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Scientists have created this BEDMAP image of Antarctica without ice as part of their effort to get a handle on what may happen if temperatures keep rising. The highest elevations are marked in red/black. The light blue color shows the extent of the continental shelf.
The first week of international climate-change talks have always been about feeling everybody out. The second week is when the ministers arrive to try to hammer together whatever bargains will ultimately be made, usually at the last minute and sometimes with the intervention of a president or two. That's what's happening in Durban, South Africa, this week. Unsurprisingly, there are no deals so far, just lots of rumors and public maneuvering and messaging. Sometimes, this feels reminiscent of all those diplomats blathering on in endless, futile meetings trying to stop the Spanish Civil War.

Meanwhile, 2500 miles to the south of Durban in Antarctica, the land where 90 percent of the ice on the planet is stored, enough to lift global sea levels as much as 120 feet, heat is rising. Given the changes happening at the edges of the continent and continued loss of glacier ice to the sea there, scientists have built a map to show what Antarctica looks like "naked." That, they hope, will give them a better idea of what will happen as melting continues.

Several thousand miles in the opposite direction, in the Arctic, polar bears have less and less sea ice from where to do their hunting and melting of the Greenland ice sheet is accelerating. One of most heard phrases these days regarding rising temperatures and dwindling ice is "faster than predicted." The cause of this, all but the most obstinate, ideologically motivated deniers now agree, is the carbon emissions that the gathering in Durban is talking about cutting. Just as previous gatherings in other cities from Copenhagen to Denpasar to Rio de Janeiro have done. Every year, but for the occasional outlier, the evidence of burgeoning disaster piles higher.

A new study has concluded that lower levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are what led to the Antarctic ice sheet being formed in the first place. And higher levels will lead to the opposite. Whatever the talkers do in Durban, those CO2 levels, now higher than at any time in the past 15 million years, will continue to rise. After a small drop in 2009, CO2 emissions rose 6 percent in 2010, according to the Global Carbon Project; in 2011, they're up another 3 percent. That's in spite of a weak global economy overall but the still rapidly growing big economies of India and China.

As a consequence, when China says what it announced in the past 24 hours, people perk up a bit. For the first time, Beijing said it could agree to a binding commitment on emissions controls in 2020:

“We accept a legally binding arrangement,” from 2020 onward, Xie Zhenhua, one of China’s top climate negotiators told a room packed with reporters who had turned out to see whether the Chinese were really throwing down the gauntlet at what was expected to be a largely directionless two weeks of annual United Nations-led climate talks. “It’s time for us to see who is acting in a responsible way.” ...

U.S. and European negotiators said they’d need to meet with Mr. Xie in private to find out what exactly he meant. “I don’t know what he’s saying yet,” said Todd Stern, chief negotiator for the U.S. in Durban. The U.S. went into climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 willing to sign up to a binding deal, but backed off when China said it wouldn’t join in. Now Washington favors individual commitments to cut emissions rather than an omnibus legal agreement.

For the U.S. to agree to a binding deal, China would have to join the U.S. as a developed nation subject to the most stringent cuts, and other loopholes would have to be eliminated. “No trap doors, no Swiss cheese,” Mr. Stern said.

While U.S. officials are understandably skeptical of what appears to be a fresh Chinese pledge, many environmental groups are skeptical of the U.S. role. Although marginally better since Barack Obama's election, the United States has itself been dragging its feet instead of being out front on dealing with climate change — largely as a result of brainless right-wing ridicule of the whole concept of global warming and over-caution on the part of politicians who know it's a serious problem but don't have the gumption to do something serious about it:
"Those who are not interested in saving lives, economies and environments, like the U.S., must now stand aside and let those with the political will move forward," said Kumi Naidoo, International Executive Director, Greenpeace International.

Nobody expects a grand agreement to emerge from Durban by Friday. But in the face of the devastation that global climate change is already producing in a few places and the far worse more widespread disasters on the horizon, even the tiniest glimmer of hope is bound to be tightly grasped, whatever the skepticism.

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Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Mon Dec 05, 2011 at 01:12 PM PST.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots, The Durban Daily, Moving Planet, Climate Change News Roundup, and Daily Kos.

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