CANCUN — Words matter, and in Cancun during the COP16 climate meetings, some of the big names are choosing their words carefully.

Let’s begin with Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Pachauri was quoted during the opening of the meetings in Cancun as saying, “We hope Cancun signifies a major step in action to deal with the challenge of climate change.” The word to focus on here is “step.” Gone are the big hopes from a year ago when most were saying that the Copenhagen meetings would produce not just steps, but a major agreement. The subtle difference is telling.

Pachauri’s words are always worth examining, and the same can be true for Christina Figueres, the new executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Figueres’ comments have been similar to Pachauri’s measured stance, but she certainly is not backing away from emphasizing that something needs to come out of Cancun. “I urge you to resolve these issues with priority so that a balanced outcome in Cancun can be achieved. A tapestry with holes will not work and the holes can only be filled in through compromise.” While the present holes are a concern of Figueres, let’s not overlook future holes. I am not talking about the ozone, but rather that the Kyoto Protocol is set to expire in just over a year, in 2012

The Kyoto deal called for industrialized nations to cut their emissions by 5 percent by that time. Obviously Kyoto is the definition of a Swiss cheese policy, with the U.S.’s absence being the biggest hole of all, but that will only grow if nothing happens in Cancun, and nothing happens next year when the talks move to South Africa.

And perhaps that is why Figueres told delegates to give “force” to whatever policy and agreements come out of Cancun. Climate talks tend to get more serious as the days go by. For that reason it is interesting to see such carful words from the beginning. Clearly, expectations are low enough to warrant one big name to urge the delegates in Cancun to take a positive step, but too small a step will mean that pressure will only rise as Kyoto’s expiration nears. Thus, the two-fold approach: Fill the holes, but do it one step at a time.

Interesting words from an interesting conference.

Also on MNN: Keep up with the latest headlines from Cancun

Speaking the language of climate negotiations
Leaders during the Cancun climate meetings are walking a fine line of keeping expectations in perspective, but also wanting to get something done as deadlines l