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When we talk about climate change, we are really talking about two realities: one increasingly visible, the other bafflingly opaque.

The first is physical. It is now tangible that carbon emissions have contributed to a rise in global temperatures. We have just lived through the warmest year in recorded history; 14 of the 15 warmest years we know of have occurred since 2000. Polar ice caps are melting at a surprising and visible rate and sea levels are rising.

The second is bureaucratic. There is nothing at all visible and comprehensible in the mountain of political treaties, conventions and protocols intended to deal with greenhouse-gas emissions and their physical consequences. A quarter-century of negotiations and commitments have produced no decrease in either emissions or climate damage.

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So most of us saw no reason to pay attention to this year's climate talks, which will culminate in a December summit in France. After all, this year's Paris Framework is simply another deal building on the Lima Call for Action, the Doha Amendment, the Durban Platform, the Cancun Agreements, the Copenhagen Accord, the Bali Action Plan, the Marrakesh Accords, the Kyoto Protocol and the Berlin Mandate, none of which have stopped us from belching out gases.

But while we weren't looking, something changed. The past year has seen a dramatic shift in the way most of the world's major polluters (not counting Canada and a few other outliers) approach reducing their emissions. "It's not guaranteed at all, but there have been some significant changes which make it much more likely that there will be real international action on climate this year," says Jutta Brunnée, an international-law expert who is a professor and interim dean of the University of Toronto's law faculty.

Three things have changed.

First, there has been a shift in political relations between polluting countries. The emissions-cutting plan negotiated between the United States and China in November was not just a big deal in its own right (because the two countries create nearly 40 per cent of all emissions), but because it helped break down the brick wall of political disagreement between rich and poor countries that had existed since 1992 and had scuppered the Copenhagen deal in 2009. In December, a summit in Lima saw, for the first time, all countries commit to do something: "Importantly," Dr. Brunnée said in a recent lecture, "there was no dissent this time," but rather "agreement that all countries will be under a common legal framework."

This was partly because lower-income countries were no longer portraying themselves as victims of the rich world's pollution, but now, in the case of China and India, major polluters facing internal political challenges. Many observers feel this makes a real global deal, driven by action, far more likely.

Second, there's been a shift in the legal approach to solving climate change. The top-down model of fixed regulatory commitments and timelines has been replaced with a new focus on the actions needed to make carbon reductions actually occur – either gradually and inexpensively now, or quickly and expensively in a few years. There has been, in the words of Dr. Brunnée, a "significant shift in the collective understanding" of how climate change can happen, combined with "a fundamental change in the structure of the [United Nations] climate regime."

Third, there's been a new understanding of the economic costs, and benefits, of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and building infrastructure and new technologies to protect us from the effects of warming. Last year's comprehensive report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made headlines for its discouraging warming forecasts, but also contained the first really credible economic analysis of costs.

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The cost of reducing climate change to a liveable two degrees Celsius, it turns out, would be 0.06 per cent of GDP per year – a negligible sum. And that cost doesn't include the economic growth that would likely be created by large-scale investment in alternative and nuclear energy, low-carbon technology, climate-protection infrastructure and engineered climate-proof crops. This, many observers believe, is why Chinese authorities have so aggressively embraced climate mitigation: By taking the lead on these investments, their industries could reap a second boom in the climate recovery.

A year ago, it looked like environmentalism was over. Climate activists, deeply discouraged, were calling for non-democratic solutions or an end to market economies. Now, if this momentum continues, the coming decades could see countries competing to grab the largest share of carbon reduction. At this rate, even Canada might eventually get involved.

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