UNITED NATIONS — The Colombian ambassador was clearly agitated. Negotiations for an unprecedented international treaty to reduce global warming had been difficult and there was no sign that the United States would agree to strong terms.
Thanks to U.S. lobbying, watered-down language was emerging that allowed industrialized nations to avoid binding commitments that might hurt their economies by reducing the so-called greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
Ambassador German Garcia-Duran of Colombia wasted no time in warning of political fallout. If the developed nations of the "North" failed to commit themselves to a firm deadline for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the countries of the "South" could hardly be expected to sacrifice their own badly needed development to conserve tropical rain forests and other natural resources.
Garcia-Duran had just tipped the Third World's new trump card. Developing nations could either cooperate or they could undermine international efforts to address environmental problems that are mounting on a planetary scale.
It is a card that undoubtedly will be played in Rio de Janeiro beginning next week when officials from more than 160 nations, including President Bush and 100 other heads of state, convene at a historic Earth Summit, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.
Landmark treaties are to be signed that attempt to stave off global warming, conserve vanishing plant and animal species, and set a sweeping agenda for environmental action into the next century.
The developing nations of the South are willing to cooperate, but at a price. They want the nations of the North to demonstrate a willingness to make sacrifices of their own in curbing their seemingly insatiable appetite for energy, food and other resources. The South also wants continued financial assistance in freeing itself from the grip of poverty, and additional financial and technological aid for responding to global environmental threats.
"The South said, 'We're willing to do something with you on the environment,' " commented Environmental Defense Fund attorney Scott Hajost, " 'but you have to deal with our development agenda.' " Hajost was an official observer in New York representing the private, nonprofit environmental group.
The link between poverty, development and the environment has never been so clear. Many see Garcia-Duran's warning as new evidence of the changing political polarity in the post-Soviet world.
"Two great issues of our time are going to converge (at Rio)--the environmental degradation of the planet and the spread of poverty," observed Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington.
"I think it's quite possible when we look back at the Rio conference we will see it as the transition point between the end of one era and the beginning of another," Brown said. "The new era will be dominated not by ideological conflict of the East-West nature, but concerns about ecological sustainability. I think that's going to tend to be polarized along North-South lines. . . ."
Rhetoric over the yawning economic divide that separates rich and poor nations was never far removed from the minds of negotiators early this month as they readied a climate-change treaty for the Earth Summit.
Toufiq Ali, a minister in the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington who participated in negotiations, said the issues of poverty, development and the environment are permanently fused.
"If poverty is there and development isn't . . . then confrontation or polarization might occur, but I really frankly and sincerely hope that it wouldn't," Ali said.
Impoverished people can be as destructive to the environment as industrialization.
More than 1 billion people live in abject poverty, according to the World Bank. Within the next generation, world population will rise by 3.7 billion to nearly 9 billion. Most of the babies will be born into poor families, partly because of high infant mortality rates. Parents want to make sure they have enough surviving children to help them scrape out a meager living and to care for them in their old age.
But as populations grow, more pressure is placed on shrinking and increasingly degraded natural resources. It's hard to convince people they shouldn't cut down forests when they need the land to grow food and the wood for fires to cook it.
"Poverty itself is a toxic force," said Barber B. Conable, a former U. S. congressman from New York and president of the World Bank.
"There will continue to be a lot of issues between the North and the South," Conable said. "I don't think there's any doubt of that because there always are between haves and have-nots."