THE White House is trying to keep the international response to the global warming threat off the fast track. The fast track is represented next week by a gathering in the Netherlands of environment ministers, including William Reilly, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Advance draft versions of the meeting's declaration have called for a freeze in emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading ``greenhouse gas'' thought to trap heat in the atmosphere.
White House policymakers - concerned that neither the environmental nor the economic consequences of such action are well understood - want to travel at a more measured pace before committing to such policies.
``Let's not get ahead of the science or the economics,'' says an administration official familiar with key meetings on the issue.
But many environmentalists and some senators in both political parties are skeptical that the Bush administration is willing to act as forcefully as it speaks on global warming.
``They're just procrastinating,'' says Rafe Pomerance, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute, of administration's qualms about the Netherlands conferences.
Preparations for The Hague meeting have raised questions again about how committed the White House is to acting against human acceleration of climate change.
Last May, the White House won environmentalist credentials by directing its delegates at a United Nations working group on climate change to seek a workshop to lead toward an international convention and eventually a treaty on global warming.
But the move came only after planning for the Netherlands meeting was underway and followed a week of public pressure.
Two weeks ago, when the EPA's Mr. Reilly suggested at a White House policy meeting that he use the Netherlands conference to issue invitations to an international meeting in the United States next year, the question arose whether he should even attend the Hague meeting.
He will. The president left that decision in his hands. But to skeptics like Mr. Pomerance the somewhat noncommittal attendance of the US signals foot-dragging on an issue of importance. ``The scientific consensus has been in place for a decade,'' he says. ``The atmosphere [of the planet] is waiting for governments.''
In the White House view, however, the real battle is to forge the international response to global climate change in the more cautious, methodical, United Nations-sponsored meetings, rather than at The Hague.
Some White House and Cabinet officials are concerned that the Hague meeting competes with the UN effort, which they find more hospitable to US interests.
The US has a stronger voice in the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) than at the Hague. At the last Hague meeting, a summit of heads of state, the US and Soviet Union were not invited. On the IPCC, the US chairs a working group on response strategies.
The advantages of the IPCC process include US leadership of the working group, the participation of more nations, and ``a consensus on a reasonable process,'' says an official who attended the first meeting of the climate-change working group of the White House Domestic Policy Council two weeks ago.
IPCC also has a stronger contingent of developing countries, which are wary of the cost to their economic growth of restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions.
The White House has only recently given the issue of climate change a home in the administration, say an official. One reason is that White House science adviser D.Allan Bromley took office only a few weeks ago. Dr. Bromley chairs the Domestic Policy Council working group.
``There was not a government-wide, policymaking body dealing with this,'' the official says.
The tone of the White House's approach to the issue has been set by the president's chief of staff, John Sununu, an engineer by training. He approaches the issue with a methodical skepticism. ``The governor is a scientist first,'' an administration official says.
The White House asserts that through its Clean Air Act proposals and other measures, it is already acting to reduce the US contribution to climate-altering gases in the atmosphere. International action will come.
``Folks know that we're going to be a player,'' the official says. ``We are running the process.''
Pomerance counters, however, that European countries ``are becoming skeptical that we are moving.''