WASHINGTON — Although badly split along regional, economic and political lines, environmental ministers from nearly 70 nations are about to gather in the Netherlands for the most serious governmental confrontation yet over the issue of global warming.
Many scientists consider global warming the over-arching environmental crisis of the 20th Century. But while the ministers may be asked to endorse a global effort to stabilize the atmosphere by the turn of the century, some of the countries still question evidence that the world climate could be catastrophically changed by "greenhouse gases" generated by the burning of fossil fuels.
Preparations for the meeting also have revealed sharp differences within the Bush Administration, which faces mounting pressure from Congress and environmental organizations who want an international treaty to stem the emission of carbon dioxide and other gases that trap sunlight and create the greenhouse effect.
As the U.S. delegation held its final meeting Monday in preparation for the conference, 40 Senate Democrats called on President Bush to mandate "a decisive U.S. role."
But after the delegation meeting, sources said the U.S. representatives would go to the conference with an "open-ended position," waiting to see what is proposed.
The Dutch government has been working for months on a draft declaration calling for action to stem the flow of greenhouse gases. Working-level delegation members will take up work on the final version Friday, hoping to have something that ministers can sign when they arrive for their talks on Sunday and Monday.
The Bush Administration contends that international action should be the responsibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change--a U.N.-sponsored organization due to meet in Washington next February.
But Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly, who will head the American delegation to the Netherlands conference, reportedly wanted to go beyond simply supporting the IPCC as the organization to bring a worldwide response to the problem.
At a meeting of the White House Domestic Policy Council several days ago, he is understood to have recommended that the United States discuss with other governments a goal of stabilizing the atmosphere by the end of the century. He also proposed that the United States host a meeting next year to launch negotiations on an international convention on global warming.
According to sources privy to the meeting, both White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and presidential science adviser D. Allan Bromley opposed the suggestions.
Reilly was supported only by the State Department. There was even some discussion about whether Reilly and an American delegation should attend the meeting in the Netherlands.
In the letter to the President on Monday, the 40 Democratic senators said they were dismayed at the rejection of the EPA administrator's recommendation that treaty negotiations begin next year in the United States.
"Continued U.S. inaction and ambivalence on the single most important environmental issue of the century sends a dangerous signal to the rest of the world that we can no longer be counted as leaders in the effort to establish an international dialogue on global environmental change," said the letter written by Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The senators called upon Bush to reiterate a pledge of last May to convene an international conference on the effects of global climate change.
Although its share of the world contribution of greenhouse gases is decreasing, the United States is still responsible for nearly 25% of the total.
Because of the importance of the U.S. contribution to the problem, critics of Administration policy maintain that nothing can be done unless the United States takes the lead, as it did two years ago in announcing plans to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons. That action led to an international convention on CFCs, the gases which contribute to the destruction of ozone in the atmosphere and are present in products ranging from air conditioners to spray cans.
Officials of U.S. environmental groups last week called for a U.S. commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions 20% from 1988 levels by the end of the century, and to work for completion of an international framework convention on global warming by the end of 1990.
"The Administration's posture thus far on the overriding environmental issue of our time can only be characterized as timid, adrift and paralyzed by bureaucratic indecision," said Brooks Yeager, a vice president of the National Audubon Society.
While working-level government officials draft the final document for the ministers to sign at the conclusion of their talks on Tuesday, environmental groups will convene their own international forum on global warming in Rotterdam.
In spite of the outside pressures and Reilly's proposals to the Domestic Policy Council, the Administration has so far indicated that it intends to move at its measured pace and emphasize the importance of getting cooperation from developing countries, whose burning of tropical rain forests makes a significant contribution to greenhouse gases.
Bromley told a Senate committee last week that he is opposed to undertaking any programs solely designed to reduce greenhouse gases "until we have a reasonable understanding of the scientific and economic consequences of those programs."
Bromley will be be a member of the U.S. delegation in the Netherlands, along with representatives of the departments of State, Energy, and Commerce, and the EPA.