RIO DE JANEIRO — Finding himself isolated at the Earth Summit, President Bush on Friday issued an unapologetic defense of America's environmental record and said that leadership sometimes requires a nation to stand alone.
"I did not come here to apologize," Bush told more than 110 world leaders in his brief formal address. "We come to press on with deliberate purpose and forceful action."
But his remarks appeared to do little to quell the discontent of presidents, prime ministers and delegates, who had hoped the summit meeting would do more to address the environmental problems that face the world.
Bush's remarks were greeted with tepid applause that reflected the degree to which he had become the Earth Summit's most controversial figure.
Leaders like Indian Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit wished aloud that the President had expressed "a little more empathy for a collective approach" to the challenges at hand.
In a disappointment to those who had hoped for a last-minute American initiative, Bush instead delivered an elaborate testimonial to his faith in environmentalism but continued to fend off critics of his Administration's controversial positions.
"It is never easy--it is never easy--to stand alone on principle," Bush said. "But sometimes leadership requires that you do. And now is such a time."
Bush's comments reflected the internal strains of a White House determined to be seen to stand firm on behalf of economic growth but fearful of being perceived as standing against environmentalism.
In a small victory for William K. Reilly, the head of the U.S. delegation, Bush chose to confront the conference with a speech far less defiant than other senior U.S. advisers had advocated.
"When our children look back on this time and this place," Bush told the summit, "they will be grateful that we met at Rio."
Bush urged other leaders to join the United States in combatting global warming with actions instead of words. He proposed that another environmental conference be convened before the end of the year in order to talk over specific steps for each nation.
But environmentalists contended that he had merely packaged previously announced actions as a new plan.
"The most charitable thing you can say about it is the Administration believes in recycling," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's another finger in the eye of international public opinion."
Later in the day, to highlight the U.S. drive for a binding world agreement on forest protection, Bush toured a small Brazilian rain forest not far from the summit site. But among the United States' critics, the Administration got little credit for the President's $150-million forest initiative. Third World nations suggested that the United States was interested only in preventing exploitation of tropical forests while it rapidly depletes its own.
Bush's speech brought the hustle and bustle in the huge conference complex in Rio to a halt for the first time since thousands of journalists and delegates poured in 10 days ago.
In a mood of great anticipation and unease, participants huddled around scores of television monitors in corridors and conference rooms as Bush prepared to take the stage. Hundreds of delegates who could not get into the meeting filled a cavernous conference room and watched the speech on a huge video screen.
However, like the delegates in the hall where Bush spoke, they offered applause that was a small fraction of that given to British Prime Minister John Major or Cuban President Fidel Castro. And there was a ripple of laughter when Bush proclaimed the U.S. environmental record to be "second to none."
"Saying that no country in the world is doing as much as the United States for the environment is simply not in concert with the facts," complained Hans Alders, head of the Dutch delegation.
And Gro Harlem Brundtland, prime minister of Norway, regretted that Bush offered "no new signals" of a willingness to assist poorer nations in coping with environmental challenges.
As expected, Bush signed a watered-down treaty designed to reduce the danger of global warming through reductions in the emissions of so-called greenhouse gases.
The Administration had refused to endorse an accord that included deadlines for action, and Bush sought to insulate himself from further criticism from European allies by inviting French conservationist Jacques Cousteau to join him at the signing.
But Bush still refused to sign a separate treaty on biodiversity aimed at conserving plants, animals and microorganisms and their habitats. That left the United States separated from all of its important allies. The President pledged that U.S. efforts in that area would "exceed" those required under the accord, but he reiterated that his Administration could not accept its limits on the biotechnology industry.