Durban Climate Talks -- What Happened?

The international climate negotiations have wrapped up in Durban, South Africa. I'm curious as to what percent of Americans even knew that these negotiations were happening. There was zero build-up to the talks in the media and pretty sparse coverage of the event even while it was going on or once it was completed.

Sadly, it's an issue that's just not on Americans' radar right now. But sometimes, things happen because, not despite, being off the radar. Is Durban a case in point? Shh... Don't tell, but the U.S. did in fact sign... Just what, exactly? Let's look.

For many climate activists, scientists and delegates from small island nations that are dealing with climate change right now, the deal struck at Durban was woefully insufficient compared to the reality of climate change. But the "Durban Platform," as it's called, is at least something real -- a very small step towards bridging the gap between the what scientists say needs to be done to avoid dangerous climate change and our current reality.

Like any group project for school, this international group of negotiators dutifully procrastinated in its work until the last minute. But in this case, there was no teacher demanding their homework got turned in, so they allowed themselves to linger for almost 2 days after the talks were scheduled to end, finally negotiating a deal in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

Here's where it gets interesting. Typically, the negotiations room looks like pretty boring -- hundreds of negotiators sitting in rows facing a stage, each with a headset in to listen to the negotiations in their own language.

But by 4 a.m. on Sunday, the talks had condensed into what all present describe as a "huddle" with all the major players (U.S., EU, China, India) at the center, hammering out the language that finally made for a deal. See great pic here. (What language were they speaking? English? I'm so curious. Todd Stern, can you tell me?)

And it worked. For the first time ever, all countries signed on to a (here's the important part) legally binding agreement to reduce their CO2 emissions. Props go to European Union negotiators for pushing for the legally binding language and to the developing nations of China, India and Brazil for, for the first time, being willing to submit themselves to legally-binding (there's that term again -- hopefully we'll be hearing a lot more of it in the next few years) emissions reductions.

However, none of the legally binding talk applies to the CO2 we're emitting today. Nor will it apply for another, oh, 8 years. With global CO2 emissions increasing almost 6% in 2010, that's a lot more CO2 that's gonna go up in the atmosphere between now and then. The best they could do was to pledge to figure out all the details (how much CO2 to reduce, by whom and by when) over the next 4 years. Once that's decided by 2015, countries still have five years in which to comply.

It's the tiniest of tiny baby steps. One blogger likened it to asking a fire truck to come in 10 years when your house is on fire now. But creating an international agreement like this that the whole world agrees to, that can't happen overnight. Even 4 years will be tough. It's a step that has never before been taken and, for the first time, puts all the big guys under the same agreement. I call that a good thing.

Meanwhile, back home in California, yesterday Governor Jerry Brown convened his own climate change conference not to reduce the state's CO2 emissions (California already has one of the only laws in the country on mandatory reductions in emissions, called AB32), but to promote adaptation to climate change that's already occurring in California. Climate adaptation, largely in the form of wealthy nations funding developing nations' efforts to deal with climate impacts, is just one of the many issues yet to be tackled in the international negotiations over the next four years. We've got a long road ahead.