BURIED among the ideas President George Bush offered Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta was a proposal to begin negotiating a treaty next fall to deal with the warming of the global climate. It marks the strongest White House commitment to international action yet.
The White House has been arguing for months that it is a leading world force for dealing with global warming, although it has been cast in the role of dragging feet.
This week, the White House strengthened its case.
The president's science adviser, D. Allan Bromley, in a speech Tuesday, predicted an international framework convention - which sets the terms of a treaty - within the next 18 months.
Mr. Bush also used the proposals to Gorbachev to announce an international meeting this spring of the senior science, economic, and environmental officials of what Dr. Bromley calls ``a large number of the world's nations.''
The purpose of this meeting is to put together the world's leading policymakers on the issue to decide how to use the best available expertise on global warming, its effects, and its costs.
The White House has been hesitant to take strong policy action against global warming without a better understanding of how serious the problem is and what the responses will cost the economy.
The most prominent skeptic has been chief of staff John Sununu, an MIT-trained engineer.
One administration official, however, says that White House officials, including Mr. Sununu, are open-minded on the issue and that many positions are changing as familiarity grows with the science of global warming. Sununu is at least not among the most skeptical - those who see no substantial suggestion of a significant greenhouse effect, says Warren Washington of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Dr. Washington discussed his research with Sununu recently by telephone.
``I don't think you can put Sununu in the camp [that believes] it's flaky or based on bad science,'' he says.
Dr. Bromley, who has been in the White House less than two months now, is the administration's lead official on climate change. His own view is that the US should not wait for more technical knowledge before taking many actions - ``in effect as an insurance policy against the possible effects of global warming.''
Criticism of the Bush administration for excessive caution was intense last month. The US delegation to a meeting on global warming in Noordwjik, the Netherlands, led the resistance to a Dutch-backed agreement to freeze carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2000.
Critics, including some Republican senators, accused the administration of stymieing urgently needed action while European nations took the lead.
The White House response is that it has been committed to action - but through the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC offers a methodical, deliberate process for forming policy. Its three working groups are also headed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain - three of the more conservative nations in global warming policy.
The final reports of the IPCC working groups are due in November 1990. The treaty negotiations Bush has proposed would come after that. They mark the first clear sign that the White House does intend to pursue the IPCC process to an international agreement that would seek to stabilize or reduce emissions of gases that trap heat in the atmosphere.
``That is a step forward,'' says Irving Mintzer, director of policy research at the Center for Global Change at the University of Maryland.
The most significant new investments the administration is likely to make will be in research. The scientific community holds wide divergences on how severe the impact of global warming is likely to be in the next century. But they universally complain about the crudeness of their computer models for predicting the change and call for more basic research.