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

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

Brazil and India, among the top 10 emitters, also rejected putting caps on their releases of heat-trapping gases, continuing to argue that wealthy nations should act first because they caused global warming by burning fossil fuels for 150 years.

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“The countries that have been most responsible for creating this problem, and who continue to be the biggest contributors to the problem, need to take the lead,” said Marina Silva, Brazil’s environment minister.

More than 150 nations, including the U.S., pledged to avoid “dangerous” human interference with the world’s climate systems at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Although the countries that signed the 1992 treaty did not define what dangerous climate impacts meant, many scientists have estimated that greenhouse gases would have to be radically cut over the next 50 years to prevent temperatures from rising several more degrees, which could melt polar icecaps and raise sea levels around the world.

Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air reached 380 parts per million this year, which experts believe is the highest level in 650,000 years. Two centuries ago, they were 280 ppm. Some scientists have argued that levels need to be capped at 450 ppm to avoid the most damaging consequences of global warming, but no one thinks that will happen under current U.N. plans.

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“You can’t go on with agreements to limit emissions based on what the politics of the moment will bear,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a scientist at Princeton University who was co-author of a paper in the journal Science that examined the greenhouse gas reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate impacts. “At some point, you have to inject scientific reality.”

Nonetheless, environmentalists Friday applauded the nations for moving forward on new global warming negotiations without the U.S., arguing that it proved the majority of the world is serious about the problem.

Activists were particularly optimistic about a proposal by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, approved Friday by the U.N., that would allow developing nations to receive financial compensation from richer countries for agreeing to preserve their rain forests. The U.S. initially opposed the proposal before agreeing to support it.

Deforestation accounted for as much as a fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions during the last decade, according to estimates by a worldwide panel of scientists. Environmentalists believe that by preserving forests over the next two decades, nations can slow global warming while waiting for better technologies to reduce emissions from fossil fuels -- and also give developing nations a financial reason to get more involved in talks.

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“The Bush administration appears to be throwing a hissy fit, but it’s not having the intended effect,” said Alden Meyer, a lobbyist for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It is only serving to stiffen the resolve of the rest of the world to move forward.”


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