The widespread view of climate change is that it would be progressive, which means humans would have enough time to respond to the crisis and plants and animals have a better chance of adapting to its effects.

But scientists at the conference on global warming say there is also the risk of sudden, catastrophic, irreversible and uncontrollable climate change that could be triggered in as-yet unknown conditions.

“There’s still a great deal we don’t know about these rapid non-linear events,” British scientist Sir John Houghton, a leading member of the UN’s top panel on global warming, said.

The climate conference opened to renewed concern about the worsening threat of global warming and appeals from Britain to its ally, the United States, not to stand on the sidelines.

British Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett, in a speech to open the three-day meeting of more than 100 scientists, said all countries emitted greenhouse gases and so the problem required an international response.

“A significant impact (on the world’s climate system) is already inevitable,” she said.

“What is certainly clear is that temperatures will go on rising… most of the warming we are expecting over the next few decades is now virtually inevitable.”

Ms Beckett warned “No one country, not even one continent, can solve the problem by acting alone.”

She hailed the Kyoto Protocol, the UN’s pact on carbon pollution, which takes life on February 16 after more than seven years of haggling to complete its rulebook and secure its ratification.

“Kyoto is very much a first step”,” said Ms Beckett, who also lobbied for clean technology and encouragement for developing countries not to follow rich nations down the path of fossil-fuel pollution.

Analysts say the prospects for Kyoto are clouded at best, given that it lacks the United States, the world’s No. 1 carbon polluter.

US President George Bush declared in 2001 that the deal was too expensive for the oil-dependent American economy.

Ms Beckett admitted it was “out of the question” for Washington to return to Kyoto after this walkout, but “we would like to see America engaging very much more fully” in international cooperation on carbon pollution.

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