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Disaster Conference Risks Polarization Over Role of Climate Change

The World Conference on Disaster Reduction, meeting in Japan in the aftermath of last month's Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, was expected to be a fairly non-controversial affair.  The United States and some other countries are unhappy with a proposed reference to the alleged impact of climate change on natural disasters in the conference's final communiqué.

Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund for Nature have been contending in recent years that global warming is increasing the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.  But how much effect human activity has on global warming and climate change is hotly debated by scientists and governments.

Some countries at the conference want to include a reference to climate change in the final document.  The United States, which has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, says it objects. 

State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Mark Lagon says the role of climate on natural disasters is a legitimate topic for discussion, but the topic of climate change should be excluded from the conference's action plan. 

"It is well known that there are controversies about the issue of climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, in other venues of the U.N. It's our desire that this controversy not distract this conference. And there are other nations who are raising this question, too," he said.

Among countries backing the U.S. stance, according to several high-level delegates, are Australia, and oil-producing states including Iran - not normally an American ally on international issues. 

The conference's coordinator, John Horekens, says a group of nations including the European Union and Bangladesh is pushing for a strong emphasis on the subject of climate change.

"The countries of the European Union would like to see certainly more reference to climate change than we have right now,” he noted.  “But this is a negotiated text and it's going to take another couple of days and eventually we'll thrash out a solution."

U.N. officials say the chairman of the main committee drafting the document, a representative of the Swiss Foreign Ministry, has instructed a special committee to hash out the issue before the conference closes on Saturday.

U.N. officials say they are confident a compromise will be achieved, and that the framework will ultimately include some reference to climate change, despite the wishes of the United States.

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