MONTREAL, Dec 7: Environment ministers from around the world heard a grim warning about the threat to the Arctic on Wednesday as they began three days of talks to climax a key conference on climate change here.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, whose country is hosting the 12-day conference, said his nation’s far north had become ‘an incubator for the altered world of tomorrow’.

“High in the Arctic, in our interior and along our coasts, the country we know is being transformed,” he said.

“Winters are growing milder, summers hotter and more severe, there is plant life where before there was none; there is water before there was ice. Our permafrost is thawing, and releasing methane gas into the atmosphere.”

He added: “Within short decades, the Northwest passage, the famously unnavigable thoroughfare of history, may be passable — a striking and unsettling example of our delicate balance succumbing to untenable strain.”

Mr Martin blasted the small but influential minority of sceptics who doubted that Man had interfered with Earth’s delicate climate balance.

“The time is past to debate the impact of climate change. We no longer need to ask people to imagine its effects, for now we can see them.”

The conference gathers ministers or their stand-ins from 189 countries and entities under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the fruit of the 1992 Rio Summit.

The meeting’s big focus is the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the troubled UN pact on curbing greenhouse gases.

Emissions of this carbon pollution have surged in the past century thanks to unbridled use of oil, gas and coal.

The gases act like an invisible blanket, trapping the Sun’s heat and driving up the planet’s surface temperature and disrupting climate cycles.

Scientists say there is mounting evidence that the first effects of climate change are already kicking in, with the melting of Alpine and Himalayan glaciers and erosion of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets.

They also speculate that this year’s unprecedented season of Atlantic storms, spearheaded by Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans, was caused by global warming.

Tackling the pollution is a big headache because of the economic cost.

Rich countries, which are most to blame for the problem, will have to make big strides in fuel efficiency and switch to cleaner energy sources.

Developing countries, meanwhile, will have to avoid becoming dependent on fossil fuels, which have a big cost advantage over fledging alternative technologies.

The United States, the world’s No. 1 carbon polluter, walked away from Kyoto in 2001.

President George Bush said the scientific evidence for climate change was incomplete and complained that Kyoto’s legal requirements for reducing emissions were too costly for the US economy.

Mr Martin made a veiled attack on this position by warning that no-one was immune from climate change.

“The time is past to seek comfort in denial. The time is past to pretend that any nation can stand alone, isolated from the global community... there can be no hiding on any island, in any city, within any country, no matter how prosperous, from the consequences of inaction.” —AFP

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