NATIONS:

Climate talks sail into rough seas

COPENHAGEN -- Nothing seems to be going smoothly as the U.N. climate negotiations reach their climax here.

Inside the Bella Center, a bloc of major developing countries clashed with the conference's Danish hosts today over rumors that a new last-minute proposal was being put together among a small group of key countries.

The United States, with instructions from the White House, challenged a separate draft agreement to tackle climate change floated in the early morning hours by a special ad hoc U.N. panel.

And amid the snow flurries outside, Copenhagen transit officials temporarily shut down the main Metro train station at the conference center as police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters who tried to storm the heavily guarded site.

Amid all this, the first of 115 world leaders have started arriving in an attempt to break a deadlock by Friday between rich and poor nations over who should do what to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

"The final negotiations will be tense and strenuous," warned Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who abruptly took over today as the chairman of the conference in order to preside over a series of speeches from the leaders of several key negotiation blocs.

Yet even that seemingly simple scheduling move didn't go as planned.

Top representatives from Brazil, China, India and Sudan repeatedly thwarted Rasmussen's request to begin the high-level segment of the conference to protest what they said is the arrival of a new Danish draft plan that they said they hadn't been fully consulted on.

A tense exchange

"I think the world is expecting us to reach an agreement addressing climate change and not just discussing procedure, procedure, procedure," Rasmussen said.

But Su Wei, a senior Chinese diplomat, fired back. "I think the matter is not just procedure, procedure, procedure," he said. "I think it's substance. ... You can't just put forward some text from the sky."

Ultimately, Rasmussen overruled the objections of the major developing countries and urged them to take their concerns into a separate meeting held in another giant conference room.

"I hope that will convince everybody on the fact that we have had the idea of creating a very transparent inclusive process, but on the other hand, we also have to move forward," Rasmussen said before introducing the first of more than 150 speakers who are scheduled to occupy the main podium here over the next three days.

White House engaged

President Obama is expected to speak to the U.N. conference on Friday during a one-day visit to the Copenhagen capital that organizers hope will include a culminating ceremony.

Indeed, the U.N. daily program includes a tentative plenary session scheduled for 3 p.m. Copenhagen time (9 a.m. EST) to adopt the final agreement.

But it will take considerable work to get there.

In an early-morning session, deputy State Department climate envoy Jonathan Pershing said the United States had "substantial discomfort" with the latest U.N. draft proposal, which left blank many of the key decisions on emission reduction targets and financing.

"We think it needs a fundamental revision," he said, explaining the U.S. goal of reaching a political agreement in Copenhagen that places industrialized and major developing countries on track to implement domestic emission cuts that are both "transparent" and "accountable to the global community."

U.N. secretary-general lowers expectations

Back in Washington, ahead of his trans-Atlantic trip, Obama worked the phones with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"I believe that all of these countries share the strong goal of getting something done by the end of this week in Copenhagen," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. "The president certainly shares that and believes that we can make progress assuming we meet some of those operational goals.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also sought to lower expectations on the outcome in Copenhagen in a series of interviews with reporters.

Ban told the Los Angeles Times that the Copenhagen agreement will lead to a legally binding treaty next year. And he said in the Financial Times that he didn't think it was necessary for the negotiations here to lead to a firm long-term financial figure for developing countries.

"If they are not able to agree this time at Copenhagen, then there needs to be some initial arrangement," Ban said. "This is a time when common sense, compromise and partnership should prevail."

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