Although insisting that the United States has led the world in steps to protect the environment, the Bush Administration came under intense public pressure Monday to adopt an ambitious goal of stabilizing emissions of so-called greenhouse pollutants by the end of the century.
The heat came from Europeans, the government of the Netherlands and environmental activists, as well as the head of the U.N. Environmental Program, who warned: "It is almost a virtual certainty that our planet faces unprecedented climate change. In the face of catastrophic possibilities, we cannot await empirical certainty. We know enough right now to begin action."
But Environmental Protection Agency chief William K. Reilly and White House science adviser D. Allan Bromley, appearing at a global warming conference convened here by the Dutch government, declared that this is neither the time nor the place to set a deadline or limits on the emission of greenhouse gases. They are so called because they trap radiation and have been responsible for a slow but measurable warming of the Earth's atmosphere.
Barring an eleventh-hour turnaround, the U.S. delegation will refuse to endorse the crucial paragraph of a declaration calling for stabilization of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by the year 2000.
Nevertheless, Reilly said the Administration "will be prepared to go as far and as fast as the rest of the world" to meet the threat of pollution-caused warming of the climate, although "to imagine that we will develop policies in total lock-step is illusory."
Crucial language for a declaration to be issued at the end of the conference was still being negotiated Monday night. Mostafa K. Tolba, director of the U.N. Environmental Program, said there was still movement toward a general accord.
"Ninety-five percent of the countries consider that it is their responsibility that they should stabilize the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases no later than the year 2000," he said.
When the conference ends today, Tolba said, he expects all of the conferees to adopt the principle of atmospheric stabilization--but to include language indicating that some of them oppose establishing the year 2000 as a deadline.
Even before the arrival of environmental ministers in this city near The Hague, working-level officials from 61 countries spent nearly three days trying to shape a declaration that could get a consensus.
In addition to the United States, other countries resisting the key provision contained in a Dutch draft declaration include Britain, Japan and the Soviet Union. The declaration calls for carbon dioxide emissions to be trimmed by 20% from 1988 levels by the year 2000, enough to "stabilize" the atmosphere so that further measures could produce a reduction of energy-trapping gases.
Although attention has focused on the United States and other world powers resisting the deadline and the emission target, Reilly said that a majority of Third World countries would resist such a requirement if given a chance to vote on it.
Developing countries now produce only about 30% of the carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere, but their share is expected to increase as development progresses. The United States alone, with its massive use of fossil fuels, produces nearly a fourth of the total.
In a declaration along the lines of the Dutch draft, leaders of private environmental organizations from 22 countries urged the ministers to adopt the 20% reduction and the turn-of-the-century deadline.
Produced after a two-day conference in Rotterdam last week, the unofficial declaration called for the wealthier industrialized nations to provide technical and financial assistance to enable developing countries to meet the goals.
The private groups urged completion of a framework convention on climate change next year and adoption of an international accord on carbon dioxide reduction by the end of 1992. They noted that 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been emitted into the atmosphere since the Paris economic summit called for "decisive action" on global warming last July.
Representatives of the environmental groups criticized the United States and its allies for opposing a deadline and reduction targets.
"Waiting for scientific certainty," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, "is not responsible policy." Dan Becker, an official of the Sierra Club in Washington, charged that decisions for the U.S. delegation were being relayed from the White House and that Bromley, the President's science adviser, had been sent along to "handcuff" Reilly, the U.S. delegation chairman.
The EPA administrator and the science adviser appeared together at a press conference shortly before Reilly addressed the delegates, and Bromley declared the two of them in accord on the U.S. position. The Bush Administration is conducting a "crash program" of research to understand the greenhouse phenomenon and long-term global warming, Bromley said.
"In no way are we hanging back," he said, "and this reflects the President's firm personal commitment in keeping the United States in a leading position."
In his address to the conference Monday afternoon, Reilly stressed U.S. support for developing a strategy against global warming through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established under the auspices of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization.
The IPCC is due to meet in Washington in February. After that meeting, Reilly told reporters, the United States will be prepared to begin negotiation of a framework convention on climate change, if other nations agree.
Tolba, who was working to iron out differences with the holdouts, agreed with the U.S. contention that the conference here is not an occasion to negotiate a formal agreement.
But, he said, it is important that the conference "give a signal" when it concludes today, and in his address to the opening session Monday morning and in remarks at a press conference, he appeared to be speaking to the United States.
Noting that automobiles account for 10% of the fossil fuel burning, he said carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles will increase by 75% by the end of the century if efficiency continues at the current 20-m.p.g. average.
"This is not acceptable," the U.N. official said.