Major emitters such as the U.S., China and Europe huddled in unofficial side talks -- only to rouse accusations of dealing in secret and silencing the voices of nations most vulnerable to climate change.
On Saturday morning, a few nations, including Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, blocked the conference from adopting the Copenhagen Accord, which stemmed from an eleventh-hour deal cut Friday evening between Obama and leaders of four fast-growing nations. Later, the agreement was blessed by a group of countries that the United Nations said included "the biggest and the richest, and the smallest and most vulnerable."
The procedural frustrations of the conference boiled over early Saturday during a negotiating marathon that featured surreal twists of rhetoric, including a representative from the genocide-racked nation of Sudan comparing the Copenhagen Accord to the Holocaust -- a move that appeared to galvanize smaller nations to speak up for the agreement.
When the conference ended with an acknowledged, but not approved, accord, even climate policy veterans were puzzled.
The World Wildlife Fund's Keya Chatterjee compared the summit's aftermath to the confusion following the 2000 U.S. presidential election, when lawyers descended on Florida for recounts and the Supreme Court eventually intervened.
"It's going to take a while to figure out what just happened" to the negotiating process, she said. "I follow this process pretty closely, and I don't really know what happened. I don't think anyone at this point knows what happened."
Even Obama, at his triumphant news conference, confessed that he wasn't sure whether the U.S. would physically sign the agreement.
Conference leaders praised the accord warily, even as they warned of its faults.
"We now have a package to work with and begin immediate action," Yvo de Boer, the U.N.'s top climate official, said in a news release. "However, we need to be clear that it is a letter of intent and is not precise about what needs to be done in legal terms. So the challenge is now to turn what we have agreed politically in Copenhagen into something real, measurable and verifiable,"
In closing, the news release noted that negotiators across the globe will meet in Germany next spring and again in Mexico City for a major conference near the end of 2010.
When, presumably, they will do it all over again.