Cancun is no place for a “coolist”. After the frigid environs of Poland and Denmark for the two previous Conference of the Parties hosted by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP 16 is being held in the steamy heat of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

But Cancun will be no place to sign a treaty either. After the frustration of Copenhagen, and the level of mistrust that still runs deep amongst the key players, thoughts of a binding international treaty have been put aside until South Africa in 2011, or Rio de Janeiro in 2012. Even that seems optimistic.

A survey completed by the Washington-based Centre for American Progress points to the issue that hangs heavy over the these talks: Will the US ever be able to come to the party? And if it doesn’t, then who will be prepared to commit?

The CDP survey finds that, of the 100 newly-elected US Republican Senators and Representatives, not a single one has publicly accepted the scientific consensus on climate change. Eighty of them signed a “no climate tax” pledge organised by Koch Industries, the oil and manufacturing giant that is now the biggest contributor to so-called sceptics groups, and more than three quarters of the sitting Republicans publicly question the science.

This makes it hard to imagine that the US could ever deliver the 67 votes necessary to ratify an international treaty on climate change. And as Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, says, that will get even harder after 2012, when twice as many Democrats face elections than Republicans.

This creates a problem. As Damian Ryan of the Climate Group pointed out last week, developing countries want a clear signal out of Cancun that the Kyoto Protocol will continue into a second commitment beyond 2012, and the parallel convention that many hope will be adopted alongside it will be a legally binding agreement and will include the US. Without the US being able to engage and commit, other major emitters such as Canada, Russia and Japan will not sign up for a second commitment period of Kyoto, and others won’t move either.

“It’s a vicious circle, and it’s unclear how it will be resolved,” says Ryan. The main task of Cancun may be to try and keep the Kyoto Protocol alive enough to keep developing countries happy, and dead enough for the developed ones. “Essentially it means keeping it on life support,” he says.

Hope, however, does spring eternal. The focus for Cancun will be on trying to gain agreement on a series of key stepping stones that might one day be part of a broader deal — finance, verifaction, adaptation, technology transfer, forests, and what to do about the pledges made as part of the Copenhagen Accord, the deal struck at the previous conference of parties (COP) which remains “noted” but not “agreed” by the international community.

“Balance” is the buzz-word — a balanced outcome, a balance between the interests of developed and developing countries, between single issues and a broader package. Mitigation and verification rank high among the objective for the developed world, forests and finance are crucial for many in the developing world. China seems focused on technology.

Some hope for even more: The former UNFCCC chief Yvo de Boer suggested a countries willing to act should not wait for the US but form a “coalition of the willing.” He suggested Europe and China were already discussing linking their emissions trading schemes. That remains to be seen. China seems as much to blame for the lack of a binding treaty as the US and other countries, but at the same time it is taking greater and more concrete steps, attracted by the rewards of a “green economy.”

Cancun will need to demonstrate progress of sorts, and the UNFCCC will need to prove its relevance.

It was always going to take something special to trump the chaos and the confusion of the Copenhagen conference, but the UNFCCC and the Mexican hosts might just be able to pull it off. Copenhagen was blighted by interminable queues and freezing weather, partially offset by free coffees from the Vegans, never scared of taking advantage of a captive audience.

The venue for this year’s climate change talks — the Moon Palace Golf Resort & Spa –– is about as far removed from the utilitarian functionality of the Bella Centre in Copenhagen as could be imagined.

The huge 5-star resort and its three Jack Nicklaus-inspired nine-hole golf courses are sprawled over several square kilometres of coastline. The resort boasts more than 2100 suites, most of which have ocean views and two person Jacuzzis – although the last of the regular tourists were leaving on Sunday — and a 220m swimming pool with four swim up bars.

According to its website, the resort is “perfect for a romantic destination wedding, honeymoon vacation or vow renewal.” Just the place then, to renew those pledge for the Copenhagen Accord.

But first of all, you have to get there. Those not fortunate enough to be staying at the host venue will be shuttle-bused to the point of exhaustion. It’s a 30 minute ride from the main hotel areas to the entrance to COP 16 at Cancun Messe, a series of enormous warehouses that will house side events, exhibitions and delegate areas. Then it’s onto a 20 minute shuttle bus back towards the Moon Palace, which itself is divided up into three sections, each interlinked with yet more shuttle buses.

The main goal appears to be to keep the official delegates, the NGOs (be they business, environmental or scientific) and the press corralled in different areas – or at least as much as they can. It seems the melting-pot atmosphere of Copenhagen was all too much for Cancun’s organisers. The rooms hosting press conferences are a 10 minute ride in the shuttle (if you can find one), or a 20 minute hike through the hotel grounds, from the press area.

It is not clear how many delegates will attend the conference. Numbers are down significantly from Copenhagen — with estimates of 10,000-15,000, compared to the more than 35,000 registered for Copenhagen. There are also fewer heads of state, with only those from nearby Latin American countries and some island states expected to attend. Nevertheless, security is tight. Military checkpoints dot the road between Cancun and the hotel areas and the conference venues. Heavily armed police vehicles shadow the shuttle buses, the navy has a highly visible presence with warships and speed boats in the waters in front of the hotel.

Copenhagen has been loosely translated as meaning “safe haven,” but there is some disagreement about the origins of the name Cancun — either “Golden Snake” or “Nest of Vipers”, depending on your Mayan scholar. Just 40 years ago, it was little more than a fishing village located on a stunning stretch of white sand. Now it is unrecognisable, with dozens and dozens of resorts — from the ridiculously opulent to the not-quite-so-flash, spread over some 30-40kms of ocean front — a gazillion tonnes of concrete and glass, and a new city of 700,000 at the edge of the “tourist zone”.

The Yucatan Pensinula is also home to the threatened Maya forest, the second biggest rainforest in the Americas after the Amazon, and the second biggest coral reef after Australia’s. Both are under threat from climate change, according to the Nature Conservancy, which also points to the increasing impact of Hurricanes and its impacts on the kilometers of mangroves.

This is not the first time Cancun has suffered from the impact of rapid climate change. According to Associated Press, researchers have studied fossilised reefs near the city that indicated the sea level rose at least two metres in as little as 50 years during the last natural warming period between ice ages some 120,000 years ago, when temperatures were only 1°C warmer than they are today.

Considering that the UN network of climate scientists projected temperatures will rise by up to 6.4°C this century if global warming is unchecked, this could be very bad news for hotel owners here, and just about everyone else. Which may explain why some couples were walking along the beach this morning with their pants rolled up. Early adaptation.

*This article was first published at Climate Spectator