Andres Oppenheimer

More than 6,000 environmental officials from throughout the world started a new round of United Nations talks in Cancun, hoping to reduce global warming. But they are likely to fail, because the world has become a less eco-friendly place in recent months.

Although 2010 will be one of the hottest years in recorded history, and greenhouse gas emissions are expected to reach record highs, there are several reasons why the United States, China and other big world polluters are even less likely to sign a binding deal in Cancun than at last year's failed meeting in Copenhagen.

First, no matter what the Obama administration signs in Cancun, the new U.S. Congress that was elected in the Nov. 2 elections will be considerably less prone to act on climate change than the outgoing one.

There will be 11 new senators and 36 House members -- many of them ultra-conservative Republicans -- in the new Congress who don't believe that global warming is caused by man, according to the center-left Center for American Progress. Overall, 162 of the 289 Republicans in the 112th Congress will be "deniers," it says.

"The new Congress will certainly have more climate-skeptics than the previous Congress," Andrew Light, the center's director of international climate policy, told me. "Currently, the Republican leadership is debating the extent to which they will use various committees in the House of Representatives as a forum to put climate science on trial."

Indeed, the leading candidates to chair the Republican-controlled House Science and Technology Committee are Rep. Ralph M. Hall of Texas, who has expressed doubts about man-made global warming, and Dana Rohrabacher of California, who was quoted by as saying that he wants to use the House panel as a bully pulpit to fight ideas such as man-made global warming, which he described as "a total fraud."

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, in turn, could be chaired by John Simkus of Illinois, who said at a congressional hearing last year that the Bible teaches that climate change won't destroy the planet, according to Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.

Second, China, which recently surpassed the United States as the world's biggest source of greenhouse gases, has become a bigger player in world politics, and is more assertive in its refusal to sign binding agreements that would allow international monitoring of each country's gas emissions. The Chinese feel that would set a precedent for international scrutiny in other areas, including human rights.

Third, European countries, much like the United States, are anxious that their economic recovery is taking longer than previously thought, are less enthusiastic about adopting environmental measures that could further slow economic growth.

Kaweh Zahedi, the United Nations Environmental Program climate change coordinator, told me that while there are virtually no expectations for a mega-agreement in Cancun, "we still expect to come out of Cancun with some concrete decisions," such as promoting green technologies and setting up a Green Fund to help poor countries deal with global warming.

But even in the unlikely event that the Cancun meeting produced a mandatory agreement along the lines proposed last year in Copenhagen, "it would fall short" of what is needed to keep global warming from rising above 2 degrees centigrade in coming decades, he said.

My opinion: The new political realities in the United States and China will make it difficult to reach an enforceable world deal in Cancun, or at next year's U.N. conference in South Africa, or even at the 2012 meeting in Brazil. That's because if governments sign a piece of paper ordering mandatory cuts on greenhouse gas emissions, it will not be ratified by the U.S. Congress, or enforced by the Chinese government, at least over the next two or three years.

I used to think that individual eco-friendly actions such as driving a fuel-efficient car or asking your cashier at the supermarket to use fewer plastic bags were quixotic gestures, and that global warming could only be solved via an international agreement.

But with the world getting warmer every day and little likelihood that governments will reach any binding deal anytime soon, I'm beginning to change my mind. If we don't start taking actions from the bottom up, we may end up baked by the sun before the U.N. conference takes real action.


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