Details are still sketchy, but last week’s Durban COP-17 meeting appears to have resulted in a “road map” for negotiations that would lead to a binding “legal framework” for emissions reductions — to be negotiated by the December 2015 conference of the parties, and to become effective by 2020.  If this works as planned, both China and the United States — the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters — will finally commit themselves to greenhouse gas limits.  That would be major progress — but may be many years too late for the planet.

But December 2015?  That’s four years from now — meaning that the United States domestic political cycle will be exactly where it is now.  We will be gearing up for at least one (and possibly two) contested presidential primaries.

That means that any climate commitments negotiated in December 2015 will become a presidential election campaign issue, and the election itself may become a referendum on any proposed climate change commitments.  The issue will be a question at every presidential primary (and general election) debate, and each candidate will be asked whether they will commit to implement (or oppose implementation) of whatever greenhouse gas limits are negotiated in 2015.

The United States apparently opposed describing the prospective commitments as a “treaty,” preferring “legal framework” instead.  But if what is adopted is a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, requiring formal ratification, then presumably every Senate election in 2016 will become a referendum on any proposed treaty as well.

It is impossible, of course, to predict the political mood of the country, or even the state of the economy four years from now.  An agreement that would impose binding limits of China and other developing nations as well as the United States would actually respond to the objections of the Senate the last time they voted on the issue — in 1997, the Byrd-Hagel resolution advised the President to refrain from committing the United States to negotiated greenhouse gas limits unless they also “mandate[] specific new scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period.”

But it is hard to say that the political climate in the United States has become more friendly to climate change response than it was in 1997.

Meanwhile, Canada has withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol.