01/02/2013 01:56 EST | Updated 03/04/2013 05:12 EST

The Kyoto Cliff

Did Kyoto really make any difference? Did it amount to anything more than just a placebo or, perhaps worse, a pathetic absolution?

AP File
FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2008 file photo the tower of a church is seen between the smoke billowing chimneys of the brown coal power plant Frimmersdorf in Grevenbroich near Duesseldorf, Germany. The European Union's environmental agency says Spain and Italy could hinder the EU from achieving its greenhouse emissions target under a U.N. climate pact. The European Environment Agency said the debt-ridden countries are not on track to make the emissions cuts required by the Kyoto Protocol, and have not bought enough credits to offset the shortfall. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

The purists and the traditionalists in the environmental movement have been lamenting the sad and miserable expiry of the Kyoto accord and the fact that, as a global community of nations, we never managed to agree to replace it with anything at all. January 1st was the first day in a very long time that the word's carbon emissions were not "regulated" by any type of international treaty. And that, of course, feels to some like a recipe for a deepening catastrophe for the human race.

But perhaps there is another way to look at the whole thing. Did Kyoto really make any difference? Did it amount to anything more than just a placebo or, perhaps worse, a pathetic absolution? The signatories felt good and proud and righteous about it -- and the environmental purists cheered and danced -- but what really came of it? It was supposed to help fix our carbon addiction and yet, in the two decades of its impotent existence, our collective emissions went up by an unbelievably frightening nearly 60 percent! Seriously? Is that our definition of a successful global treaty whose loss and lack of successor we're supposed to be mourning? Instead of looking at our track record so far, everyone keeps pushing the goal posts further and further out the future, so we can continue to philosophize about some fantastic "planned" emission reductions of 50 percent or 80 percent without any hint of path or scrutiny -- some even have the audacity to brag about carbon neutrality, as if that's a scientifically plausible state of existence for our carbon-based species!

Kyoto was created in the early '90s because the scientists already knew we were in trouble -- and it was obvious to them that we needed to join hands and quickly find our way to a carbon peak for the world. But what the scientists understood twenty years ago was almost impossible to explain to the masses, so that joining of the hands never really happened. Climate change wasn't really a problem for most of us twenty years ago. At best, it was an "environmental" challenge (wouldn't the poor people of Bangladesh have bigger things to worry about?). At worst, it was a big liberal hoax. Almost nobody understood it was the biggest looming existential crisis for humanity -- and without any mainstream momentum, it was incredibly naive to assume that a global treaty could accomplish anything at all.

The lack of scrutiny and pressure during the miserable Kyoto years helped convince us all that by driving hybrid cars, recycling our plastic bottles, eating organic hamburgers, drinking local wines and buying carbon offsets with our airline tickets we were truly saving the world. We felt great about it and we worked so hard to out-green one another in those superficial ways. And that's exactly why and how we sleepwalked our way to adding another incredible 60 percent to our emissions while bragging about our billion acts of green. Oh but wait, some would say, it wasn't really us; we were being good and our emissions weren't really going up that much anymore -- it was those damn Chinese that got hooked on growth and money and carbon! Never mind the fact that somewhere along the way China became the place where all our stuff is made and that our imports from them have been going up in exact lockstep with their carbon emissions.... So whose emissions are those, really?

Now for the more promising news: The world is a lot more awake today. We may have taken a bit longer than we should have, but citizens (a.k.a. voters or consumers) everywhere get it now. Climate change has really started to bite -- insurance rates are going up fast, food costs more, droughts hurt more, hurricanes are a lot scarier. The masses are finally tuned in and the ground is now fertile for a real, global deal. This time a placebo won't do and 50-year target pushers will be laughed out of the room. Offsets and hybrids and organics were cute, but now we know we need to be looking for fundamental redesigns of our cities, our sources of wealth and our creature comforts. Now we know that every additional gram of carbon we put up there, every extra day that 7 billion of us live and breathe and eat and move on this planet, is contributing to a scary future. Now we're ready to do a real deal.

The son of Kyoto will be the real deal.