Have you been hearing chatter at cocktail parties and on witty webzines about a big climate-change bash in Bali? Wondering what the deal is? We’re so glad you asked.

The action in Bali isn’t on the beach.

Photo: iStockphoto

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The rumors are true: From Dec. 3 to Dec. 14, more than 15,000 people from 190 nations will gather in Bali, Indonesia: politicians, bureaucrats, nosy reporters, earnest activists — the usual party-hearty crowd. They’ll give due respect to the “global” in global warming, and discuss what to do about it — in particular, what should be done after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. The goal is to come up with a framework for a brand-new global climate treaty.

If it seems like it was only two years ago that there was a highly anticipated meeting of nations gathering for the same reason, well, that’s because there was — in Montreal, Canada. We put together a comprehensive backgrounder on climate negotiations in the run-up to that conference, but here’s a quick refresher:

In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (its friends call it UNFCCC) was born as a nonbinding treaty aiming to address global climate change. It was ratified by 189 countries, which then began to meet regularly at conferences to hold the UNFCCC accountable to its goals. The third Conference of the Parties (COP3) was held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, and produced the Kyoto Protocol: a binding legal agreement that required developed countries to meet specific targets for reducing emissions of pesky, planet-warming greenhouse gases. The U.S., of course, did not ratify the protocol; it may soon become the only developed country to hold out, as Australia’s newly elected prime minister has promised to push through ratification any day now.

The Bali meeting will be the 13th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP13) — and the 13th time is the charm, right? The targets set by the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012, and as most folks are finally catching on that climate change ain’t just gonna go away, many politicos are eager to whip up an effective successor.

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Will anything significant happen in Bali? Hard to say.

The oomph behind calls for action to combat climate change is certainly oomphier than ever. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has produced three significant reports (and a snazzy summary) declaring in no uncertain terms that climate change is happening and we need to do something about it — stat. “Green” has never been so much in the public consciousness as it is now. World leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have all made climate change a top priority.

But, of course, there’s one world leader who’s still not yet on board — George W. Bush. U.S. representatives have played the obstructionist role in past climate negotiations, and we wouldn’t bet against them this time. Canada under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been a laggard on climate change too. Big oil-producing nations aren’t anxious to see action, either.

Meanwhile, economic juggernauts China and India are loathe to sign on to any binding emissions targets — they were just fine with the Kyoto Protocol’s approach, which required cuts only from developed countries, thankyouverymuch. But while China, India, and other developing countries haven’t contributed nearly as much to the existing climate problem as the U.S. and other rich nations, now — with their rapidly growing economies and populations — they’re poised to help make the problem much, much worse. China will soon bump the U.S. out of its slot as No. 1 greenhouse-gas emitter; in fact, some researchers think it already has. (Of course, on a per capita basis, the U.S. still kicks China’s ass.)

Can all these restive cats be herded in one direction? Will the conference-goers really leave their jackets and ties at home, as UNFCCC chief Yvo de Boer has suggested, as a way to cut back on the need for air-conditioning? If they do, will the party degenerate to togas? We’ll keep you posted about both sartorial and political developments in Bali — because we want you to be the know-it-all at those cocktail parties.

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