5. The U.N. climate process saves itself

COP16

The run-up to the Copenhagen climate talks in December 2009 set expectations absurdly high, with a frenzy of apocalyptic rhetoric (“the last chance to save humanity!”) and the attribution of almost magical powers to Barack Obama. When those talks dissolved into a farce of back-biting, secret meetings, and paralysis — limping out, just barely, with a non-binding, much-disputed set of commitments labeled an “accord” — many observers predicted that the U.N. climate process was done for good and that small groups like the G20 would be the site of any real progress.

Copenhagen cartoonPopa

Mexico's Patricia EspinosaPatricia Espinosa Cantellano, Mexican foreign secretary and president of COP16, is credited with deft leadership.Negotiators arrived in Cancun with Copenhagen weighing heavily on them, fully aware that another failure could mean the end of the effort entirely. To everyone’s surprise, and thanks in large part to the deftness and transparency of the Mexican negotiators leading the meetings, the process ended with something that looks like success. Modest success, yes. Success that leaves many tough questions unanswered, yes. But forward motion for a process desperately in need of it.

In coming years, after decades of rhetoric, the world’s nations will put in place practical, measurable policies. Pragmatism will replace poetry — a less inspiring foundation, but a sturdier one. In many ways, the U.N. climate process has undergone the same whiplash process as the Obama administration over the last two years: inflated expectations, bitter disappointment, and at last the resolve to press forward with slow, slogging, but steady steps.