All Talk, Little Action, at UN Climate-Change Summit

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Janek Skarzynski / AFP / Getty

Former Vice President Al Gore speaks at the U.N. climate-change convention in Poznan, Poland

No one can bring apocalyptic foreboding to the climate-change debate quite like Al Gore. Speaking on the last day of the two-week-long U.N. climate-change summit in Poznan, Poland, which concluded on Dec. 12, the Nobel laureate warned delegates from over 190 countries that the time for idle talk on global warming was over. "We now face a crisis that makes it abundantly clear that increased CO2 emissions anywhere are a threat to the integrity of this planet's climate balance everywhere," he said. "As a result the old divide between the North and South, between developed and developing countries, is a divide that must become obsolete."

Gore received warm applause from the crowd, but it's not clear his message really got through. Though expectations for the annual summit weren't high, thanks in part to a leadership vacuum in the U.S. and the nagging distraction of a worldwide financial meltdown, neither were its accomplishments. More optimistic observers pointed to pledges from individual developing nations to cut their carbon emissions; under the Kyoto Protocol, those countries aren't actually required to take any concrete action on climate change. Mexico should take a bow — America's significantly poorer neighbor promised to cut carbon emissions 50% below 2002 levels by 2050, far in excess of anything the U.S. has pledged. India announced a plan to boost solar power, Brazil promised a 70% cut in its annual deforestation rate by 2017, and South Africa initiated a program to stop growth of its carbon emissions by 2025. "Developing countries are starting to signal an emerging willingness to take action," says Jake Schmidt, the international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. That's key, given the fact that developing countries — a category that encompasses nations as different as massive, polluting China and tiny Tuvalu, soon to be swallowed up by rising sea levels — will be responsible for the bulk of future carbon emissions. (See pictures of the effects of global warming.)

But it's important to realize that those actions were taken individually, effectively outside the U.N.'s negotiations framework. The point of the Poznan talks was to smooth the way for a new international pact on climate change next year in Copenhagen, to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. (If you're wondering why the world needs to come up with a new agreement to replace a pact that doesn't expire for another three years — well, that's U.N. speed.) And while U.N. officials maintained that Poznan set the stage for next year's deadline talks, most of the major issues — the division of responsibilities between rich and poor nations, tropical deforestation, sharing clean technology with developing countries — was effectively kicked to Copenhagen. (One exception were adaption funds — money to help poor countries counter the future impacts of climate change — with millions set to be released by the U.N. in the months following the summit.) "The lack of progress at Poznan merits outrage," said Barry Coates, senior executive of charity group Oxfam International."They have left themselves with a huge amount to do to secure a deal at Copenhagen next year."

It didn't help that on the same day the Poznan talks concluded, the European Union — long the world's carbon-cutting leader — took a step backward. Europe had previously pledged to reduce its carbon emissions 20% by 2020 — the so-called 20-20-20 plan — and in Brussels on Dec. 12, representatives confirmed that goal. But instead of forcing electric utilities to pay for the right to emit greenhouse gases — as a draft plan from earlier in the year had prescribed — the E.U. bowed to complaints from poorer nations in Eastern Europe, allowing utilities in those countries to continue getting many of their permits for free. (Environmentalists believe forcing utilities to pay for carbon permits accelerates emissions reductions, but utilities complain about the expense.) The pullback showed that for all of Europe's ambitious goals on climate change, it is hardly united on the issue, with the poorer East far less eager to embrace rapid reductions. That's the same daunting divide the world as a whole faces — and if the E.U. can't stay united, it doesn't bode well for the rest of us. (Read "How to Win the War on Global Warming.")

Ultimately, the immediate future of global climate-change action won't be decided in Brussels or Poznan but in Washington, D.C. — where there really is cause for hope. While President-elect Barack Obama (and his top emissaries) steered clear of the Poznan summit — understandable, since the Bush Administration's negotiating team was still in charge — at home the names of his climate and energy teams have been revealed. Lisa Jackson, a respected state official in New Jersey, will head the Environmental Protection Agency, while Carol Browner — head of the EPA under President Bill Clinton — will take a new position as "climate czar" to oversee the Administration's broad response to global warming. But most exciting of all to environmentalists and alternative-energy entrepreneurs is the appointment of Steven Chu, the current head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as Secretary of Energy. Believed to be the only Nobel Prize winner named to a presidential Cabinet (he won the Physics prize in 1997 for work involving lasers), Chu is "absolutely brilliant," according to Scott Anderson, a senior energy adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund. But more important, Chu — who put his research on hold in recent years to focus on climate change — understands that it will be technological leaps in the way we use energy that will truly whip warming, not U.N. summits.

See pictures of Obama's Cabinet choices.