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LONDON (Reuters) - World leaders who oppose a global agreement to tackle climate change are making a similar mistake to the one made by politicians who tried to appease Adolf Hitler before World War Two, a government minister said on Thursday.
Energy and Climate Change Minister Chris Huhne said governments must redouble efforts to find a successor to the United Nations Kyoto Protocol on emissions, although it was unlikely that a breakthrough would be made at a conference later this year in Durban in South Africa.
The global economic crisis has pushed the search for a legally binding treaty to limit planet-warming emissions down the political agenda and countries do not want to lose their competitive edge by going it alone on strict climate targets, he said.
In a speech urging countries to keep pressing for a climate deal, Huhne evoked the memory of wartime leader Winston Churchill and the fight against Nazi Germany led by Hitler.
"Climate change is getting less political attention now than it did two years ago. There is a vacuum, and the forces of low ambition are looking to fill it," he said. "Giving in to the forces of low ambition would be an act of climate appeasement.
"This is our Munich moment," he added, referring to the Munich Agreement, a 1938 pact that gave Hitler land in the former Czechoslovakia as part of a failed attempt to persuade him to abandon further territorial expansion.
"Winston Churchill...once said that 'an appeaser is someone that feeds a crocodile, hoping that it will eat him last'."
The Kyoto Protocol, which controls greenhouse gas emissions only in developed countries, expires at the end of 2012. Developing nations want to extend Kyoto, but Japan, Russia and Canada want a new, wider agreement.
Poorer countries say rich nations have emitted most greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution and must extend Kyoto before poor countries can be expected to sign up.
But Huhne said there was no time to lose if the world was to avoid higher temperatures that would bring a catastrophic mix of drought, storms, disease and rising sea levels.
"We cannot wait for every country to become equal, because that would mean waiting for an eternity," he told an audience at the Chatham House think tank in London. "At some point, we must draw a line and say: this starts now. This starts here."
He said temperatures must be kept within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) of pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst effects of climate change. They have already risen by 0.8 degrees Celsius and even if all emissions were stopped today, they would rise by a further 0.5 of a degree, he said.
"Sticking to our 2 degree limit means global emissions must peak by 2020 at the latest," Huhne said.
While major progress in Durban looks unlikely, there is scope for optimism in two years' time, he added.
"From 2013, there will be new political leadership in the world's major economies. We hope to have put the global recession behind us. The stars may be more closely aligned in favour of a binding legal deal," he said.
Reporting by Peter Griffiths