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U.S. Stands Alone at U.N. Climate Conference

Bush administration opposes mandatory limits on emissions. Other nations agree to negotiate a new treaty.

December 10, 2005|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

MONTREAL — With the conspicuous exception of the United States, most countries were poised Friday to agree to negotiate a new treaty to combat global warming before the obligations of the current pact, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, expire in 2012.

The U.S., which opposes mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, found itself isolated during the United Nations Climate Change Conference here. At one point early Friday, the top U.S. negotiator, Harlan L. Watson, walked out of talks on reopening dialogue under a separate 1992 U.N. treaty, which he regarded as an attempt to renew discussions on limiting emissions.

Late Friday night, Watson indicated that he would agree to an amended version of the dialogue proposal.

The aim of the conference was to lay the groundwork for a future global warming treaty. Delegates believed they would accomplish that before week's end despite U.S. efforts to block even nonbinding discussions of future climate change actions under existing U.N. agreements.

However, as the largest international conference on global warming since Kyoto drew to a close, the gulf between what nations are willing to do and what scientists say is needed to avoid environmental disaster remained as wide as ever.

In addition to the United States, several of the world's top greenhouse gas emitters, including China and India, continued to oppose capping their emissions, even as they agreed to continue allowing discussions to move forward, raising questions about how the U.N. process would achieve progress.

"There is an atmosphere of goodwill and understanding of the seriousness of the problem," said Margaret Beckett, the British environment secretary, describing this week's talks. "Nevertheless, that will not be enough to address climate change with the seriousness with which it needs to be addressed."

The Kyoto Protocol, which requires wealthy countries to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases that scientists have linked to rising temperatures, was the first effort to craft an international response to global warming. But it has been troubled since it was signed in 1997, and has failed to curtail the rise in greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

The U.N.'s International Energy Agency estimates that greenhouse gas levels two years ago were 25% above 1990 levels. The Kyoto pact, which was finally ratified by enough nations to take effect this year, aims to reduce emissions from wealthy countries to roughly 5% below 1990 levels.

Representatives of some of the more than 150 nations at the Montreal talks said they hoped to deliver the message that they remain committed to reducing emissions through international accords -- even if the U.S., the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, refuses to take part.

A decision to continue pursuing firm limits on greenhouse gas emissions, expected before the two-week conference ends early this morning, would represent a political setback for President Bush, who rejected the Kyoto pact, saying it would harm the U.S. economy, and who dispatched a delegation to Montreal that adamantly refused to discuss new caps.

Often pointed criticism of the U.S. stance, including a comment by Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin that the U.S. should remember "there is such a thing as a global conscience," intensified Friday with a hastily arranged speech by former President Clinton.

"I think it's crazy for us to play games with our children's future," Clinton said in a folksy speech before delegates that prompted a spirited ovation.

Alluding to Bush's rationale for the Iraq war as a bulwark against terrorism, Clinton said, "There is nowhere in the world where it is more important to apply the principle of precaution than in fighting climate change." Arguments that capping greenhouse gases would harm the economy, were "flat wrong," he said.

Bush administration officials did not publicly denounce Clinton's remarks, but some privately expressed annoyance. Canadian officials told reporters that the Bush negotiating team was upset that Canada had given the former president a platform at such a pivotal moment in the talks.

In Washington, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has called global warming a hoax, responded more forcefully.

"It's astonishing to me that former President Clinton, the same President Clinton that refused to submit the Kyoto treaty to the United States Senate for ratification, today attacked President Bush," Inhofe said.

Despite the promises of delegates to continue working on negotiations to address global warming, it was clear that persuading many of the world's major economies to commit to steeper greenhouse gas reductions would be difficult.

Mandatory limits are opposed by China, which is on a pace to surpass the U.S. as the top greenhouse gas emitter within the next quarter of a century.

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