For the next couple of weeks, thousands of government officials, NGOs, environmental activists and reporters will gather in Cancun, Mexico for international climate negotiations, officially known as the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It’s fitting that the talks are being held in a vacation resort, where people go to escape–because only by ignoring what’s happening in the rest of the world is it possible to take these UN negotiations seriously.

Heading into the Cancun talks, expectations are low. They aren’t low enough. Here are 10 reasons why it will be hard, if not impossible, to bring about meaningful action to curb global warming through this UN process. Many are admittedly U.S.-centric, all of them matter and if you want to skip ahead through this unusually long post, No. 10 is the biggest reason why I doubt that these Cancun talks, or the successor negotiations–COP17 in South Africa, COP18 in South Korea, etc.–will get us the change we need.

So as not to be too gloomy, I’ll conclude with a thought or two on what might work instead…but first the discouraging news.

What's the climate equivalent of a river on fire?

1. Global warming pollutants are invisible. So it’s hard to get people to care about them. Winning broad public support to regulate soot or smog or soiled rivers or polluted beaches iseasier. A 1969  fire in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland lasted just 30 minutes, but it helped fuel the environmental movement and  passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

2. The costs of curbing climate change are immediate and the benefits are in the future. Any effort to reduce emissions will cost money because low-carbon energy sources (solar, wind, nuclear) are more expensive than burning fossil fuels. Electric cars are pricier than gas-powered vehicles. But Americans don’t like to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow. We’re lousy at saving. Instead of  raising taxes or cutting government benefits, we run up huge deficits that will burden future generations. Government debt is close to 90% of GDP. Deferred gratification is not our strong suit.

3. Environmentalists have been disingenous about the climate issue. They’ve argued that regulation of carbon dioxide will create green jobs and grow the economy. Typical is this graphic from Environmental Defense. (“Get a step-by-step picture of how a carbon cap will spark new jobs, lift the economy and clean the air.”) Uh, no. Most economists agree that dealing with global warming will entail short term costs. (See Eric Pooley’s excellent analysis at Slate.) Their estimates of those costs are generally in the range of 0.5 to 1% of U.S. GDP (Harvard’s Robert Stavins) or 1 percent of global GDP (The Stern Review, PDF). The costs of inaction will eventually be much greater. But carbon regulation will likely slow economic growth in the short run by raising energy costs. It’s not a free lunch, and we should be honest about that.

4. Republicans who matter don’t believe climate science. Ron Brownstein put it well a few weeks ago in The National Journal:

The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones.

Indeed, it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here.

Why this is the case is a topic for another day. It’s worth noting that when Republicans polled by The Washington Post were asked, “Is there solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades or not?” only 38% of Republicans said yes while 53% said no.

For a reality check, visit the very useful Global Climate Dashboard (bottom left of the page) or look at this global temperature chart from The New Scientist.

Without Republican support, comprehensive carbon regulation can’t be approved in the U.S.  What’s more, as you may recall from high school civics, it takes a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate to approve a treaty. And the goal of these negotiations is….a treaty!

5. China’s no more interested in a global treaty than we are. While you read lots about clean energy investments in China, economic growth in the world’s No. 1 emitter of GHGs is fueled by cheap coal. Some people argue that China deliberately sabotaged the Copenhagen talks–here’s a dramatic account from The Guardian.

6. Scant progress was made at COPs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15. If the goal of the UN process is to reduce the threat of global warming, it’s not working. Global temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and, as this chart shows, so does the atmospheric concentration of CO2.

These are from measurements taken in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, reported at the David Suzuki Foundation website. More detail can be found at the Global Carbon Project, which reports that even though emissions decreased slightly in 2009 because of the recession, concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere continued to rise, albeit slightly, to 387 ppm. (Concentrations can rise even if emissions temporarily fall because CO2 persists in the atmosphere for decades.) Current levels have topped the 350 ppm that environmental activists and many scientists say is the safe upper limit for C02 concentrations, although there’s honest disagreement about that number. Most everyone expects emissions and GHG concentrations to rise again this year because the worst of the economic slump is behind us.

In that light, it’s no wonder that The Economist says this about the Cancun summit in its current issue:

Incremental progress is possible, but continued deadlock is likelier. What is out of reach, as at Copenhagen, is agreement on a plausible programme for keeping climate change.

Because CO2 levels continue to rise, and most nations are unlikely to achieve the non-binding targets they agreed to in Copenhagen, the magazine concludes that

The fight to limit global warming to easily tolerated levels is thus over.

7. Even the very modest achievements of Copenhagen have been unrealized. The most concrete commitment to come out of Copenhagen was for $30 billion in so-called “fast start climate finance” to development countries. Not so fast: The fund does not yet exist, and it’s not clear where the money is coming from, or who will decide how it’s spent. For more see this paper from the International Institute on Environment and Development.

8. The UN is the wrong venue. The UN process works by consensus, so any one of the 194 countries represented in Cancun country can bring talks to a halt.  Last year, Venezuela and Sudan held up the non-binding accord during an all-night negotiation session. This is madness.

Oxfam's "Message in a Bottle" to Cancun

9. The “climate justice” issue is intractable. What’s climate justice? Essentially, it’s the idea that while the impacts of climate change will fall most heavily on the poor–particularly but not exclusively those in the developing world–the problem of an overheating planet was mostly created by the rich. So, some would argue, we–that is, Americans, Europeans and Japanese and anyone else reading this blog–bear the bulk of the responsibility for cleaning up this mess and paying for damages.

As Oxfam International said in a media briefing today:

As those who have emitted most greenhouse gases during their industrialisation, developed countries have the greatest responsibility and most capacity to reduce emissions first and fastest.

Meanwhile, the costs of climate change, while hard to quantify, are rising. This year, the world has experienced

a total of 725 weather-related natural hazard events with significant losses from January to September 2010, the second-highest figure recorded for the first nine months of the year since 1980. Some 21,000 people lost their lives, 1,760 in Pakistan alone, up to one-fifth of which was flooded for several weeks. Overall losses due to weather-related natural catastrophes from January to September came to more than US$ 65bn and insured losses to US$ 18bn.

Those numbers come not from an activist group but from insurance giant Munich Re.

10. Climate change is the biggest “collective action” problem in human history. If there is a single reason why the world has made so little progress, so far, in reducing emissions, it is this: Protecting the climate requires an entirely unprecedented level of global cooperation, without which action at the individual, community, regional or national level is all but pointless.

What’s more, the costs of solving the problem, i.e., adopting more expensive forms of energy, are substantial and local, but the benefits of preventing catastrophic global warming are diffuse and global.

In this regard, climate pollution differs from other environmental problems. If a community or a nation wants to clean up a river or curb SO2 emissions from a coal plant, the costs and benefits are shared by, roughly speaking, the same people. This is not so with climate–in fact, benefits will only accrue if all major emitting nations agree to curb their pollution. Had the U.S. Senate enacted cap-and-trade last year, it would have made no meaningful difference to the planet unless China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Russia agreed to reductions of their own. It was because no nation or group of nations can solve this problem alone that the UN got involved way back when.

The so-called free rider problem isn’t the only problem with unilateral action.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the U.S. stopped burning coal and oil tomorrow, and replaced them with renewable energy. Not only would that put our economy at a competitive disadvantage as energy costs rose, it would have the unintended effect of radically reducing demand for coal and oil, thereby driving down the global prices of fossil fuels and increasing the usage of coal and oil elsewhere.

Global trade adds yet another layer of complexity. China has become the world’s No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases, in part because it manufactures goods that are exported to the rest of the world. If China agrees to curb its GHG emissions, imposing higher energy costs on factories there, what would prevent manufacturers from moving to other nations–Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, wherever–that chose not to join a global regulatory regime. And whose emissions are those, anyway? If an iPod is made in China and sold in New York, who’s responsible?

In a 2007 paper, Scott Barrett, an economist and expert on environmental treaties, who is now a professor of natural resource economics at Columbia, wrote:

Mitigating, forestalling, or averting global climate change is a global public good. Supplying it by means of reducing emissions is vulnerable to free riding. Too few countries are likely to participate in such an effort, those that do participate are likely to reduce their emissions by too little, and even their efforts may be overwhelmed by trade leakage.

This was before COPs 13, 14 and 15 in Bali, Poznan and Copenhagen.

So, what is to be done? Barrett’s paper offers a response–it was called The Incredible Economics of Geoengineering. If we recognize that the current approach to climate change isn’t working, we should start to think hard about geoengineering, an approach that could buy us more time to figure out how to get off fossil fuels.

Then there’s the voluntary approach to reducing emissions, which was ridiculed when it was put forth by President Bush II, but doesn’t seem so ridiculous anymore. Countries aren’t sitting on the sidelines waiting for a treaty; many are acting, as Jake Schmidt, the international climate policy director at NRDC, writes in this excellent (and hope-filled) blogpost at NRDC’s Switchboard. “Real action is beginning to happen in key countries,” he writes. It’s not sufficient but “they are sending a signal that they are serious about addressing their pollution.”

Or we can focus on technology, hoping and praying for a breakthrough–supercheap solar energy, for example, that would out-compete coal or natural gas as a source of electricity, or low-cost batteries that would make electric cars more affordable, or advanced biofuels to displace oil. Here’s an argument for a government policy to promote energy innovation from Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of The Breakthrough Institute.

Or we can try to transform the political and culture climate by finding new ways to organize around the climate issue. Here we can learn from history–I’m thinking in particular of the anti-slavery movement, arguably the first and greatest global citizens movement of all time, which is chronicled in a fabulous book called Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild. Imagine a grass-roots, networked, distributed, moral-religious crusade against climate destruction….

But to change the world requires, first, seeing it as it is–and despite the best efforts of thousands, change isn’t likely to emerge from the talks Cancun.