Cancun was not a surprise. Nor was it a failure. This much is easy to say.
But was it a success? This is a more difficult question. I used to have an irritating friend. Every time you made a strong, implausibly simple claim – something like “Cancun was a success” – he would reply “Compared to what?” It was a pedantic device, but it worked well enough. It made you think, which, I suppose, is why it was irritating.
Compared to what the science demands, Cancun was obviously a failure. The Climate Tracker crew made that clear in an evaluation filed before most people even got home – if the pledges in the Cancun Agreements are delivered upon, but only just barely, the result would be at least 3.2C of warming, and possibly far more – the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere would be about 650 ppm in 2100.
Why then wasn’t Cancun a failure? Because, just maybe, it will put us onto a better road. Because it was so closely managed that, even in the face of immense discord and multi-polarity, it managed to produce a weak – though substantive – agreement. Because, though doubt is everywhere, it could be the breakthrough that its partisans claim it is. Because, in any case, we’ve lived to fight another day, and the UN-based multilateral climate negotiations have been relegitimized, at least for the moment. Which is why most of the assembled NGOs, citing a pre-Cancun study by UK think tank E3G, decided that the Cancun outcome met the qualifications for the “Lifeline scenario”:
“Skillful diplomacy led by the Mexican Presidency provides just enough substance to move the process forward; and does not compromise environmental integrity of reaching a global deal in the future… This scenario provides sufficient movement on key issues and rolls the negotiation process forwards another year, but must contain a high degree of trust and confidence to prevent moving back into Zombie.”
The Zombie scenario, suffice it to say, would have been worse.