In preparing for the upcoming climate talks in Cancun less than two weeks away, I can’t help but look back at where things were a year ago.

One year ago, the world’s leaders couldn’t stop talking about solving climate change. The media was in a frenzy, tallying up commitments from presidents and prime ministers to attend the Copenhagen negotiations, which would eventually lead toward perhaps the largest-ever gathering of heads of state.

With all the attention, expectations were high. Leaders from Obama to Jintao to Chavez to Zenawi to Merkel had committed to reaching an agreement in Copenhagen that would put us on a path toward solving the climate crisis.

So it was with some irony that I awoke one morning last week to an article in The Onion, the satirical newspaper, with the headline “Report: Global Warming Issue From 2 Or 3 Years Ago May Still Be Problem.”  The article details, with considerable irony, the ways in which climate change — an issue that even just a year ago was at the top of so many important minds — has somehow been lost in the fray of so many other issues, especially here in the U.S.  

Today, as I work with my colleagues in the Climate Action Network to prepare for the Cancun climate talks, we are admittedly struggling to find a balance between learning the lessons from Copenhagen while at the same time pushing for what we know is so urgently needed.

Truth is, we needed a fair, ambitious, and binding international climate agreement yesterday. Just because we didn’t achieve it in Copenhagen doesn’t mean the physics has changed (in fact, it only looks worse).

But unfortunately, there’s another truth we are all grappling with: We’re not going to get a comprehensive agreement in Cancun. Try as we might, it doesn’t appear we’re going to change this reality any more in the next month than we’ll change the reality that the climate is warming rapidly.

So, what to do? What can we achieve in Cancun? How can we move forward effectively in spite of the politics, overcoming the mistrust in the U.N. process resulting from the failures of Copenhagen and recognizing the extreme urgency of the problem?

I contend there’s some hope amidst the dire predictions, if we focus on three things: 

1)    We need to recognize it’s not the process that’s the problem, it’s the politics.  

After Copenhagen, many reporters, politicians, and “thought leaders” quickly rushed to the conclusion that the U.N. process was dying. Better start looking to other forums for achieving an international climate agreement, they said, because the UNFCCC is broken. Even recently, The New York Times published a preemptive obituary for the UNFCCC talks.

But before we bury the U.N. process, let’s have a look at what these other forums have achieved. The G20 in 2009 said it would phase out fossil-fuel subsidies. Have they? Not according to all the reports I’ve seen. The Major Economies Forum helped to put forward a series of technology roadmaps, which are great in theory but in practice have meant little. The G8? It has been rapidly overshadowed by other forums, like the G20 (see above).

So, what forum truly carries with it the voices of everyone affected by this problem? What forum addresses the myriad interlinked issues needing to be addressed in order to solve the climate crisis? The answer is that there just isn’t anything better than the UNFCCC. And after a few months of griping earlier this year, many parties (including the U.S., mind you) have come back to recognizing this.  Meanwhile, the politics in many countries either haven’t changed or have gotten worse with respect to generating action on climate change. To paraphrase an early ‘90s campaign phrase, “It’s the politics (not the process), stupid.”

2)    We need to not be afraid of successes, even if they are small.  

In Copenhagen, we were all looking for THE Agreement. I’ll admit it, even in the few weeks before the talks, when things appeared to be going poorly, I was holding out hope that there would be some quasi-miraculous moment that would turn the talks around and generate enough momentum to achieve something truly world changing. How could so many heads of state be gathered in the same place and not achieve something? Well, we were wrong — the negotiations weren’t ready and what we got was a face-saving political document that no one was happy with.  

Today, as we start the sprint toward Cancun, no one is expecting the outcome to be what Copenhagen should have achieved. We in the Climate Action Network are looking to achieve a set of building blocks in Cancun on a number of important issues that can move us substantially down the road toward a full agreement at a later (hopefully not too late) date. We’ve outlined these building blocks in this publication.

While these building blocks may not be the final agreements we want, they could be quite substantial. For instance, we’re calling for the establishment of a global fund on climate change. This fund could serve as an incredibly important vehicle to channel money and resources to ensure the most vulnerable countries in the world can adapt to the terrible effects of climate change. Not a small achievement if we get it right. We’re also hoping for a number of technical agreements regarding reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). If we get these agreements, we’ll be well on our way toward cutting deforestation all over the world. Considering its effects on global warming, biodiversity, and so many other factors, agreement on appropriate REDD programs would be a huge achievement. What else? Agreement on how to funnel the right technologies to those who need them through regional centers of technology excellence. Getting clean energy to the poor? I’ll take it.

Of course, this isn’t to say that our work will be done after Cancun. Far from it. But let’s be willing to look at the potential outcomes in Cancun, with our integrities fully intact, and celebrate success where we find it. Surely we’ll need to point out the shortcomings that we see, but let’s not be blind to achievements that we might be able to trumpet as well.

3)    We need to get to work.  

Given the delay in getting a full international agreement to address climate change, it’s as clear as ever that we need to begin implementing whatever we can, wherever we can, to address this issue. Luckily, a lot is already happening at the local and state levels (just look to California voters rejecting Prop 23!).  

But even at the international level, we need to get to work despite slow progress. In the much-debated Copenhagen Accord, developed countries associated with it agreed to mobilize $10 billion a year over the following three years (2010 through 2012) to support climate activities. Depending on what reports you read, that commitment has been barely reached, stolen from other coffers such as development aid, or not achieved at all. That’s not good enough. Further, the parties agreed to mobilize $100 billion annually starting in 2020. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s high-level panel on climate finance recently National Adaptation Plans of Action (NAPAs) and are ready to implement them if they only have the resources to do so. Let’s get these NAPAs funded already! The list of seemingly small but vital tasks goes on.

However, governments aren’t the only ones that need to get to work. We in  civil society need to as well. We need to be sure that any momentum generated in Cancun is seized and built upon in 2011 as we move toward the next round in South Africa. We need to build political alliances in key countries to generate more will for change and action. We need to fight the business interests that are so invested in the dirty status quo.  

Some are already getting to work, as our friends at 350.org showed us with their Global Work Party on Oct. 10. Millions of citizens around the world picked up shovels and hammers and joined hands to get to work. If they can do it, why can’t we?

One of the biggest lessons from Copenhagen was that this issue will not be solved in one conference.  The work has already started, and isn’t stopping anytime soon.  As we make our way towards Cancun, let’s keep in mind that action is needed urgently.  However, let’s also make progress and agree where we can, change the politics where agreements aren’t possible yet, and make those agreements that have already been made a reality on the ground.