Imagine that you and your poor, growing family are crowded into a tiny apartment that is entirely inadequate for your needs. A very large but contentious collection of your friends and relatives decide to build you a home, but before doing so, they need to agree on what the house will look like, who will build it and who will pay for construction. Many years go by, and the most they have been able to accomplish is to sketch some very rough plans and clear away a few trees. Is that progress? Or might you try to devise another way to get the house you need?

This is admittedly an imperfect analogy, but it seems fitting because I saw so many references to “laying the groundwork” and “building a foundation” in the  post-game analysis from NGO experts and the media of the 16th edition of Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) that just concluded in Cancun, Mexico.

Writing today the The Times, John Broder got it mostly right:

The agreement fell well short of the broad changes scientists say are needed to avoid dangerous climate change in coming decades. But it lays the groundwork for stronger measures in the future, if nations are able to overcome the emotional arguments that have crippled climate change negotiations in recent years.

Well, sure. You could also say:  The negotiators didn’t accomplish much but they might someday if all the reasons why they failed so far simply disappear.

I’d also take issue with the word “emotional.” More than “emotional arguments” stands in the way of a climate treaty. The problem of getting 190 or so nations to act in concert to radically transform the fossil-fuel based global economy may be the most difficult problem ever to face humanity. Even if we could strip away all the emotion, this would be a really, really hard problem to untangle. (See Cancun can’t: Ten reasons why the climate talks will fail.) That’s why so little progress has been made so far.

I’ve tried but failed to read through the dry,  legalistic 30-page Cancun Agreement [PDF, download]–it wasn’t as much fun as watching the NFL on a Sunday afternoon–and so instead I read through a good deal of commentary. My takeaway: It seems as if the world’s countries are, indeed, moving closer to setting frameworks, clearing the ground, laying foundations to deal with such key issues as deforestation, financial aid to poor countries and monitoring of global emissions.

For those of you who want to dig in, here’s an excellent analysis from Richard Caperton of the Center for American Progress. Under the subhed of “Building Systems as a Way of Building Agreements,” he writes:

the US successfully led efforts to craft an agreement that lays the groundwork for making new commitments in the future

For its part, Oxfam says

the building blocks have been laid

Mark Kember of The Climate Group says, via email:

Obviously, much work remains to be done but we should now see real collaboration in financing, technology, adaptation, and forest protection. These will provide solid foundations for a new international climate deal.

Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute says

delegates agreed to establish a platform for international climate action, while recognizing that much more needs to be done to tackle climate change.

But if you ask this question–will the work done at Cancun deliver any  real, measurable, predictable change to business as usual?–as best as I can tell, the answer is no.

That doesn’t mean that real action won’t come next year as a result of next year’s climate negotiations in South Africa, or the 2012 confab in South Korea.

But, so far, the U.S., China and India–the world’s three largest greenhouse gas emitters–have all refused to put a cap on their carbon emissions or put a price on carbon. So far, there is no climate fund, with money and a governance structure, available to aid poor countries to either develop clean energy sources or adapt to the impact of global warming. So far, there is no money to protect forests under the evolving framework of REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation).

In that light, should we give up on the UN process? No, although we should be clear-headed about the fact that so much effort by so many have produced so little. (I won’t be snarky and talk about the emissions created by those thousands of flights to Cancun, let along the taxpayer dollars from around the world financing the effort.) And we should remember that while the UN process slogs along, GHG emissions are rising. According to Oil and Gas Journal:

Worldwide oil demand for this year’s third quarter will set a record at 88.3 million b/d, said Wood Mackenzie Ltd., Edinburgh, in its latest analysis.

According to the report, provisional data shows that global oil demand for the recent quarter will almost certainly exceed the previous highest quarter—the fourth quarter of 2007—when demand averaged 88 million b/d.

Just 3 years from the onset of the great recession, global oil demand has recovered to the pre-recession peak seen in 2007, the report said.

Global coal demand is rising, too, driven mostly, by China. This is despite the considerable and impressive private-sector efforts in the west to deal with climate change.

Does this mean we should consider alternatives? Yes, we should. As I recently wrote, I think we should take geoengineering seriously as a short-term way to prevent climate catastrophes, and I’d like to see NGOs begin the hard and long-term work of  building a global, morally-based, citizens movement to deal with the climate crisis. Easier said that done, I know. I’m also hoping to talk to some smart people–beginning this week at a Washington conference on energy innovation–about where we go from here.