ENVIRONMENTALISM has so caught hold among the leading industrial nations in the past year that at this weekend's Group of Seven economic summit in Paris, economics has nearly been eclipsed. The ``green summit'' - as some officials are referring to it - follows a spring of growing momentum where European leaders have been in a virtual bidding war over the lead on international environmental issues.
If the summit is going to produce any strong environmental initiatives, they have not appeared in any of the early drafts of the summit communiqu'e - the primary document negotiated for signing by summit leaders.
But about one-third of the communiqu'e draft concerns the environment, a level of attention unprecedented in the previous 14 economic summits.
It marks an escalation in Western environmentalism that has been reflected in European and American politics. Its emergence on the summit agenda comes less at the prompting of any given leader or nation than as a natural outgrowth of the political climate.
``There is even something of a race on by some of the summit economic leaders to be the greenest,'' explained US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly last week.
Mr. Reilly will attend the summit this weekend, the first economic summit to be attended by top environmental officials. The other nations in the Group of Seven are Japan, Britain, France, West Germany, Italy, and Canada.
The economic business of this summit is expected to be even more congenial and uneventful than the typical economic summit.
Dissatisfaction with US budget deficits, the strong dollar, American trade policy, and US Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady's plan for managing third-world debt to US banks is not sharp enough to disturb the harmony, says Washington consultant Norman Bailey, who served on the National Security Council staff under Reagan.
This has helped the environment loom large on the agenda.
Interest centers on global warming, or the ``greenhouse effect,'' as heat-trapping gases accumulate in the atmosphere.
The issue is sensitive for the United States. The leading greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, and Americans produce roughly twice the carbon dioxide for each dollar of economic activity as the other summit participants, according to Jessica Mathews, vice-president of World Resources Institute. Strong action against carbon dioxide emissions could be especially expensive for the US.
The summit communiqu'e, in early drafts, suggests no strong action, but calls for closer study.
Larry Williams, Washington director of the Sierra Club's international program, still hopes that European leaders will push to ``put some teeth back in'' the final global-warming statements.
The point that has pleased environmentalists most in the draft communiqu'e is the call for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to consider environmental concerns in evaluating lending decisions.
``The impact of these banks on the environment of the third world is enormous,'' Mr. Williams says. The economic development of countries like China, Brazil, and India has tremendous potential impact on the global environment.
The draft also endorses debt-for-nature trades, which involve developing countries setting aside tracts as conservation areas as a form of payment on development loans. It does not embrace a broader concept that debt can be traded for environmental policies of other kinds in these countries.
Throughout most of the 1980s, the international agenda on the environment was dominated by negotiations over chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions, which erode the protective ozone layer of the atmosphere. The US was the clear leader on the issue both scientifically and politically, and an international protocol was eventually signed in 1987 by 24 nations.
``It is the one achievement of the Reagan administration on the environment, and a very substantial one,'' Dr. Mathews says.
On the global warming issue, US leadership is, at best, less clear. ``Europe is ahead on this at this point. The US is going along with the flow.'' Mathew says.
This year has seen a steady escalation of environmentalism in European politics. This spring, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher underwent an environmental conversion on the global warming issue, holding an all-day session on the issue with her Cabinet in April. In June elections to the European Parliament, the environmentalist Rainbow Party nearly doubled its seats.
The environmental focus will probably be squeezed from the agenda next year by more traditional economic concerns, says Dr. Bailey. But David Worth, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, ``This communiqu'e is likely to set the agenda not just for this year, but for years to come.''