US in Kyoto: Alone Again?

As conference enters Week 2, Clinton stuck between green goals and skeptical citizens.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The failed attempt to reform the US health-care system. The narrow defeat of efforts to win "fast track" trade negotiating authority from Congress. And now ... global warming. Clinton White House policy flop?

Vice President Al Gore may yet swing the rest of the world the US way next week when he stops by the international global-warming conference in Kyoto, Japan. The US might tinker with its relatively minimalist proposed treaty, increasing chances of global- warming agreement.

But right now that doesn't look like a likely outcome. Instead, a conference that once seemed as if it might help build President Clinton's legacy has become something that US officials may just want to endure.

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One reason: surprisingly vehement domestic opposition. Some US business groups say the White House proposal goes too far - and they've flooded airwaves with antitreaty ads. Unions generally oppose the effort, saying it would cost US jobs. Even some farm groups don't like it.

Absent a change in US mood, it would be hard to get bills associated with a global-warming pact through Congress.

"We told administration policymakers over a year ago that they had to be much more pro- active in getting their [global warming] message out," says an environmental source.

"The US public is not prepared to digest a policy that many scientists say is the right one," adds this environmentalist.

The Clinton administration proposal calls for nations to cut emissions, which many scientists believe are heating the earth's atmosphere, to 1990 levels sometime between 2008 and 2012. Though somewhat vague on how this would be done, the plan does call for a global market in pollution permits.

Much of the rest of the world thinks that the United States, the world's largest source of these greenhouse gases, should propose bigger cuts. The European Union, for instance, wants to reduce emissions 15 percent below 1990 levels.

Whatever happens in Kyoto, the domestic side of this issue remains highly important to Clinton. The Senate would have to ratify any global-warming treaty. The full Congress would have to pass any legislation implementing changes in US law. And so far, the White House global warming effort is reminiscent of its most notable domestic policy flops in a number of uncomfortable ways.

Too hasty?

The first is haste. Like the proposed health-care rework, the global-warming policy is a complicated construct that represents a hard-won compromise between various factions within the administration. Hammering out such a position takes time - and the president didn't announce his global-warming stand publicly until an Oct. 22 speech at the National Geographic Society, only a few weeks before the Kyoto conference's December start.

Such last-minute decisionmaking has been typical of many Clinton decisions - but it is also typical of many presidents' forays into complicated environmental policymaking.

"We've done 17 years science on global warming, and in less than a year we've cobbled together 'here's what we're going to do,' " says Paul Portney, president of Resources for the Future.

Familiar tactics

Second, the US opposition to a global-warming treaty is using tactics very similar to those that defeated the Clinton health-care bill. In particular, business groups say the proposal would cost too much and damage economic growth - and they've used ads that portray alleged effects of a global-warming pact on average Americans. Many are produced by the same California political consulting firm that did the famous "Harry and Louise" commercials that damaged the Clinton health-care effort.

Third, global warming effort divides natural Democratic Party constituencies - as did the attempt to win "fast track" trade authority. Unions, for instance, worry that the administration might agree to a global-warming pact that places restrictions on developed countries first and doesn't require action from developing nations. Such a pact could result in the export of US jobs to lower wage nations, they say - as many as 900,000 jobs, according to one AFL-CIO estimate.

And last, Republicans haven't given the president much help on global warming. They've been particularly tough on the developing nations issue. The heads of these poorer countries say that rich nations got that way by burning lots of fossil fuels - and that clamping down on them now is just an attempt to keep them in poverty. GOP leaders say that not including such burgeoning economies as China and India in a global-warming pact would represent a double standard.

Without inclusion of developing nations, a global-warming treaty would be "dead on arrival in Congress," said House Science Committee chairman Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin.

Beyond Kyoto

Without a treaty, are US efforts to curb global warming dead? Not exactly, say experts.

The Clinton administration would have plenty of opportunity to make unilateral steps that could curb greenhouse emissions, say environmentalists. Administration officials could try to include a cap on carbon-dioxide emissions in an electrical-utility deregulation effort expected next year. They could subject light trucks and sport-utility vehicles to the same fuel economy and emission standards used as cars.

They could mount a public campaign to convince voters of global warning dangers, say proponents of action.

"It would be an opportunity for this administration to really engage on an issue that is complicated," says David Hawkins, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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