What the Heck Happened in Durban?

So what the heck happened in Durban? Is the world closer to dealing with the problem of global warming? Or not?

If, like me, you aren't a devotee of the UN climate negotiations, reading the headlines isn't much help.

From the glass-half-full crowd: Progress at end of Durban Cop17 climate talks (LA Times). Reason to smile about Durban climate conference (Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post). Climate deal salvaged after marathon talks (The Guardian).

From the pessimists: How the world failed to address climate change–again (Michael Levi at The Atlantic.com). The Durban climate deal failed to meet the needs of the developing world (The Guardian, again). COP out (South Africa's Cape Times).

COP out strikes me as about right. To gain some insight in what happened, and why, I called David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, the author of an excellent new book called Global Warming Gridlock and one of the smartest people I know when it comes to understanding global climate politics. David has followed the UN process closely since its beginnings in the early 1990s, and he has become convinced that it is the wrong way to deal with the climate threat.

Durban didn't change his mind.

"In terms of substance, they have not really achieved much," David says. "They've agreed to have negotiations about what they might agree to in the future."

To be sure, as the optimists argue, this is the first time that the governments of countries that are the biggest carbon emitters -- China, the United States, the EU and India -- have agreed to negotiate legally binding restrictions. That's a big change from the terms of the Kyoto protocol, which essentially excluded developing countries, among them China, the world's biggest carbon emitter.

But, as David writes in his book:

The world is full of promises that are not kept, and the study of international institutions is about understanding when those promises are credible and have an impact on behavior, and when they are smoke.

The so-called Durban platform is a promise to negotiate a new climate deal by 2015 to replace the Kyoto protocol and take effect in 2020. It's a commitment to "a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties." (If this doesn't strike you as faintly ridiculous, you've been spending too much time at the UN.) David, by the way, told me he read all the documents to emerge from Durban, explaining: "I was up at 4 o'clock this morning, and had nothing better to do, I guess."