Summit to Save the Earth: Rich vs. Poor

North and South will meet in Rio to confront the planet's most pressing ills. The event could change the world -- or be a disaster of global proportions.

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Olivier Morin / AFP / Getty

Smoke from a Finnish factory.

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The fact that this past winter in the northern hemisphere was one of the ) warmest in history may be a coincidence. But most scientists agree that all the smoke and fumes and exhaust that humans generate will eventually alter the earth's climate. Those changes could be modest. Or they could trigger coastal flooding, interior droughts, mass exoduses and pockets of starvation. What irks some developing nations -- and in particular Brazil -- is that many people who worry about global warming point their fingers at the release of carbon dioxide from the burning of rain forests. The bigger threats are the CO2 and other greenhouse gases produced in the industrial countries by the burning of fossil fuels. In per capita terms, individuals in the North generate nearly 10 times as much CO2 from energy use as their counterparts in the South.

The problem for the long term is that people in developing countries now want those consumer items that make life in the industrial world so comfortable as well as environmentally costly -- those private cars, refrigerators and air conditioners. If per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in China and India were to rise to the level of those in France, for example, emissions worldwide would jump nearly 70% -- making a deteriorating situation even worse.

A treaty to prevent climate change was to be the centerpiece of the Rio summit. However, poor countries didn't see why their plans for development should suffer in order to rectify a problem they did not create. Some rich nations did not want to sign on to anything that would threaten their life- styles or increase the cost of doing business. Trying to spur agreement, the European Community proposed cutting CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000 -- a relatively modest reduction. But the U.S. steadfastly refused to consider any such rigid deadlines. Skeptical about the evidence that global warming will occur, the Bush Administration was concerned that an arbitrary reduction in the output of CO2 would mean a decline in industrial production and a loss of jobs -- a particularly unappealing prospect in an election year.

The climate-change talks had just about reached an impasse when committee chairman Jean Ripert of France took it upon himself to draw up a compromise text liberally sprinkled with what he calls "constructive ambiguities." It requires nations to roll back greenhouse-gas emissions to "earlier levels" by the end of the decade and report periodically on their progress, but the target of reaching 1990 levels becomes merely a voluntary goal. That seemed to do the trick. Despite loud protests by environmentalists that the agreement was too weak, it was adopted two weeks ago and sent on for signature at Rio.

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