updated 11/28/2005 6:54:04 AM ET 2005-11-28T11:54:04

Thousands of environmentalists and government officials from around the world have descended on Montreal to brainstorm on how to slow the effects of greenhouses gases and global warming. In the process they will probably witness the collapse of the Canadian government.

In a nightmarish turn of events for Environment Minister Stephane Dion, the House of Commons was set to topple Prime Minister Paul Martin’s minority government on Monday, the same day Canada opens the 10-day U.N. Climate Control Conference.

The opposition has enough votes to bring down Martin’s Liberal government — seizing on a corruption scandal within his party — which means Dion and other Cabinet ministers could be forced to forego the conference and instead hit Canada’s short campaign trail for national elections in January.

Most significant since Kyoto agreement
The U.N. conference, with some 10,000 participants from 180 nations, is considered the most important gathering on climate change since 140 nations ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

That landmark agreement, negotiated in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto, targets carbon dioxide and five other gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, and are believed to be behind rising global temperatures that many scientists say are disrupting weather patterns.

The treaty took effect in February and calls on industrialized nations to dramatically cut their gas emissions between 2008 and 2012. The conference that opens Monday will set new agreements on how much more emissions should be cut after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires, though most signatories are already falling far short of their targets.

The European Union appears to be taking the lead, endorsing a plan in June to bring emissions of greenhouses gases down 15 percent to 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

The Kyoto accord was delayed by the requirement that countries accounting for 55 percent of the world’s emissions must ratify it. That goal was finally reached — nearly seven years after the pact was negotiated — with Russia’s approval last year.

The United States, the world’s largest emitter of such gases, has refused to ratify the agreement, saying it would harm the U.S. economy and is flawed by the lack of restrictions on emissions by emerging economies such as China and India.

Kyoto calls on the world’s top 35 industrialized countries to cut carbon dioxide and other gas emissions by 5.2 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012.

The targets for cuts vary by region: The European Union initially committed to cutting emissions to 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012; the United States agreed to a 7 percent reduction before President Bush, who advocates the development of alternatives to fossil fuels, rejected the pact in 2001.

Amount of carbon dioxide grows
The conference comes amid new research showing there is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — a major contributor to greenhouse gases — than at any point in the last 650,000 years. The study by the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica, published earlier this month in the journal Science, analyzed tiny air bubbles preserved in Antarctic ice for millennia.

Earth’s average temperature, meanwhile, has increased about 1 degree Fahrenheit in recent decades, a relatively rapid rise. Many climate specialists warn that continued warming could have severe effects, such as rising sea levels and changing rainfall patterns, variations already devastating ancient communities and wildlife, such as the Inuit and polar bears of Canada’s far northeastern regions.

Skeptics sometimes dismiss the rise in greenhouse gases as part of a naturally fluctuating cycle. The new study provides more definitive evidence countering that view.

Deep Antarctic ice encases tiny air bubbles formed over hundreds of thousands of years. Extracting the air allows a direct measurement of the atmosphere at past points in time, to determine the naturally fluctuating range.

A previous ice-core sample had traced greenhouse gases back about 440,000 years. This new sample, from East Antarctica, goes 210,000 years further back in time.

Today’s rising level of carbon dioxide already is 27 percent higher than its peak during all that time, said lead researcher Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern, Switzerland.

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