rogue on the UN conventions and figure out an emissions bargain on their own.

This might not be all that bad, according to Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations. In a recent post for Slate, he argues that even if a legally binding agreement isn't made in Cancún, it can still be effective:

The line between gentlemen's agreement and hard law, though, is fuzzy in the world of international affairs. The Kyoto Protocol was legally binding, yet Canada has grossly violated it without penalty; China, meanwhile, has technically adhered to the protocol, but only because it required nothing of Beijing. There is no reason to assume that a wise political deal cannot be more effective than an unambitious but legally binding one.

But, as Sheppard points out, "The developing countries are going to push back because they don't have a voice in those other agreements in the same way they have a voice here. That leaves the conversation to folks like the US and China and leaves out a lot of the voices that are most affected by the issue."

The U.S. position -- and the prospects for any progress -- is only complicated by the recent electoral upheaval in the US. Obama and the Democrats are on the defensive, weakened politically and facing deeply climate-skeptical incoming Republicans. The public is focused on jobs and the economy. The deficit commission says there's no money to throw around. Politics will be the tail that wags the American dog in the climate debate for the foreseeable future. "Everyone here knows that the Obama administration is not nearly as powerful as they were last year."

The bottom line, according to Sheppard is, that we need to build trust in the process: "This is an opportunity for trust building...reaffirming that everyone believes in this process and wants the reach the same goals...We need to figure out long term plan and follow can we follow through on progress from last year."

This post was originally published on The Energy Blog, a project with National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge and Planet Forward.