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Bush Decides to Attend Earth Summit in Rio : Environment: The announcement comes after U.S. pushes through a watered-down global warming treaty.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having headed off a global warming treaty his Administration regarded as too restrictive, President Bush said Tuesday he will attend an unprecedented 160-nation Earth Summit sponsored by the United Nations next month in Brazil.

“Today’s environmental problems are global,” Bush said in announcing that he plans to join as many as 60 other heads of state at the meeting, “and every nation must help in solving them.”

The announcement completes a delicate two-step for Bush, who had wanted to attend the high-profile session but opposed an agreement that would have bound the United States to specific reductions in emissions of so-called greenhouse gases.

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Unwilling to be seen publicly as a brake on environmental progress, the White House instead worked behind the scenes to pressure negotiators from around the world to accept a weakened accord that sets more general goals for protecting the environment. The Administration contended that its stance was necessary to protect economic growth.

With that watered-down package to be signed during the June 3-14 session in Rio de Janeiro, Bush on Tuesday praised the agreement as “historic.” Emerging from a meeting with U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, he left little doubt that he intends to use his visit there to buttress his claim to be the “Environmental President.”

Although it had been expected, Bush’s visit gives the Rio session a prominence previously accorded only to summits addressing international security or economic issues. Organizers had been fearful that other heads of state would withdraw from the meetings had Bush chosen to stay away.

But the fact that the summit has been shaped to the White House agenda has created new animosity in an environmental community once enthusiastic about Bush’s stance. A storm of criticism greeted the Bush announcement Tuesday as even the market-oriented Environmental Defense Fund scorned the White House approach as “a triumph of style over substance.”

Sen. Albert Gore, a Tennessee Democrat who is chairman of the Senate delegation to the conference, called the strategy a missed opportunity. “When world leaders were ready to take real action to protect their people and their countries,” Gore said, “George Bush forced them to give up.”

A Bush campaign spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, responded that the White House will “never make all the environmentalists happy and never make the far left happy.” But the wrangling seemed certain to intensify as the President prepares for Rio and what amounts to an exotic political stage.

Although Bush told reporters Tuesday he looks forward to attending “this very important meeting,” he seemed already to be feeling wounds inflicted by his critics. “People have been focusing on one part of it,” he said, “but we’ve got lots to talk about down there.”

White House officials said Bush will likely spend no more than two days in Brazil. They said the timing of his visit remains under debate, with some officials urging that he attend only its opening session to avoid being caught up in what could still be contentious debate over the global warming accord.

At issue is the wisdom of the White House’s refusal to accept specific targets reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that industries and automobiles spew into the environment. The scientific community generally believes that these gases trap heat within the atmosphere, as a greenhouse would, and contribute to global warming.

Most European nations had urged that the upcoming conference ratify a plan that, by the end of the century, would have required industrial nations to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to 1990 levels.

Under some projections, the Earth’s climate could warm from 3 to 8 degrees by the end of the next century if greenhouse-gas emissions are not reduced. Such levels of warming could turn tracts of farmland into deserts throughout the world.

But the Bush Administration has stressed that such predictions remain under debate, and it mounted an intensive lobbying effort during the final weeks of U.N. negotiations to fend off the European-backed proposal.

After U.S. officials helped to draft a less-restrictive alternative, White House sources said, Bush telephoned German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, British Prime Minister John Major and others to urge them to join the United States in getting “on board” with the plan.

The U.S.-backed alternative also includes a pledge by countries to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But the Administration insisted that such a commitment remain non-binding, arguing that too rigid a requirement could hinder economic growth.

In interviews Friday, senior White House officials said it was that argument that ultimately persuaded other nations to embrace the Administration plan.

Other Administration officials and critics outside the government described the White House effort as a “lowest common denominator” accepted by other nations only because a global warming treaty without U.S. participation would be of little use.

The United States is responsible for about 25% of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions. In a letter to congressional leaders, Clayton Yeutter, Bush’s top domestic policy adviser, stressed that “nothing” in the U.S-backed treaty “constitutes a commitment to a specific level of emissions at any time.”

In the letter, Yeutter said the U.S. position indicates that “we take the challenge of climate change seriously.” On Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency chief William K. Reilly also defended the pact.

But Sierra Club spokesman Daniel Becker charged that Bush has “forced the world to accept a do-nothing treaty.” And Sen. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) accused Bush of seeking out a costly photo opportunity. “Much of the rest of the world is ready to change,” he said. “This Administration has told the rest of the world that the United States is not.”


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