12/11/2011 08:26 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2012

Breakthrough at Climate Talks... But Why on Earth Has It Taken So Long?

When I told Pricilla, a Durban-born 24-year-old of Zulu ethnicity who is working here as a volunteer, that I've been attending these U.N. climate conferences since Kyoto in 1996, she deferentially asked me, "Sir, why has it taken so long to find a solution to just this one single matter?"

It's complicated. Achieving consensus among 194 nations on any topic is never going to be easy, let alone on the technically convoluted and politically vexed issue of climate change. Small wonder, therefore, that reaching an agreement on how to tackle the problem appeared elusive, regardless of two weeks of intensive talks at the U.N. climate summit here in Durban.

As it turned out, by its official end time, the talks teetered on collapse, and it was only after an unprecedented 32-hour extension that a breakthrough was eventually achieved. It seemed more like global yawning, as many delegates struggled to stay awake prior to the eventual successful conclusion at around 3:30 a.m. Durban time. Even the U.S., which at time appeared disinclined to play ball, joined the consensus.

Newcomers to the seemingly tortuous processes of international negotiations should be more than forgiven for wondering why those responsible for steering our world struggle to reach unanimity on what is surely the most serious problem to have ever faced humanity. But as this crucial event drew to a close this past weekend, many of us veteran observers were similarly bewildered by the apparent lack of progress. Mercifully, major differences were finally ironed out, and new deal was agreed upon to ensure that the Kyoto Protocol will live on after the end of next year.

For sure, there's been no shortage of hard work. Negotiations have been continuing well into the small hours throughout the conference. In spite of the seemingly intractable divisions and ugly displays of self-interest, every one of the countries represented here acknowledged the need for action to combat global warming. Even the most recalcitrant players conceded that something must be done.

And there were thousands of representatives from NGOs and civil society groups, all relentlessly pressuring the negotiators to make a deal. As tension mounted during the final stages, some protesting environmental activists were physically evicted from the building by U.N. security guards.

Of most significance is the science. Average temperatures have climbed by almost 1 degree Celsius since 1880, much of this in recent decades, according to NASA's Goddard Institute. And the last 20 years of the 20th century were the hottest in 400 years, and possibly the warmest for several millennia, according to a gamut of credible studies.

Right now the Arctic is feeling the effects the most. Average temperatures in Alaska, western Canada, and eastern Russia have risen at twice the global average. Ice cover is rapidly disappearing, and the region may have its first completely ice-free summer by 2040.

Glaciers and mountain snows are rapidly melting, and in the warmer climes, coral reefs, which are highly sensitive to small changes in water temperature, are now suffering the effects of rising seawater temperatures.

Many experts are increasingly attributing an upsurge in the amount of wild weather events, such as forest fires, heat waves, and strong tropical storms, in part to climate change. Ironically, some eight people lost their lives in unprecedented flash flooding here in Durban on the eve of the opening of these talks nearly a fortnight ago.

It's not just an environmental threat but a human one, with numerous relief agencies reporting to this conference on the need to plan now to for the resettlement of millions of people expected to be displaced by climate change, with "climate migration" already estimated at some 10 million people a year. And there have been impassioned presentations from small island states in the Pacific, documenting how rising sea levels are endangering the very future of their countries.

Those attending these talks were left in no doubt that global warming comes with a massive price tag for every country on Earth. Research shown here concludes that if present trends continue, the total cost of global warming could be as high as 3.6 percent of gross domestic product to the United State alone.

The future financial burden of dealing with the predicted catastrophic impacts of climate change will cause the current economic crisis to pale into insignificance. It's now blatantly clear that our politicians should be worrying about how much the impacts of climate change are going to cost in the long term, as opposed to being concerned about the bills for combatting it now. Prevention is surely going to be cheaper than crisis management.

Most climate scientists agree that human activity is the main cause of global warming. Over the past century, since the industrial revolution, the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, thus trapping heat radiating from Earth toward space.

So, furnished with this increasing body of irrefutable information, it's more than understandable why Priscilla wonders why our governments are still struggling to find a political solution to the climate challenge. Had the status quo of the apartheid era endured in South Africa, that thoughtful young woman wouldn't have had the opportunity to be involved with this conference.

This intergovernmental process to establish a global accord to combat climate change began only three years after the end of this country's terrible period of racial inequality. Prior to the release of Nelson Mandela, it required a huge stretch of the imagination to believe that "White Rule" could ever come to an end here.

Thankfully, in spite of all of the short-termism and selfishness displayed by some, I believe the people in Durban have the imagination to see that the world can and must find a way to wean itself off fossil fuels, and that a legally binding treaty to supersede the almost-expired Kyoto Protocol was desperately needed.

So after more than 300 of hours of intensive negotiations, it was on the soil of this so-aptly named Rainbow Nation that another great leap forward has ultimately been accomplished -- this time in the form of a historic international pact to bring down greenhouse gas emission -- designed to preserve our planet and the future of humanity.

It was a truly moving moment when the conference president and South Africa's International Relations Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, brought down the long-awaited final gavel, declaring, "We have saved tomorrow today!"