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."
Nonetheless, there are signs of cooperation. Two years ago in London, industrialized nations acknowledged an obligation to help poor countries join in worldwide efforts to cope with environmental threats. A treaty known as the Montreal Protocol to protect the Earth's ozone layer from man-made chemicals used in refrigeration and air conditioning was amended to create a fund for helping Third World nations switch to safer substitutes.
Now, a similar arrangement is being incorporated into the proposed treaty on climate change, although details remain to be worked out and disagreements persist over the size of the fund and its administration. In addition, the pact calls for developing countries to have a greater voice in how the funds are spent.
The fund would allow developing countries to pay the costs of turning to advanced technologies that would enable them to achieve higher living standards while avoiding the North's dirtier development path.
Typically, the new technology involves advances in energy efficiency allowing increased production at lower pollution levels. This could include energy-saving light bulbs and redesigned air-conditioner motors that draw less electricity.
For coal-fired power plants, the use of more efficient combustion technology means electricity can be generated burning less coal. Coal is a major source of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas. Ultimately, developing nations with the aid of the North must turn to new energy sources, such as solar heating, whenever feasible.
In exchange, the North wants to be sure the additional aid is used only to pay for environmental safeguards and not the cost of business-as-usual development. A proposed treaty to preserve biological diversity--while binding on all nations that sign it--is especially intended to encourage poor countries to establish nature reserves and take other steps to protect natural habitats and ecosystems.
For its part, the South largely has set aside its suspicions that environmental concerns are a plot by the rich to thwart their development. They acknowledge there are scientific grounds for alarm and that without their cooperation, attempts to ward off environmental calamities will be seriously undermined, if not doomed.
They also recognize that as poor countries they will be least able to cope with the potentially wrenching changes wrought by global warming--including floods from rising sea levels and drought from shifting rainfall patterns. Further, they concede that if they over-exploit natural resources they will be condemning themselves to an ever-downward spiral of poverty.
"We have an opportunity here to try to develop relationships internationally that are based on mutual interests as opposed to conflicting interests," said chief U. S. negotiator Robert Reinstein. "The collapse of the political bloc in Eastern Europe obviously provides an opportunity for people to examine what is a more sensible way to organize the world and relationships among countries. The environment ought to be a common concern of everyone, I think, both locally and globally."
Many see the emerging cooperation, however tenuous, as proof of the South's ascending influence in world affairs.
While northern industrialized nations now account for about half of greenhouse gas emissions, that contribution will shrink to 25% by the year 2025 as the economies and populations of developing nations grow.
At the moment, the North accounts for 20% of the world's population but consumes 70% of the world's energy, 75% of its metals, 85% of its wood and 60% of its food. The per capita income gap between the richest 20% of the world's population and the poorest 20% has increased one hundred-fiftyfold over the past 20 years.
But when it comes to biological diversity, 60% to 70% of the world's plant and animal species are found in just a dozen nations, all of them developing countries except Australia.
The demographics and the natural resources of the South are certain to become formidable bargaining chips. "We all recognize that chip is there," observed Naresh C. Singh, who led the Lucia delegation at the U. N. treaty talks.
Rain forests and other Third World resources are becoming increasingly important to industrialized nations. The forests act as "sinks" that absorb carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. They also represent a rich treasure of biological resources that could be the keys to cures for cancer and other diseases and for safeguarding food crops from destructive pests, blights and changes in the climate.
But for now, the influence of poor countries still cannot compare with the economic and political might of the North.
In New York, for example, the South was unable to push the United States into accepting a stronger climate-change treaty, even with the backing of some European nations such as Germany. Many of the developing countries--with the notable exception of such oil producers as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia--called for stabilizing carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, is emitted when fossil fuels such as gasoline, coal and oil are burned.
Similarly, negotiations in Nairobi over the biological diversity treaty produced only general obligations to conserve species. The United States fought specific requirements that could lead to tougher and more costly environmental laws at home.
Both the climate change and biological diversity pacts can be strengthened in the future, as was the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer.
"We are not entirely satisfied in the sense that we expected more," said Rubens Ricupero, Brazil's ambassador to the United States. "But we had settled for what is realistic at the present time."
Hajost of the Environmental Defense Fund said, "I'd say they each got about what they wanted. Maybe the North got a bit more. But the South can argue . . . we can come back and put pressure for continued reform."
The success of delegates in forging a new global compact that reconciles the aspirations of the South for higher living standards without further straining the world's already stressed environment remains to be seen.
For the South to match the North's living standards, 10 times as much fossil fuel and 200 times as much mineral wealth as is used today would be required, barring changes in technology and improvements in energy efficiency. Within another 40 years, the requirements would double again as the world population soars.
To achieve that without ravaging the environment, Third World growth must be achieved on a sustainable basis. That means, for instance, forests essential to a poor country's development should be logged in a way that allows them to regenerate--a practice even the United States does not always observe.
In the North, where few political leaders are willing to ask their constituents to make do with less, the most palatable strategy will probably involve greater efforts to use resources more efficiently--a way to maintain high standards of living while reducing the impact on the environment.
"The character of growth models must change," concluded a a recent report published by the Hague Symposium, a U. N. sponsored conference on sustainable development that took place in March.
"Can it change only for the developing world while the North continues to pursue the same path to material consumption?," the report asked. "This is clearly unrealistic in a world drawn close together into a global village. Dualistic models of development cannot long endure--one model for the rich North and quite another one for the poor South."
Hajost said the Earth Summit "is getting at the heart and core of the international economic system. From a Southern point of view, they believe it's been dominated by the North. Trade is dominated by the North . . . there is the hemorrhaging cash flow from the South to the North in huge debt transfers. . . . How do you find that balance? That is what (the Rio summit) is all about. It won't produce the answers. But it may produce a path . . . into the next century."
The North-South Division
Background: With the fall of the Soviet Union, East-West rivalries are giving way to a growing North-South debate between the rich industrialized countries of the North and the poorer developing countries of the South.
The North achieved a high standard of living through industrialization--but at a high price in environmental degradation. If the South follows the same path, the planet may never recover.
The Issue: How much financial and technological aid the North will give the South to put it on a development path that meets the growing demands of burgeoning populations while protecting vast but diminishing environmental resources.
The accompanying map classifies economies by income group.
Low-income economies are those with per capita gross national product* of $610 or less in 1990; middle-income, $611 to $7,619; high-income, $7,620 or more.
SOURCE: World Bank
* GNP measures the total output of goods and services produced by residents taking into account both production at home and net income from abroad.
+ Low-income economies
++ Middle-income economies
+++ High-income economies
++++ Data not available.