The UN climate conference meeting in the Mexican resort town of Cancun at the end of the month promises to be a far less dramatic circus than the Copenhagen conference at the end of last year. There is a lot less media and political hype about the Cancun meeting than we saw around Copenhagen. Given the lacklustre conclusion of last year’s conference, paying less attention to this meeting is so crazy it just might work.

Early this year, commentators indulged in schadenfreude over the failure of Copenhagen to secure a comprehensive global agreement on climate change. How much the inflated hype influenced the anti-climactic conclusion to that conference is still an open question, but the disappointment following Copenhagen has not made the need to complete the job any less pressing.

We still need a new international climate treaty to help ensure that global pollution is reduced, just as we still need domestic legislation to achieve the same thing here. Beyond the altering gaze of the media, the climate negotiations have been quietly and slowly progressing throughout this year towards a new deal to achieve these things.

After the glamour and clamour of Copenhagen, the Cancun meeting needs to put in place the nuts and bolts for a global deal on climate change. Cancun can facilitate the important architectural, systematic and framework decisions that will lead us to a global deal in 2011 with clarity and purpose. Framework decisions on climate change finance, mitigation and transparency, on adaptation and on deforestation can be established in December and built on next year. The conference to be held in South Africa in 2011 will then be capable of create the framework of a broad, durable and effective climate change treaty in time to establish new commitments under the Kyoto Protocol for 2012 onwards.

The fiery opera of argument in Copenhagen was stimulating copy for journalists, but not the stuff of lasting global security. What we need to see this December in Cancun is the countries knuckling down to the unspectacular business of agreement.

Australia’s role in all of this is little understood. Since the federal election, the attention of climate change commentators has swung back to the domestic arena, with the establishment of a committee whose task it is to implement a limit and price on greenhouse pollution. Australia, like the US, is in the embarrassing situation of returning to yet another climate conference without supporting domestic legislation on climate change. Nevertheless, Australia needs to and can play a constructive role in Cancun and beyond making offers instead of demands, forging compromise instead of inflaming division. By the time we get to South Africa in December 2011, we must have domestic climate legislation in place that will transform our economy away from dangerous polluting industries and practices.

Compromise and co-operation, of course, do not sell many newspapers, which is why journalists tend to exacerbate conflict. The part that politicians, civil society advocates and journalists can play in an unspectacular but effective climate conference in Cancun is one that is unnatural and unpractised for each: to foster agreement, consensus and harmony.

Our collective willingness to play that part is a test of our sincerity on climate change and global solutions to it. Are we in it for the circus, the blame and the drama, or are we in it to find a common solution to our common calamity?