Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a disaster–like taking a bend in the road too fast on a rainy night–where every second seems impossibly stretched?

The situation unfolds in slow motion. You know exactly how it turns out, even before your car plows into the guardrail. Somehow, there’s time to ponder what you could have done differently–slowed at the yellow sign–and wish you could turn back the clock.

That’s what it felt like in December at the 2010 UN climate summit held in Cancun, Mexico. The meeting’s final hours, when world leaders gaveled through a flawed agreement, felt just as long as the preceding two weeks of negotiations.

Instead of calling the tow truck to haul away the wreck, however, leaders and representatives from the vast majority of the 194 countries present applauded their accord as a victory for multilateralism–saying a weak deal was better than no deal.

Sure, supporters admitted, the so-called Cancun agreement doesn’t limit global warming to what scientists–and more than 100 countries–say is safe. Plus, pledges by individual countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, if you add them up, fall short of this inadequate target. And, yes, the Cancun deal doesn’t hold anyone accountable for cutting climate pollution because these new pledges are voluntary.

But besides that–and that a fund promised by rich countries to help poorer nations deal with the impact of climate change has no dedicated source of funding–it’s a great step forward. Huh?

We have to do better.

The Cancun deal won’t change much in the United States. Obama’s goal to reduce our greenhouse gas pollution remains an embarrassingly low four percent from 1990 levels by the end of the next decade. European countries have pledged 20 percent and Brazil 39 percent.

We still don’t have a comprehensive climate law–and it’s unlikely we’ll have one soon.

Industry simply doesn’t have an incentive to kick its fossil fuel habit. In fact, the Cancun agreement could open a loophole that lets companies in the United States continue to pollute–as long as they pay someone else in another country to reduce their emissions. It’s called carbon offsetting, and it means U.S. families living in the toxic shadow of big polluters will have to suffer the health impacts of dirty energy, while companies get to claim credit for cleaning up their act.

Instead of getting motivated to stop climate change now, the world’s countries will wait another year before trying again to secure a climate agreement with teeth. The next UN Framework Convention on Climate Change–to be held in Durban, South Africa–won’t take place until December 2011.

That doesn’t mean we have to sit back and watch as more environmental disasters unfold. We can take action this year.

We can start investing now in the transition to a green energy workforce. We can create jobs that bring workers the dignity of contributing to a better world and give families the security of a steady paycheck in a growing sector.

We can demand now that every dollar sent overseas to help people get out of energy poverty goes to renewable energy and low-carbon development.

And we can raise billions of dollars to make this happen by taxing the financial speculation of the Wall Street fat cats who brought us the economic crisis. European countries are already considering a regional financial transaction tax. If they can do it, we can, too.

Regardless of what happens at these annual global climate talks, we must all think and act fast now to avoid having to clean up a big mess later. Real success means changing course toward a strong green economy at home and a global climate deal that protects people and the planet.

Janet Redman is co-director of the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies. www.ips-dc.org

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