FOR much of the past year, the Bush administration worked hard to strengthen federal clean-air laws. It succeeded, and the Clean Air Act of 1990 is a triumph of tough bargaining and resolve. But through this same year, the administration has refused to cooperate with international efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere and could lead to changes in climate. Why the apparent inconsistency? Officials in Washington say not enough is known about the so-called greenhouse effect to justify steps like capping the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. This gas is, after all, a pervasive byproduct of burning fossil fuels - and those fuels, oil and coal, still drive modern economies. The economic consequences of cutting back on their use could be drastic.
But so could the environmental consequences of not cutting back. By now, most people know about predictions that oceans could rise and crops be disrupted by a global warming trend. But this is theory, not fact, skeptics quickly point out.
Still, the Europeans, and now the Japanese, are inclined to take the theories seriously. Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden are committed to tough CO2 controls. The Germans have concluded that a 25 percent reduction in emissions by the year 2005 is feasible. Japan just announced its goal of stabilizing emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000.
In a report prepared for the Second World Climate Conference in Geneva this week, more than 700 scientists urged that all nations take steps to reduce greenhouse emmissions.
The US is increasingly odd man out on this environmental front. Not that the administration's call for a better understanding of the greenhouse effect doesn't make sense. But Bush officials had few qualms about backing tough measures to address other scientifically disputed problems, like acid rain and ozone depletion. And few doubt the country must eventually be weaned from reliance on fossil fuels in any case - for political as well as environmental reasons.
The international campaign to reduce greenhouse emissions shouldn't be stonewalled by a country, and a president, who see themselves as leaders in the fight for a cleaner environment.