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U.N. climate talks to test U.S. shifts

Up to 190 nations will start work on a new U.N. climate treaty in Bangkok on Monday, in a test of how far the world has progressed after years of deadlock highlighted by a U.S. outburst about a duck in 2005.

A man walks through a parched field in Laguna province south of Manila in this July 29, 2007 file photo. (REUTERS/Stringer/Files)

"If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck," chief U.S. climate negotiator Harlan Watson said in Montreal, denouncing what he called a veiled bid to launch negotiations on a pact to combat global warming.

Opposed to the start of any negotiations, he gathered up his papers and walked out of a late-night United Nations meeting, leaving the other, stunned delegates around the table. He returned only the next day after concessions were made.

Less than three years later, Watson will sit down for the March 31-April 4 meeting in Bangkok with many of the same officials who were in Canada to start negotiations due to end in late 2009 with a tough global treaty to fight climate change.

But questions remain over whether the United States, the only rich country opposed to caps on emissions of greenhouse gases under the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol, has really changed or is merely being dragged into negotiations.

Bangkok may also give signs about how far developing nations led by China and India are willing to go in rein in their rising emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels. They worry that any curbs could slow their economic growth.

"I think the U.S. really has changed," Yvo de Boer, head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat in Bonn, told Reuters. He also praised willingness by developing nations to act.

He said U.S. President George W. Bush had come to office in 2001 saying scientists disagreed about whether climate change was a threat but now saw it as a serious problem.

A main spur for urgency has been the U.N. Climate Panel, which said last year it was at least 90 percent sure human activities were to blame for a warming that will bring more floods, heatwaves, droughts and rising seas.


"I think we have demonstrated a lot of flexibility," Watson told Reuters. "We never think we get enough credit -- nor enough credit for what we have been doing all along."

Washington has made big investments in technologies such as hydrogen even though it opposes Kyoto, which obliges 37 rich nations to cut emissions by 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12. A new treaty would seek to involve all countries.

Watson said he did not remember his exact words about the duck in Montreal but said they were along the lines of the quote above. In a joking protest, environmentalists bought yellow plastic ducks and handed them to delegates.

Montreal ended with agreement to start an informal "dialogue" on actions to fight climate change, specifying at U.S. insistence that it was not a prelude to negotiations.

The WWF environmental group said the United States, long the top emitter of greenhouse gases but being caught by China, had been forced into a corner by rising worries about climate change and a more assertive approach by poorer nations such as China.

The United States was the last to drop objections to the launch of negotiations at U.N. talks in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007 -- and only after its delegates were booed.

"They were totally isolated and they couldn't stomp out of the room any more," said Martin Hiller of the WWF.

"The United States has been dragged kicking and screaming all the way," said John Lanchbery, principal climate advisor to the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

"All that will change at the end of the year," he said, noting that Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton favoured tougher action.

Still, Watson predicted the next president would face demands by Congress for tougher action by nations such as China and India in return for any U.S. curbs on greenhouse gases. "I think that's going to be a bottom-line requirement," he said.

De Boer also said many developing nations were making concessions. "China and India have not been reluctant to act on climate change, but they have objected to having commitments imposed on them that would hurt their economic growth," he said.

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