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A meeting of more than 130 nations aimed at helping to prevent catastrophic changes in the world's climate seems unlikely to produce substantial progress toward limiting carbon dioxide emissions, which scientists say are the main cause of global warming.

The conference, which opened here Tuesday, has the modest goal of starting up a negotiating process to set limits on emissions. But the nations taking part have broken into feuding blocs, unable to agree even on procedural issues.Angela Merkel, the German environment minister and chairman of the conference, tried Saturday in behind-the-scenes negotiations to smooth over differences before senior government leaders begin arriving on Wednesday for the final days of the conference. But her pleas for new limits on emissions have met with strong resistance.

"I am saddened that many countries do not want to go as far as the European Union in reducing green-house gases," Merkel told a television interviewer Friday night.

In a speech opening the 11-day conference, which is sponsored by the United Nations, Merkel urged delegates to take new steps to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

"If we don't take action, we must expect grave and irreversible consequences," Merkel said. "A rise in sea levels, a shift in climate and vegetation zones and a deterioration in food production and the world nutrition situation are only a few examples."

"If we wait until observable climate changes have begun, we will be stuck with them for decades," she warned. "If we are serious about long-term change, we will not be able to avoid radical changes in our patterns of consumption and production and in our lifestyle."

At the Earth Summit conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, industrialized countries agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Not only are some industrialized countries unwilling to accept further targets, but there is growing evidence that they will not be able to reach those adopted in Rio.

The European Union supports Germany's position in favor of setting new targets for reducing climate-altering emissions. Its strongest allies are small island nations, whose leaders say that rising sea levels threaten their countries with physical extinction.

A representative of the island states, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Maldive Islands, an Indian Ocean nation whose highest point is just 10 feet above sea level, made an impassioned plea to the conference delegates.

"Each tick of the clock could be time lost in saving some 30 small island nations from drowning in a sea of rising tides," Gayoom said. "The meager resources of the small, island, developing states, whose narrow-based economies are pressed to alleviate hunger, poverty and illiteracy, cannot be set aside for rectifying the mistakes of powerful and affluent nations."

An unusual coalition has emerged to oppose curbs on carbon dioxide emissions exceeding the levels accepted in Rio.

The main members are oil-producing states led by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which fear lost revenue if oil consumption is cut; Russia and China, which fear that their drive for rapid industrialization will be slowed by restrictions on the use of oil products; and five developed nations with similar concerns - the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Oil-producing nations insist that all decisions at the conference be made by consensus, giving them an effective veto. European countries want decisions to be made by a two-thirds or three-quarters majority.