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The rains have not come to the North African Sahel this season, and many Africans leaders believe the looming hunger crisis is the result of man-made climate change that developed countries have imposed on the world.

It is impossible to pin any one weather event on climate change – droughts have happened throughout the history of the region. But African negotiators gathering in Durban, South Africa, believe they are the canaries in the coal mine, arguing they have seen more extreme weather in recent years than at any previous time.

This is a make-or-break week for the UN-sponsored effort to limit warming to 2 degrees C, a goal endorsed by all governments. While the U.S. has delegated the task to its chief negotiator Todd Stern, other countries will send environment ministers, including Canada's Peter Kent, and even heads of government in an attempt to cut through the Gordian knot.

"Climate change is our war on terror," says Seyni Nafo, a Mali native and senior negotiator for the African delegation at Durban. "Climate change is really threatening the very parameters on which life can be sustained and Mali is on the front line. So for us, the issue needs to be confronted now."

Mr. Nafo is hoping for some breakthrough at the United Nations climate conference now under way in the South African resort city.

But common ground has been elusive at United Nations climate conferences, where 190 countries struggle to overcome self-interest, ideology and differing views on the urgency of the global warming problem.

How did we reach the current impasse?

The Durban summit is being held under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and is the 17th Conference of the Parties. Hence, it is known as COP17. Some 20 years after countries first identified the need for a treaty to limit man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, they are still pursuing an agreement that would set the world on a path to achieving the called-for reductions. The watershed moment came at COP3 in Japan, when countries adopted the Kyoto Protocol, in which developed countries agreed to binding targets to reduce emissions and developing nations agreed to take what efforts were consistent with their need for economic development. The United States, however, failed to ratify Kyoto, leaving it the only industrialized country outside the scope of the treaty. Meanwhile, the growth of China and other emerging economies have prompted demands that they take more responsibility for addressing the problem. At COP15 two years ago, countries reached a political agreement in which the United States and emerging countries such as China, India and Brazil committed to reduce emissions. But debate continues over whether that deal would complement Kyoto or replace it, and what commitments the large emerging countries must take on.

Why is Africa angry with Canada?

The Kyoto Protocol is the only existing treaty that commits countries to reduce greenhouse gases. The Conservative government has been trashing it ever since coming to office. The Tories don't like the emission-reduction commitments made by the former Liberal government; they don't like international trading of emission credits; and they especially don't like the fact that China, India and Brazil are treated as developing countries, with no targets for emissions reduction. Developing countries see Kyoto principles – if not the actual treaty – as non-negotiable. The key for them is the recognition that industrialized countries are largely responsible for the problem, and therefore must bear the lion's share of effort to reduce emissions, and transfer billions of dollar to poorer nations to help them cope. Mali's Mr. Nafo said the poorer developing countries fear that, without Kyoto, they'll be left to face the onslaught of climate change with meagre resources, while richer nations bicker and delay. Canada's position is "disheartening," he said. "We're very frustrated, we're sad and we're bitter and it's a very unfortunate situation." He took particular umbrage at Environment Minister Kent's suggestion that poorer countries are looking for "guilt payments." "It's a scientific fact that human-induced climate change was created by [industrialized countries] having the quality of life they have today and this is the whole concept of historical responsibility," he said. "They should take leadership."

Who will determine the outcome of Durban?

The Europeans will try to cobble together some compromise with the developing countries that will allow the Kyoto Protocol to limp along, with or without Canada. But the key players are the United States and what's called the BASIC group: Brazil, South Africa, India and China. They hope to reach agreement on a series of issues, including setting up a climate fund and establishing ways to verify that countries are making cuts. The BASIC group insists that any new deal must be done on the basis of Kyoto principles, with the differentiated responsibility between developed and developing nations. The United States is pushing hard to have BASIC – and China in particular – take on more responsibility, and to have their efforts subject to international monitoring. Canada is hewing so tightly to the American position that little daylight can be seen between them. No one expects a broad new agreement that would supersede Kyoto to be concluded at Durban. It would be counted a victory if ministers can leave South Africa without the entire UN climate edifice collapsed in ruin.