Future historians might remember the period 2009–2012 as a turning point in the political response to global warming and climate change. The 1980s were a time of agenda-setting in which climate change became accepted as a political problem; the 1990s saw the first institutionalization through adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 and its Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The 2000s marked the period of ratification of the protocol and further institutionalization of its means of implementation. Yet the Kyoto Protocol was merely a first step, and its core commitments expire in 2012. Even full compliance with the Kyoto agreement will not prevent ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’ – the overall objective of the climate convention. Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising, while drastic reductions of emissions are needed according to current scientific consensus (IPCC 2007).
These years are thus a crucial moment for human societies to change current economic, social and political development paths and to embark on a transition to new ways of production and consumption that emit less carbon – or to adapt to a world that is substantially warmer and hence different from the world that human and natural systems have been adapted to so far. At the planetary level, this is the quest for long-term, stable and effective ‘global governance’. The term governance derives from the Greek word for navigating, and this challenge of turning around the wheel and charting a new course is indeed what is at stake in current negotiations on climate change.