IT WAS a spectacular photo opportunity - the United Nations Secretary-General at Norway's Ny-Aalesund climate change research centre, surrounded by ice. Just not as much ice as once would have been there.
''I am very much alarmed and surprised to have seen these glaciers all worn,'' Ban Ki-moon told the reporters there with him, 1000 kilometres from the North Pole, before quoting the prestigious journal Science. ''Unless we take urgent action to stem this trend, we may be virtually [sea] ice-free by 2037, even by 2030.''
For Ban, the expedition was the latest stage on a kind of promotional tour for action on climate change. Hence: "We have a moral political responsibility for our future and for the whole of humanity, for even the future of our planet.''
It's rhetoric, but the change Ban came to witness was real enough. According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, while 2009 is unlikely to break the record low for Arctic sea coverage set in 2007, it will be substantially below the 30-year average. The ice is also expected to be thinner than ever. The snow and ice centre, based at the University of Colorado, found that while summer Arctic sea ice covered more ground in 2008 than in 2007, the total volume was lower. Scientists say ice thinning is a better guide to the pace of its disappearance than reduced geographic coverage.
As we know, the bulk of the world's climate science muscle says this trend can't be separated from the globe's ever-escalating greenhouse gas emissions.
What can be statistically separated, climate watchers suggest, is the relative speeds of global warming and the international negotiations hoping to counter it. The former is moving more rapidly than nearly anyone projected. The latter slowly enough that there are serious doubts about what the UN climate process - which is supposed to produce an extraordinary climate treaty when 192 nations sit down together in the Danish capital of Copenhagen in three months' time - will actually achieve.
Amid all the criticism, the scale of what is being attempted shouldn't be understated. Erwin Jackson, policy and research director at the not-for-profit Climate Institute, says the negotiations are far more complex than attempted in securing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, under which rich nations agreed to cut emissions by about 5 per cent by 2012. ''With Kyoto we were negotiating an environment treaty,'' he says. ''Now, we're negotiating a deal about the economic structure of the planet.''
In the oft-echoed words of UN chief climate official Yvo de Boer, three things must be achieved at Copenhagen: rich nations must sign on to a combined emissions cut of between 25 and 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020; developing countries including China must explain how they will stifle their emissions growth; and the wealthy must make a plan to come up with the money needed to help the less wealthy move to clean energy and cope with the change locked into the climate system. Another can be added to the list - a strategy to reduce logging of tropical rainforests, responsible for about a fifth of global emissions.
Negotiations on these points should accelerate at a series of meetings criss-crossing the globe over the next 90 days. Outside the UN process, Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan and other G20 finance ministers will consider a funding plan in London this weekend, with a mission to prepare a blueprint for their leaders to consider at a meeting in Pittsburgh in three weeks. This will coincide with a special UN climate summit in New York on September 22, with about 100 leaders in attendance. Meanwhile, the US and China are holding talks, with President Barack Obama scheduled to head to Beijing in November.
The most significant meeting to date was the G8 in July, which produced a belated agreement that global warming should be kept within 2 degrees of pre-industrial levels. This would have been widely welcomed had it been backed by shifts in policy. It wasn't.
The money debate is little different. There has been agreement since the Bali climate summit, held just days after the Rudd Government's election, that a financial plan is needed to help the developing world - responsible for only about a quarter of historic emissions, but predicted to be hit disproportionately hard by climate change, with little capacity to pay to fight it. The UN's World Economic and Social Survey report this week made the staggering estimate that it will cost $US500-600 billion ($A597-716 billion) a year, or about 1 per cent of global output, comparing what is needed to the post-World War II Marshall Plan. Contrast this with what is currently offered: $US21 billion. The most significant proposal - actually, the only proposal - from a leading Western nation to date is British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's pitch for a global $US100 billion a year by 2020 from a mix of public and private sources, including revenue from sales of emissions permits.
The focus leading up to the London G20 talks is the immediate financial crisis - with relatively scant attention being paid to what all governments in attendance agree is the impending crisis of the century. Swan this week said a climate finance framework would be discussed, but not figures. His office gave a two-line response to six questions from The Age, saying both public and private funding would be needed.
JACKSON says finance ministers have to engage on climate change if there is to be a breakthrough at Copenhagen. ''Do we really want just environment ministers and foreign affairs ministers to determine how we are going to adjust to the clean energy economy?''
Across the Pacific, Jake Schmidt - the Washington-based international climate policy director with the Natural Resources Defence Council - says the G20 has to come up with three things to give impetus to the UN process. ''We need to have them saying, 'Here's the amount of money on the table, here are the rules of the roads and here is how that money is going to be effectively deployed in terms of adaptation and deforestation and so forth.'''
Given the apparent lack of urgency, it is easy to understand why scientists from the Royal Society of London this week called for investigation of a series of radical geo-engineering solutions such as reflecting sunlight by painting all roofs white or sending thousands of mirrors into orbit, or spraying aerosols into the atmosphere to mask the warming. More likely are the less radical options: aggressive forest planting and the cultivation of absorbent plankton.
Of course, the society says the focus should be on cutting emissions.
Schmidt says there are two stumbling blocks to an ambitious Copenhagen deal to do this. They are significant ones - the US and the developing world.
There is a stand-off over who is to break the deadlock: the developed or developing world. It is widely accepted that the rich have caused the problem and must take the lead as promised. But the wealthy are unwilling or unable to meet developing nations' escalating demands, and emissions reduction in the West alone will not solve the problem. Ninety per cent of emissions growth over the next 20 years will come from developing nations.
If there is not much cause for optimism at negotiation level, there is some cause within individual countries. China, now the largest annual emitter, but responsible for just 10 per cent of historic emissions, is not considered the stumbling block it once was. Alex Wyatt, the chief executive of China-based carbon broker Climate Bridge, says that while its emissions are ''escalating horrendously'', it is not because China is prevaricating. It recently increased its renewable energy target to the same level as Australia's - a 20 per cent clean electricity supply by 2020 - and it gave $US200 billion of its stimulus package to green projects. There is an expectation it might accept a target, first on greenhouse gas intensity and then emissions growth.
''Formally, they are just, like, forget it,'' Wyatt says, ''but behind the scenes, I don't think there would be a surprise if the Chinese agree to some kind of cap on their emissions growth from 2015, and potentially on some sectors before that.''
Wyatt raises another possibility: to counter the gulf in wealth and emissions levels between the country's relatively affluent eastern cities and dirt poor western countryside, China may initially agree to an emissions limit in wealthy areas only, so development in the western provinces is not discouraged.
There is also an expectation that China will in some way help to pick up the tab. Schmidt says it is likely that China will have to make a significant financial commitment, perhaps on accelerating research into clean coal technology, specifically carbon capture and storage.
Some other major developing nations are already further advanced. Indonesia has flagged a 40 per cent cut by 2030 if it gets financial help to stop rainforest logging, while South Africa has pledged to start reducing emissions from about 2030. South Korea will set a 2020 emissions target later this year; Mexico has set a 2050 target and is planning emissions trading from 2012.
Far less willing to make concessions is India. With 60 per cent of its population living on less than $2 a day, and lacking a vocal constituency making the case that doing nothing will be worse for its economy than acting, it is digging in its heels. Part of this, Jackson says, is the way debate is framed. India is consistently asked if it will take on a binding target. Clearly it won't. But it shows little sign of bending on its unrealistic, if scientifically valid, demands of much greater commitments from Western nations. Wyatt says India has been ''quite shrill'' in sticking to this position. Jackson says: ''India is the country people are most worried about.''
Which means, of course, they are less worried about the US, the country with ultimately the greatest power to make the difference, and over which an air of uncertainty lingers. Its House of Representatives surprised by passing its emissions trading proposal - the Waxman-Markey bills named after its proponents - rapidly in June. It gave hope the US might go to Copenhagen with legislation passed, but this seems unlikely. The legislative agenda risks being consumed by a stand-off over health care. Having concrete US legislation may not matter if it is near finalised, but the world - mindful that the US made Kyoto commitments that were emphatically rejected by Congress, and therefore meaningless - will want a clear idea of where it is headed by Copenhagen.
Kate Cecys, international fellow at the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change, told a recent Melbourne conference its 2020 target is likely to be a cut of between 14 and 20 per cent below 2005 levels, equating to a zero to 8 per cent cut below 1990 levels. This is likely to be boosted by purchase of international emissions permits, but will be lower than the 25-40 per cent expected of wealthy nations.
Schmidt says the world is likely to reluctantly accept it. ''To think that Obama is going to commit to something that Congress isn't going to agree to - it isn't going to happen. When the US comes in and says, 'Hey, we're serious, we're going to put the US on a path to really low emissions over the next 40 years,' I think countries will look around, ask is that going to be a satisfactory outcome, and the answer is going to be 'yes' but with a grumble.''
Key to this will be Obama. Jackson says he will have to stand up in a way he hasn't to date, domestically and internationally.
THE negotiations received a boost last week when Japan voted in a new government and immediately lifted its 2020 emissions target from 15 to 25 per cent. Whether this will stand up as the inexperienced Government faces pressure from bureaucracy and industry remains to be seen.
If it does, what does it mean for the collective 2020 target of wealthy nations? Andrew Macintosh, from Australian National University's Centre for Climate Law and Policy, says it would shift the total developed world target for 2020 by about 0.5 per cent. He puts the combined target range as between 10 and 20 per cent, and estimates 12-15 per cent as the likely final outcome.
This would require Australia to adopt a target somewhere in this range. Some other estimates are slightly more optimistic, but in this ballpark.
Politically, Macintosh says, that would be a reasonably positive outcome for the globe given the enormity of what is being attempted. From a scientific point of view the news is less good. If wealthy nations make a combined 20 per cent cut by 2020, limiting global warming to 2 degrees will need an annual global emissions reduction of 5 per cent every year after that. Most studies suggest the maximum cut possible is 2-3 per cent a year. ''At this stage I'd say two degrees looks almost impossible,'' Macintosh says.
He says it is likely atmospheric concentrations of the six greenhouse gases covered by a UN treaty will reach the equivalent of 550 parts per million of carbon dioxide by 2100. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that would lead to about 3 degrees' warming, and up to 1.9 metres' sea-level rise.
Meanwhile, BP has just announced a massive new oil find in the Gulf of Mexico. ''I think it's funny,'' Macintosh says, ''that we're making new fossil fuel finds, and I don't hear anyone saying it's a shame we're not going to be able to use them.''
There is now a wide expectation Copenhagen will not lead to a final, ratifiable treaty. According to Cecys, a non-result, with the deadline just extended, is unlikely as no one will want ownership of what will be interpreted as a complete failure.
Analysts agree a more likely outcome is an interim deal, offering some broad commitments on a legal architecture, targets, action from developing nations and finance with most of the detail to be filled in later, in 2010 or 2011. This would be in line with Kevin Rudd's private aside, caught on camera in July, that the world was not on track for Copenhagen, that there were too many problems to deal with in the time remaining.
Schmidt says countries still don't seem willing to take the first step, but ultimately pragmatism must win out. Perhaps Copenhagen has been built up too much as the 12 days that are going to save the world. ''We're still holding out hope for perfection,'' he says. ''This has to be the first step - not a baby's step, a big step - but it's just the first step on a 50-step plan.''
Adam Morton is environment reporter.