For the first time since the Kyoto Protocol, global warming has become an issue of worldwide concern, writes Bradford Plumer. What was the biggest environmental story of 2009? Judging by the number of caps-lock-heavy letters to the editor in my inbox, many people think it's those leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia, which supposedly proved that global warming is all a crude hoax devised to enrich Al Gore. Or something like that. But in reality, the e-mails were awfully banal - they showed that scientists sometimes act like jerks, but they didn't cast much doubt on the larger body of climate research. By this time next year, it's unlikely most of us will even remember what the fuss was about.
No, the really critical development of the year was the way global warming began playing such a pivotal role in international relations. This hasn't been the case for quite some time. In the decade following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, debates over climate change were largely domestic affairs inside various countries. Environmentalists would try to persuade their local governments to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, but global talks on the subject wouldn't get very far, or else they'd end with European leaders complaining that the Bush administration was ignoring the issue entirely.
Barack Obama's election last year changed all that. Suddenly, many countries seemed readier than ever to co-operate over curbing emissions -even during a brutal economic slump. China and the United States stopped using each other as an excuse to do nothing and started holding a series of high-level climate discussions. (Obama appears to have made the environment a focal point of his China policy - arguably at the expense of other areas, such as human rights.) By late autumn, both countries had made tangible pledges to curtail their emissions, and India was soon following suit. No one wants to be seen as a carbon pariah any more.
That doesn't mean it's been all hand-holding and hugs. As the major economies have poured billions into green-tech development, they've also started squabbling about the trade implications. China's forays into wind turbines and electric cars (seasoned with a dash of protectionism) have prompted many American business leaders to panic about losing the clean-energy race. At the same time, politicians in Europe and the United States have been blustering about using tariffs to prevent their companies from outsourcing pollution to China and India. In an ideal world, the clean-tech craze would provide a way for countries to pole-vault themselves out of the recession. But it could also end up creating new outlets for economic nationalism. It's still unclear how this will all shape up.
Then came the Copenhagen summit in December, where it very quickly became apparent that the diplomatic aspects of climate change have become insanely difficult to navigate. Poorer countries demanded aid to deal with the floods, storms and droughts they'll suffer as a result of all the heat-trapping gases wealthier countries have belched into the air. And wealthier countries, for their part, argued that they can no longer be the only ones expected to bear the burden of phasing out carbon emissions. Meanwhile, China worked behind the scenes to muck up the talks, knowing that the United States would get the blame if the final agreement was weak. (An accurate prediction, it turned out.) The quest to save the planet is hardly immune from ruthless great-power machinations.
In the final hours of the summit, with the talks on the verge of imploding, Obama cut a deal with leaders from China, India, South Africa and Brazil. The conventional wisdom seems to be that the agreement was a failure, because it had only vague targets and no binding commitments. But that obscures the fact that the accord represents a huge structural shift in international diplomacy. No longer is the big divide in climate politics between industrialised countries and developing ones. It's now between big emitters and small ones. And from now on, much of the progress in tackling carbon will get done in side deals between major polluters like the United States and China, rather than in the unwieldy United Nations, where any treaty needs approval from all 193 countries. Indeed, UN officials are already talking about revamping their negotiation process - presumably out of fear that they'll grow less and less relevant in the years ahead. Climate change has become such a difficult issue that, in the years ahead, brand-new global institutions will probably have to spring up to tackle it. If nothing else, this year marked the start of that shift.
Bradford Plumer, a regular contributor to the Review, is an assistant editor at The New Republic.