You don't hear much about climate change any more, do you? But that doesn't mean it's gone away. The pollution driving rapid shifts in the global climate has actually increased by a record amount over the past year to the highest carbon output in history. But the number of column inches devoted to global warming correlate to the scale of the threat about as closely as media interest in credit default swaps before 2007 matched the impact they had when they helped blow up the global economy a year later.
Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred in the past decade, while the cap of summer sea ice at the top of the world that acts as our planet's air conditioner has diminished in volume by three-quarters in 30 years. These are our Northern Rocks and our Bear Stearns, and the carbon debt loaded onto the atmosphere is now so large that it's only a matter of time before we face an environmental Lehman Brothers.
So I ask you to imagine there had been a conference in 2006 attended by almost every country on Earth devoted to neutralizing the threat from sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps. Imagine also that 99% of the world's leading economists had written a series of reports detailing exactly how and when the bomb at the heart of the financial system would explode. And now imagine that at that conference the Americans assembled an international coalition to sabotage any action whatsoever to do anything about it.
Welcome to the Durban climate talks.
It's always seemed to me incongruous that the negotiations to agree a deal to prevent dangerous climate change -- a global pact to fundamentally alter the relationship between our energy economy and the natural world -- are held in air-conditioned conference center so sterile that they rarely contain a single plant, tree or even one of those herb pots you can buy at Morrisons.
I'm told that the conference center in Durban, where the climate talks landed this week, is slightly better acquainted with the real world than was the case at the last two annual climate summits in Copenhagen and Cancun. That said, the UK ministers who will have to do the deal (and who start arriving from tomorrow) are staying at the Hilton, inside the secure zone, and can therefore spend their entire time in Africa without actually witnessing life on the continent that's in the front line of rising temperatures.
Talking of Hiltons, rumors are circulating in Durban that the UK prime minister's policy guru Steve Hilton has jettisoned his sandals and is boasting of his new-found climate skepticism, thus aping the cynicism of Stewart Pearson, his character in The Thick Of It, while George Osborne this week articulated an analysis of the value of nature that wouldn't have been amiss coming from the mouth of Dick Cheney. All this leaves Chris Huhne looking like an increasingly isolated figure at home, but in Cancun he played a central role in keeping the Kyoto Protocol alive and in South Africa he will carry the hopes of people who still expect Britain to play a constructive role at these talks.
But whatever the state of the shifting sands of Britain's political culture, the big question in Durban is whether an extraordinarily obstructive Obama administration is days away from killing this process and burying its corpse next to the Doha round of trade talks.
The stakes really are that high.
Huhne and his colleagues face a host of complex issues -- but for me three stand out: do we keep the Kyoto Protocol alive, can we set up a fund to pay for poorer countries to cope with climate change and build clean energy, and when do we sign the next deal, the one that really nails the carbon beast? But in the end a good deal can't be struck here unless Obama orders his delegation to radically change course.
First off, Kyoto. The popular misconception is that this iconic treaty expires next year. Not so. In reality the first period of emissions cuts under the treaty runs out in 2012, but it was always the intention that we'd then have other commitment periods, each one forcing countries to cut their carbon deeper and deeper. A host of regressive governments have come to Durban determined to make Africa the graveyard of the Protocol, to be replaced with some kind of wishy-washy voluntary agreement. But keeping Kyoto is important because it's the global rulebook on how to cut carbon across dozens of countries in a way that's verifiable and legally binding. If you kill "the KP" (as people on the conference circuit call it) you take us back to square one and a new rulebook to replace it becomes almost impossibly hard to agree. Burying it just because the first commitment period is ending would be like abolishing a country's constitution after every election then starting talks on writing a new one. The people who want to do that to Kyoto want to spark chaos, arguments and endless debate.
Next up, the Green Climate Fund. This is a body set up to administer a pot of money to pay for the poorest countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change and to support them in protecting their forests and building cleaner power stations. One of the essential things Durban should achieve is for this Fund to be made operational -- that means agreeing how it works based on the recommendations of a committee of experts that's been working all year on developing its architecture. But some countries are trying to reopen negotiations on what the recommendations are, meaning Ministers may not now be able to sign off on the Fund when they arrive this week, and that in turn would mean the countries relying on that cash won't have an incentive to agree a wider deal.
Which countries are blocking this process? Step forward Saudi Arabia, of course, but in a re-run of the last decade of stalled progress, Obama's America has also thrown a monkey wrench into the push to get the Fund on its feet.
Finally, the last of those big three issues -- when does the world sign the next deal, the mega-agreement, the one that will do what Copenhagen was meant to do? In Durban the alliance of small islands states (the countries facing nothing less than eradication this century) want the new deal signed next year. The EU, meanwhile, is pushing the timetable a bit, saying it wants the new deal signed in 2015. But there are other countries (foremost among them the U.S.) which say we should only starting talking about that deal at the end of this decade, with a view to signing it sometime later, with any new emissions cuts agreed under it kicking in after that.
Yup, you thought Copenhagen was the last chance. Now Obama's team and its allies are aggressively pushing for the deal we were meant to get back then to be signed more than eleven years later, and to be weaker than the one we needed in 2009.
Here's an indication of how far Obama has strayed from his election campaign rhetoric. (Remember that speech, how the oceans would now stop rising?) His senior negotiator in South Africa, Jonathan Pershing, opened the talks with a claim that there are "infinite pathways" to a real deal that don't include deep carbon cuts before 2020. Let's just quickly pick apart that geek-speak. What he's saying is that there's no need for the U.S. to make worthwhile cuts before 2020 because we'd still avoid dangerous climate change by doing all the heavy lifting after that date. Pershing's statement drew gasps of incredulity in Durban, not just because a graph of US emissions under his plan would have to look like an Evel Knievel stunt-jump gone wrong, soaring upwards before crashing along a vertical line. No, the surprise was because just a few years ago he was a key member of an illustrious UN committee that recommended cuts of between 25-40% by 2020 to avoid those dangerous temperature rises.
On the big issues in Durban, Obama's team is standing in the way. It's not simply that he can't sign an ambitious deal because Congress wouldn't ratify it -- the real issue here is that he's actively sabotaging the efforts of more progressive countries to take this process forward. That could change with a single call from America's first African-American president to the delegation acting in his name.On the weekend of the failure of Copenhagen I wrote:
"...In a single day, in a single space, a spectacle was played out in front of a disbelieving audience of people who have read and understood the stark warnings of humanity's greatest scientific minds. And what they witnessed was nothing less than the very worst instincts of our species articulated by the most powerful men who ever lived."
We will soon learn if South Africa is the final denouement of that process, or if instead the continent most threatened by rising temperatures sees the birth of a wholly new dynamic in which this process catches up with the science. Much needs to happen in the next few days, starting with a telephone call from the oval office to the Durban Hilton.
A version of this article first appeared in the Independent on Sunday