Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner, in their Commentary (Nature 449, 973–975; 2007), manage to be perfectly right and utterly wrong at the same time. Their criticism of the bureaucratic Kyoto Protocol is justified on many crucial points (although they don't mention that the physical impact of the protocol on the climate system would be negligible even if it worked). The novelty of this summary of well-known deficiencies in the treaty is that the list comes from independent European scientists rather than White House mandarins. Is there anything substantially new beyond that provocation?

Yes, in the sense that Prins and Rayner boldly propagate a “bottom-up 'social learning' ” approach to climate policy that aspires to “put public investment in energy R&D on a wartime footing”. I agree with the importance of both elements to twenty-first century climate protection, but doubt whether there is a solid causal chain linking them. Fine-scale measures and movements towards sustainability, as well as technological and institutional innovation strategies, are needed to decarbonize our industrial metabolism and to force policy-makers to face the challenges ahead. Fancy phrases such as “the silver buckshot” may help to sell the case.

Time is crucial, however. It is unlikely that a bottom-up, multi-option approach alone will be able to mobilize war-level climate-protection efforts by all the major emitters (including Russia, China and India) within the one or two decades left to avert an unmanageable planetary crisis. Without a 'global deal' — designed for effectiveness, efficiency and fairness and providing a framework to accommodate every nation — there will be neither sufficient pressure nor appropriate orientation towards the climate solutions we desperately need. The bottom-up and top-down approaches are complementary and must be pursued interactively.

Kyoto is simply a miserable precursor of the global regime intended to deliver genuine climate stablization — and was never expected to be more. “Ditching” it now would render all the agonies involved completely meaningless after the event, denying the entire process of policy evolution the slightest chance to succeed. So, instead of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic through social learning, let us ditch pusillanimity.