If global warming is proceeding at an extremely slow pace, consider the tempo of the worldwide effort to reverse it: International negotiators here spent much of the past two weeks arguing about an esoteric--but perhaps aptly termed--matter known as Russian "hot air" and how to define such terms as "deforestation," "reforestation" and "aforestation."
They spun in circles over supplemental methods to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases--mostly carbon dioxide from burning oil and coal--before any have announced the primary steps their nations will take to reduce those gases.
They wrestled with oil-producing nations, because Saudi Arabia raised what a senior U.S. negotiator called "nuisance points" by continuing to seek the promise of international reimbursement if global warming agreements cut its oil revenue.
In fact, as government negotiators, environmentalists and business representatives--1,200 in all--broke camp Friday, there was a prevailing sense that the international campaign against global warming may be nearly frozen.
The sessions were called to delve into details of how to implement the global warming agreement reached last December by more than 150 nations in Kyoto, Japan, and to pave the way for the next ministerial-level meeting, in Buenos Aires in November.
But such international negotiations rarely move quickly, and leaders of the 26-member U.S. delegation here sought to present an optimistic picture.
In particular, they hope they deflated a controversy over how to count the contribution that vegetation--agriculture and forests--makes in absorbing carbon, the prime culprit in global warming, from the atmosphere. The issue is crucial because the degree to which a nation counteracts its carbon emissions through agricultural and forestry policies may go a long way toward determining whether it is meeting its emissions targets.
Negotiators agreed to hand the matter to an international panel of scientists, which is not expected to report until 2000. But they also agreed that they could address the matter in upcoming meetings without waiting for the report.
Another significant byproduct of the sessions appeared to be a new willingness among developing nations to at least consider how they might take advantage of financial incentives intended to encourage them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even as they try to build fledgling industries.
In the past, these nations had largely refused to even discuss this for fear that it would limit their economic development.
The Kyoto Protocol called on the world's major industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of the six main greenhouse gases by an average of 6% over the next 15 years. The United States committed itself to reduce its carbon emissions by 2012 to a level 7% below its 1990 emissions. Such a cut would actually bring the nation about 30% below the level of emission projected if no mitigating steps were taken.
But the sessions here were marked by delays, brought on by divisions in the huge bloc of developing nations and splits in the European Union.
Groused one United Nations official at midweek: "There's no pressure to do anything."
By Friday, another official, Michael Zammit Cutajar, the executive secretary of the U.N. organization overseeing the talks, complained of participants: "They are still exploring positions, putting out markers, protecting themselves before they can engage in a serious negotiation."
The Kyoto meeting, he suggested, was mistakenly viewed as the breakthrough in efforts to control what many scientists believe is a dangerous warming of the global climate. The scientists believe that carbon and other gases, which are given off by industrial processes, transportation and other manifestations of fossil fuel-fired development, trap the earth's reflected heat and act like an invisible thermal blanket insulating the planet.
But the Kyoto session, Zammit Cutajar said, turned out to be "only a plateau on the way to other mountains. We are now at the base of the bigger mountains. Governments are preparing themselves for the next climb. They are not anywhere near the top."
Now that initial targets have been set for emissions reductions by the industrial powerhouses, negotiators are exploring how to reach them. Negotiators are also looking for ways to encourage developing nations to join the process--a politically vital step toward winning the U.S. Senate endorsement of the pact.
Central among the proposals for lowering emissions are "flexible mechanisms." They include programs in which a country or company emitting fewer tons of carbon than its assigned target could sell to another country or company the right to exceed its own target by a specified amount.
That is where Russian "hot air" comes in.
The closing of inefficient Soviet-era factories since the fall of communism already has brought Russia about 30% below its 1990 emissions level and given it and Ukraine the likelihood of having untold millions of tons of carbon available for trading in the international market.
But critics within the international environmental community, and some among official European delegations, fear that the United States, Japan and other nations that find it difficult to meet their targets will buy their way out of making reductions.
"Rather than using its industrial muscle to lead, the United States wants to buy paper credits from Russia," said Patrick Green, senior campaigner in energy, nuclear and climate issues for Friends of the Earth in London.
The European Union is seeking to restrict the sale of such carbon rights to the amount saved through deliberate reduction programs, rather than including the amount achieved as a side benefit of economic contractions.
Concern that the United States will rely too heavily on such deals has prompted the EU to press, unsuccessfully so far, for a cap on the extent to which a nation can use such supplemental measures as emissions trading to meet its obligations.
At the same time, the United States is using the possible offer of high-efficiency, energy-saving technology to gain support among developing nations that have been hostile, or at least ambivalent, toward the various trading proposals.
This prompted a split among the developing nations' bloc, which includes China and India, when some grew worried that compliance with voluntary targets, as suggested by Argentina, would bring a flow of investment capital that could leave other nations at an economic disadvantage.
"You're seeing some real power politics, dirtball tactics going on here," said Jennifer Morgan, coordinator of the global warming campaign of a network of U.S. environmental organizations.