The Bush Administration, seeking to quell criticism of its policies on global warming, Friday declared its commitment to international efforts to combat the emerging problem and outlined plans to complete a treaty-making process by late 1990.
As a first step in the effort, the Administration announced that the United States will host an international “workshop” on global warming later this year to begin to forge a concerted approach to combat the environmental hazard.
The White House decision to accept the international plan, which had been favored by other industrial nations, came after a turbulent week in which senators from both parties challenged the Administration’s contention that a convention on global warming would be premature.
The proposal was adopted officially Friday at a United Nations conference in Geneva after White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu sent a cable from Washington authorizing U.S. delegates to “make every effort to obtain agreement” to the “preparatory program.”
In unveiling the action in Washington, Environmental Protection Agency chief William K. Reilly said that the plan “establishes firmly and unmistakably that the United States will play a leadership role” in countering climate change.
“The President is making clear that we are giving a very high priority to global warming,” Reilly declared.
The treaty negotiations are eventually to focus on steps that nations might take to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other so-called “greenhouse gases,” whose accumulation in the atmosphere keeps the planet’s heat from dissipating and makes it almost certain that the Earth’s surface temperature will increase in coming decades, with harmful repercussions.
But nations first will review scientific studies assessing the seriousness of global warming and must also resolve legal issues having to do with how such a treaty should be drafted and enforced.
Leading environmental advocates welcomed the Administration action, saying that it represents the first positive step by the United States to combat the global threat. But some voiced concern that the pace of negotiations sought by the Administration is too deliberate to address what they called an urgent problem.
“This is a small, timid, minuscule step forward,” said Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who had urged the Administration to proceed more quickly to an international convention.
“We do not have time for the kind of timetable outlined by Mr. Reilly,” warned Rafe Pomerance, associate director of the World Resources Institute.
While Reilly described global warming as a “matter of great urgency,” he and other Administration officials made clear that the United States intends to proceed cautiously in advocating possible countermeasures.
“Improper or ill-advised actions could have enormous environmental, economic and social consequences,” Sununu warned in the cable he dispatched Thursday night to the delegation in Geneva.
“At the same time,” he continued, “we should ensure that the interests of developing countries are taken into account in considering responses to climate change.”
Reilly echoed that concern in his briefing for reporters Friday, saying that developing nations, including Zimbabwe and Brazil, had voiced significant reservations about any global warming treaty.
Such an agreement is bound to be politically sensitive because it is almost certain to call for reductions in behavior that many nations regard as crucial to their economic welfare, including the burning of coal and other fossil fuels and the harvesting of forests. Both activities contribute to global warming by increasing the volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Another reason for wariness cited by the Administration is the continuing uncertainty about the severity of climatic change in coming years.
The government’s own estimates of the probable increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature over the next 60 years range from 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Such changes would be unprecedented in the Earth’s history, scientists believe. The changes could severely disrupt weather patterns, causing droughts and crippling agriculture, and result in increases in ocean levels sufficient to flood vast coastal areas.
While estimates of those effects vary even more widely than do predictions of temperature change, EPA administrator Reilly dismissed the contention that the mere idea of global warming is itself still an unproven theory.
“Warming, if not already under way, is extremely likely if not inevitable . . . " he said. “There is a consensus in the Administration that global warming presents enormously serious problems for the environment as well as for the world economy.”
Reilly nevertheless made clear that the Administration would not embark on any unilateral effort to reduce the buildup of “greenhouse gases,” despite the expected delays in forging an international approach to the problem.