Three Sleepless Nights in a Global Emergency

Bill Blakemore/ABC

"What will the humans do?" Contentious nations bound by climate and empathy

Nature's Edge Notebook - Durban Diary

DURBAN, South Africa - COP-17

In the end, they made a deal - kept the conversation among 195 nations intact, advanced the contracts of cooperation and prevented the feared collapse of these global climate treaties that have been evolving for more than 20 years in the planet-wide struggle to stave off at least the worst catastrophic impacts of man made global warming.

While the world was distracted by peaceful "Occupy" demonstrations spreading across Russia, more deadly government violence bearing down in Syria, and, in America, another debate among Republicans vying to run against U.S. President Barack Obama in next year's election, the delegates here in this huge convention center worked straight through the third night in a row.

It is hard work to get 195 nations to agree on anything, much less complex emissions reductions schedules and credit and loan guarantees linked to damage projections and scientifically calibrated precipitation scenarios.

Work that is, in the parlance of diplomacy, "highly technical."

In side rooms around the giant plenary hall, working groups broke into smaller working groups that then reported back to other larger working groups as they re-assessed and scribbled in the margins of documents with labels like FCCC/AWGLCA/2011/L.4 - symbols that make perfect sense to the expert diplomats whose jobs are to show precisely how negotiators' general promises may turn into action that actually gets the right molecules in sea and sky moved around to the promised places.

They swim through such phrases as "Recalling decision 1/CP.16, paragraph 128, on the work programme for the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action on technology development and transfer with a view to the Conference of the Parties taking a decision on, among other things, a call for …." and "Agrees that, regardless of the source or type of financing, the activities referred to in decision 1/CP.16, paragraph 70, should be consistent with the relevant provisions included in decision 1/CP.16, including the safeguard in its appendix 1, in accordance with …"

And out of their endless work and attention to thousands of details came the morning's headlines: The Kyoto Protocol binding many nations - but not the US, China or India - to strict carbon emission cuts was not only saved, but there was now an agreement among all nations - including the U.S., China and India - that by 2015, all countries would affirm binding legal agreements on carbon emissions that would go into effect by 2020.

There would also be a "Green Climate Fund" of $100 billion a year by which rich nations, who put the lion's share of the invisible heat-trapping gases in the air, would assist poor nations, who put little in the air, adapt as best they can to the painful disruptions and displacements from global warming that are increasingly frequent.

Many science groups, humanitarian aid organizations and smaller nations emphasized, however, that the agreements still left an enormous gap between what was being promised and what is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change - possibly arriving even by mid-century.

There were hopeful declarations from the floor that, at the very least, the example of Europe and other Kyoto Protocol signatories might inspire "higher ambitions" among the big emitters who are responsible for most of the problem.

How does a world of sometimes contentious nations - having listened to each others' reports from home describing the daunting impacts of man made global warming - manage to reach agreement on how to grapple with this monstrous, unprecedented problem?

None of these nations wanted to be here.

But two simple stark scientific facts bind them to an ongoing diplomacy they cannot walk away from.

First, the molecules in one puff of heat-trapping greenhouse gas - even one puff of your breath - will spread out around the entire hemisphere by the planet's endlessly swirling winds, scientists estimate, within three or four weeks.

It takes a little longer for them to cross the equator, but within a few years they will be scattered all over the globe.

Global warming is thus an exquisitely borderless problem. Any greenhouse gas emitters quickly add to everyone's shared problem.

That means that every nation in the enormous plenary hall - big and little, rich and poor - had standing. Every delegate knew every other delegate was wrestling with climate problems.

Second, the advancing upheaval of man made global warming is "a problem that you cannot walk back," in the words of one NGO observer in the huge plenary hall, Fred Huette from Portland Ore., co-leader of the Sierra Club's Climate Group.

Everyone in the great hall knew what the world's climate scientists have long determined - and a growing number of school children know: even if humanity's most ambitious dreams of cutting greenhouse emissions succeed, global warming will advance - worsen -over the next few decades.

By the time today's toddlers are just entering their twenties, they will be living with a world of more drought, flood, wildfire, extinctions, desertification, surges of climate refugees, soaring food and insurance prices… and they will know why. Their parents and school teachers will have included an explanation of past and current fossil fuel emissions and global warming as part of the hard news children must learn if they are to thrive in a world more daunting than today's.

These facts are accepted by all negotiators from the 195 nations around the world. There is no longer any debate about them at the annual UN climate summits. And it is a given for the negotiators that they are all in this together.

At times there even seems to be among them a sort of grudging empathy for each other, even among rivals.

For example, the three biggest "bad guys" in these global climate negotiations are America, China and India - leading emitters of greenhouse gas who, to the chagrin of European and other countries, have not been bound by the carbon reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol.

All three countries wanted a deal in which any legally binding agreements on carbon cuts wouldn't be expected until the year 2020 while Europe and most of the other Kyoto countries wanted it three years sooner, in 2017.

These three extra years were a contested issue as the final night of negotiations wore on.

European and other countries insisted the big three needed to impose discipline on themselves and face the music - prepare for stricter emissions cuts sooner, which would mean retooling their energy plants sooner - breaking the coal habit, converting sooner to alternative energy sources.

Everyone knew that the negotiators for the big three had domestic pressures awaiting them back home.

China and India had burgeoning middle classes and new businesses eager to grow.

The United States had an election year ahead in which one party (the Republicans) was mounting an offensive against any action that might regulate carbon emissions.

Although it was understood that the U.S., China and India would only agree to signing on to a process that expected universally binding agreements on carbon cuts starting in 2020, not 2017, at 1:15 a.m. this morning, there was even the sound of possible compromise, when Connie Hedegaard, the chief climate negotiator for Europe, suggested the year 2018 as the year for binding emission cuts to begin.

Then the delegate from India - her image projected on giant screens around the hall - delivered an impassioned statement saying, in effect, that the major rich country that caused the problem - the U.S. - needed to start making cuts first.

Then the image of the delegate from China was seen by all up on the screens delivering a forceful and indignant statement, saying effectively the same thing.

America, whose lucrative industry has put by far the biggest portion of excess greenhouse gas into the air, and is thus the single most responsible for the warming so far, is also the only major country with a vigorous anti-science movement that is reported to be supported, ironically, by lobbies for the science-savvy fossil fuel industry - an effort that is so far succeeding in blocking all federal legislation to regulate U.S. carbon emissions.

Everybody in the giant room knew this, and that America has been insisting that China and India must also start limiting their emissions.

Otherwise, American negotiators have insisted, there is no chance of slowing global warming in time to avoid the worst.

Outside the huge convention center in the dark, it was raining. Clouds blocked any light from the full moon.

Inside, the plenary sessions drove on toward morning.

In the giant room, the professional diplomats pressed ahead - making focused, passionate, controlled statements, conferring behind closed doors on language they would have to take back to their governments and people. They were awake, dogged - this is their specialty.

Every seat was taken - several thousand people all together at 3 in the morning, and 4 and 5 - people sitting on the floor with laptops - delegates, journalists - all following this planetary drama.

Out in the hallways and up above them on the overhanging mezzanine balconies, a few journalists - struggling with time zones or with the enormity of the story they were trying to convey - had fallen asleep, here on a bench near the front entrance, there against a wall on the carpeted floor surrounded by a tangle of electric communication and computer wires.

Bright morning came.

Climate scientists, whose computers are getting better every year at projecting complex outcomes, say they understand pretty well all the elements and factors they need to feed into their mega-computers to predict what the climate will do - the dynamics of the oceans and atmosphere, the ice and the forests - all factors except one:

What they cannot predict - what they constantly ask - is "What will the humans do?"

Through three sleepless nights, the humans gathered in Durban from around the world did something definite, if not perfect, and kept the coordinated species-wide efforts to deal with this immense problem on track and still hopeful.

By midday Sunday, sunlight sparkled out on the Indian Ocean under a cloudless sky - freighters rocking gently at anchor just off-shore while further out in the deep, benthic currents, thousands of feet down, arriving from distant seas, were carrying ever warmer temperatures in the unbroken planetary conveyor belt system of borderless flowing waters, surfacing and diving, surfacing and diving, constantly sharing warmth - and CO2 - with the swirling and borderless air.

Read our complete coverage of the  Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC):