The United Nations Conference on Climate Change under way since Dec. 3 on the tropical Indonesian island of Bali has oscillated between optimism and quiet reserve.
The 12-day event is a thermometer of the success or failure of a strategic anti-global warming treaty that should emerge in two years. But the forecast is confidential.
The four issues at the core of the talks are the mitigation of climate change, adaptation to the changes caused by rising temperatures, technology transfer from the rich countries to poor, and incentives to fight against deforestation.
But other problems, which are not on the main agenda, are simmering on the sidelines of the Bali meet, and many of the planet's inhabitants are suffering those problems firsthand.
There are 25 million "climate refugees" in the world who are not recognised by an international law that only protects those who are fleeing war or political, religious or ethnic persecution, according to Bodil Ceballos, parliamentarian from Sweden's Green Party.
"In denying for so long that climate change exists, the world has not wanted to see the consequences either. In Sweden there is talk that eventually we will have climate refugees from Europe's Mediterranean countries if we don't stop using fossil fuels soon," she said in an interview for this article.
The thrashing that the Sidr cyclone gave Bangladesh on Nov. 15 left more than 4,000 people dead and more than seven million homeless, many of whom are now facing a food crisis. This is a fate that could befall the inhabitants of many places, such as islands and coastal lowlands, which are the most vulnerable to rising sea levels.
The natural beauty of Bali helps reinforce the optimistic tone accompanying the new government in Australia as it finally ratified the Kyoto Protocol, leaving the United States alone in its rejection of the international treaty that requires industrialised countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse-effect gases.
The George W. Bush government was left even more isolated when a U.S. Senate committee voted in favour of a bill to establish obligatory limits on emissions of greenhouse gases.
Thousands of government delegates from more than 180 countries, as well as experts and activists, are participating in the 13th Conference of Parties (COP13) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and in the third meeting of parties to the Kyoto Protocol.
But the governmental negotiations are taking place behind closed doors with the goal of establishing an agenda for achieving in 2009 an obligatory agreement for curbing greenhouse gases beyond 2012, when the Protocol signed in the Japanese city of Kyoto in 1997 expires. It was many years before enough countries had ratified the Protocol to make it take effect, in 2005. Meanwhile, the effects of warming temperatures began to multiply. That is why it is essential that progress is made at this meeting towards a new framework to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, said Mike Shanahan, of the International Institute for Environment and Development, in a press statement in Bali.
The industrialised nations that are party to Kyoto are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 to an average of five percent below 1990 levels. The debate under way now follows two paths: how to reach an agreement that includes the United States, which is responsible for more than 20 percent of emissions, and what kind of obligations should be taken on by the big developing countries China, India and Brazil.
Although Bali will not produce a signed treaty for the coming decades, many eyes are on the "road map" to come out of the discussions of the Ad Hoc Working Group (AWG) of the Kyoto Protocol, entrusted, among other things, with establishing a range of emissions reductions that the wealthy nations must adopt.
WWF and other environmental organisations hope the AWG will uphold an informal decision adopted earlier this year in Vienna: by 2020 the industrialised countries should reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels.
That would be the minimum threshold for attempting to prevent global average temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius more this century and unleashing natural disasters, warns the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
This was the year of the global climate. The Nobel Peace Prize went to the IPCC, whose latest reports determined beyond any doubt that human activities play a large role in the climate changes already occurring.
The "Bali road map" is the focus of work to be done at the next Conference of Parties, to meet in two years in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Yvo de Boer, executive director of the Secretariat of the Convention on Climate Change, urged the participants to act with responsibility. De Boer stressed that the world is on a "catastrophic path", and that the scientific community has sent policy-makers a clear message: climate change can be stopped, and by acting now we can prevent many of the disastrous impacts of global warming.