12/19/2011 10:08 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2012

What's Next Now That the Durban Climate Negotiations Are Behind Us?

The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead died more than 60 years ago, but he could have been talking about the Durban climate conference when he said, "Necessity is the mother of invention is a silly proverb. Necessity is the mother of futile dodges is much nearer the truth."

Reactions to the Durban outcome have ranged from "landmark achievement" to "utter failure to save the climate," and in some respects both sentiments are true precisely because of the 'dodging' necessary to reach any international agreement in our polarized world.

The good news is that Durban set the stage for negotiating legally-binding commitments that will eventually cover all countries. The bad news is that these commitments may turn out to be about 10 years too late, with commitments too low to keep global warming reigned in.

Does a glass half-empty/half-full metaphor come to mind? As one colleague observed, "It is not a half full or half empty glass, it is the commitment to have a glass, and its shape, integrity, durability and whether it gets filled at all is what we now have to work on..." In the meantime, we remain on a pathway to a frightening 4° world, when scientists tell us we should be shooting for 1.5-2° max.

Much has been written about what happened in Durban, so there's no need for me to repeat it here. The more important question now is what happens next.

For a start, what is Durban's take-home message for businesses? Companies must make long-term investment decisions based in part on what rules and costs they expect to face in the future. If they believe legislation will substantially drive up the price of carbon within the next 10 years, they may well think twice before investing in high carbon infrastructure.

If they believe energy efficiency measures will yield high financial returns in future, they may choose to invest scarce resources now. In the absence of such signals, other priorities are likely to prevail. Investing in energy efficiency may make economic sense, but in the absence of legislation, it may not be as lucrative as other investments. Why would you bother picking up $5 bills off the ground if $20 bills were there for the taking?

At first glance, the news isn't good. As one business sustainability expert commented, "The agreement reached was more of a victory for the UN process than for the global climate, or in creating a new business imperative. Business will shrug its shoulders over Durban and wait for direction from national capitals."

On second look, the news could be even worse. In a recent piece for the Financial Times, Nicholas Stern -- lead author of the seminal report on the economics of climate change -- argued:

As the negotiations at the UN climate change summit in Durban reach the critical stage, we must not overlook a fundamental contradiction between the way global fossil fuel reserves are evaluated and long-term policy goals.

He cites the analysis of the Carbon Tracker Initiative and points out that...

(P)roven reserves of fossil fuels, the big majority owned by nation states, would, if burned, produce 2.8 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide, about double the carbon budget for the 50-50 chance of meeting the 2 degrees target.. (T)here is a profound contradiction between declared public policy and the valuations of these listed companies, based on their fossil fuel reserves, which appear to assume that the world will not get anywhere near its targets for managing climate change.

In other words, financial markets are banking on a failure to implement meaningful climate policy.

There is some good news, however. For one thing, governments in Durban for the first time formally recognized "with grave concern" the massive gap between what they have collectively pledged to do and what the climate needs us to do. Like a recovering alcoholic's first step in a ten point recovery plan, it's an important start.

So despite the fact that an international legally-binding agreement may yet be five to ten years away, if governments are pressed hard enough to close the ambition gap sooner rather than later, investment strategies may change rapidly.

And where does the climate movement go from here? In some respects, Durban felt like a watershed moment -- would governments finally rise to the challenge, or run out the clock with incremental steps? Most NGOs believe the latter but came away from Durban fired up to keep fighting for the future we want. Here is my initial take on where our priorities should lie:

1) We are a diverse movement, and a diverse approach is needed. We shouldn't have to choose between campaigning for a strong international climate agreement, OR campaigning against long term carbon lock-in (think coal, tar sands, deep-sea oil drilling), OR campaigning for low carbon development and a green economy. We need to do all of these things. All roads lead to the same destination: increasing ambition and closing the "gigaton gap." The Rio +20 conference next June could be an important opportunity to weave these strands together.

2) Follow the money. A new report by the International Forum on Globalization titled "Outing the Oligarchy" identifies the top 50 people from around the world "whose investments benefit from climate change and whose influence networks block efforts to phase out pollution from fossil fuels." Likewise, Greenpeace's report "Who's Holding Us Back?" documents "how carbon-intensive industry is preventing effective climate change legislation."

Campaigners should continue to shine a spotlight on these vested interests, and if ever there were a time to go all out to end fossil fuel subsidies, now would be it. Fossil fuels were subsidized in 2010 to the tune of $409 billion, as compared to $64 billion for renewables. This is a no-brainer.

3) Increase political will by changing the public discourse. One thing stood out in Durban by its absence -- no government denied the scientific imperative to get emissions under control as quickly as possible. The debate was all about who is responsible for fixing the problem, and when it will happen. Climate skeptics were utterly irrelevant to the decision-making process. Despite their best efforts to confuse the public, recent opinion polls show that even in the US where climate skepticism arguably is at its strongest, a large majority of Americans (65%) understand that climate change is affecting US weather, and 66% believe the US should sign an international treaty requiring emissions cuts of 90% by 2050.

We must work to change the discourse from whether to act, to how best to act; from how dangerous climate change is, to how survivable it will be if we act quickly; from burden sharing, to benefit sharing because after all, there are so many other good reasons to cure our addiction to fossil fuels.

As Whitehead reminds us, now is the time to "...speak out in acts; the time for words has passed, and only deeds will suffice."

What do you think should be the priority for climate campaigners and how do we now turn words into action?