12/14/2010 04:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What to Make of Cancun?

San Francisco -- I didn't go to Cancun this year, even though it was a sure bet that the weather would beat what I encountered a year ago in Copenhagen. But the Sierra Club was strongly represented -- and the real question is what to make of the outcome.

Opinion is all over the map. At the bleak side we have the perspective, most strongly articulated (among governments) by Ecuador, that this was an elaborate shell game designed to avoid real action and solidify ineffective market solutions that won't really address climate change.

At the other end, feeling very upbeat, we have the official U.S position, which, as articulated by Secretary of State Clinton, expressed satisfaction that "the Cancun Agreements (are) a set of balanced international decisions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which represent meaningful progress in our global response to climate change."

And opinions even from the mainstream media are wildly divergent. The New York Times was relatively positive, calling it  "a modest deal on emissions" and declaring that "while the measures adopted here may have scant near-term impact on the warming of the planet, the international process for dealing with the issue got a significant vote of confidence." But Bloomberg News was much grimmer,  speaking of a "dysfunctional" U.S. as having pushed a real global deal decades into the future.

Time magazine summed up the experience with five lessons, headlined by a "new pragmatism" signaled when the Mexican Chair of the conference refused to let Bolivia exercise the kind of one-party veto that has tied previous UNFCC conferences in knots:

  1. Multilateralism Isn't Dead Yet.
  2. China Can Negotiate.
  3. The Shock of Copenhagen Prompted Compromise in Cancun.
  4. Forests Are the Low-Hanging Fruit of Climate Policy.
  5. Don't Get Carried Away -- We've Still Got Huge Problems.

But looking from a distance, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that while the world is far from ready to do what it must with the substance of the climate threat, it is also true that the process has become the enemy, rather than the facilitator, of progress. At least half of the barriers to effective action on simple stuff -- including forests, but also technology transfer and action on short-term climate forcers like the hydrogen gasses or methane or black carbon -- involve broader issues of international trust and control, not the dollars and sense of a cleaner global economy.

Too much cumulative energy is still being spent on the big architecture of a far-distant global climate deal -- and not enough on changing the daily incentives and mechanisms that shape a world economy that is growing and changing each year. And almost no effort is being spent on making sure that the solutions most critical to the world's poor are being implemented -- no big initiatives to light off-grid villages for example.

We've got a serious leadership vacuum.