Gary Braasch reports from the latest U.N. climate-change convention in Nairobi, Kenya. Braasch has been photographing and reporting on climate change since 1999. His forthcoming book, Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming Is Changing the World, will be published by the University of California Press next year.

The seasonal rains have returned to southern Kenya, greening the countryside once again. But in the north and east, near the Somalian border, refugee camps set up for those who lost everything in a deep drought earlier this year are suddenly being flooded out by this season’s unusually severe rains. Many see this rapid switch from drought to deluge as global warming in action — more searing droughts and stronger rainstorms in an intensifying cycle that affects the world’s very poorest.

Not far away, in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, officials and observers from around the world gathered for this year’s United Nations summit on climate change. Here, the severity and urgency of global warming should have seemed clearer to delegates than it did at last year’s frigid Montreal summit.

No continent is as vulnerable to climate disruption as Africa, and none harbors more poverty. That’s why it’s been a big deal to African nations that the 12th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was held for the first time in sub-Saharan Africa. Many African nations sent large delegations. African luminaries like Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan shed light on the plight of Africans in the face of global climate change. Environmental groups presented papers on threats to the continent.

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In the end, though, the conference generated the usual flood of words and paper, and a near-drought of immediate action on dealing with climate change.

Denmark and France, along with many international observers, led the way in outlining what this meeting needed to accomplish: the establishment of firm plans to continue past 2012 (when the Kyoto Protocol expires), to reduce emissions in much more significant amounts in years after that, and to ensure that the ongoing process is seamless with current procedures. Financial underwriting and investments which will reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars may be undercut if there is a gap after 2012, not to mention the loss of what little momentum there is on actually solving the huge climate issue. Considering how slowly the negotiation process moves, observers urged strong commitment at this meeting so that a plan could be officially agreed to over the next two conferences.

Late on Friday, the final day, the conference agreed to a 2008 review of the Kyoto Protocol, to allow for its strengthening and continuation. But the 39 nations that are the heaviest polluters within Kyoto could not agree how to set deeper cuts; they will continue talking about it next year, and they promised there would be no gap in commitments after 2012. (Notably missing from this are the U.S. and Australia, which did not ratify the Protocol, and China, which was considered a developing country at the time the Protocol was set up and has no set reduction targets.)

Several environmental groups here, displeased at this lack of action, did note that for the first time the conference acknowledged in writing reports by the U.N.’s scientific body that emissions must be reduced by half to start bringing global warming under control. The Kyoto rules now require only average reductions of 5 percent below 1990 levels from the developed countries.

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Developing nations in Africa and elsewhere scored a win when it was agreed that the Adaptation Fund set up by Kyoto — to help people prepare for and live with the effects of climate change — would be governed democratically among the nations, insuring the majority would be less advanced countries. This move reflects the growing understanding that rapid changes in climate are already affecting millions and that they need money to deal with it now.

The biggest excitement at these exceedingly dry meetings was provided by outside events, such as the princely arrival of Kofi Annan. It was classic pomp and circumstance: delegates lined up behind white cords to watch him stride down a red carpet. Moving within a cloud of aides and security men (one of whom looked like he was the model for Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire), Annan was escorted into a rapid sequence of meetings, speeches, and press conferences.

The world’s top diplomat, Annan avoided making any direct comments about specific nations, but he told reporters, “There are many leaders who are not taking climate change seriously,” and he urged those unnamed leaders to “show courage, knowing that people of the world will be with them.” It was obvious who he was referring to when he said that non-Kyoto nations “have a responsibility to their citizens and to the world.”

Politically, however, the greatest buzz came as word spread of the Democratic Party’s gains in the American midterm elections. Speculation was high that there would be an immediate shift in U.S. policy on climate. Misunderstanding of the American system got to the point that Steve Sawyer, Greenpeace’s chief observer, had to explain at a press conference that the U.S. was not a parliamentary democracy, and, no, President Bush was not immediately decamping to Crawford, Texas — he had more than two full years left in his term. Even with Democrats in control of Congress, progress may still be slow, Sawyer and other NGO leaders said, urging the convention to keep working and let the U.S. catch up as the political leadership continues to shift through the next presidential election.

Hopes were further dashed when the chief American negotiator, Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, said the mandate had not changed and continued to list voluntary programs as evidence of U.S. action. The U.S., while not as negative a force at these talks as it was in Montreal, nevertheless reportedly continued to throw up roadblocks within the negotiating rooms to agreement on future mandatory requirements and technology transfer.

More visible in challenging progress were Canada and Australia, both of which touted their own advances despite their large emissions. They are trying to get unproven carbon-capture-and-storage technology accepted as a mitigation project under Kyoto, even though it is still in the expensive R&D stage. Greenpeace’s Sawyer said the rich countries should go develop it themselves and present it later if it works. There was also pressure to include various types of reforestation in the clean-development program, but again NGOs warned that it could be a perverse incentive to log forests only to get credit for replanting later.

Annan announced a collaboration between the U.N. Environment Program and U.N. Development Program to begin helping countries integrate climate response into all national planning — what he called “climate proofing.” UNEP also provided a counterpoint to the convention’s slow technical discussions by presenting a series of simple solutions that are already being enacted. These included Wangari Maathai’s campaign to plant a billion trees, use of simple water-harvesting equipment, and drought insurance that can bring relief money to refugees much faster than traditional charity and national response. These types of immediate actions provide some hope that there are many ways to deal with climate change. Still, nations must agree to serious reductions in greenhouse gases and much more direct mitigation aid to the places like Africa that need it now.