DISAPPOINTMENT was the key word among environmentalists as the week-long world climate conference in Geneva drew to a close Wednesday. Ministers from the 144 participating countries did not set firm goals or a date for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions.
And the United States and the Soviet Union, the world's two largest producers of the gases many scientists link to a rapid rise in global temperatures, ignored claims that the need for action is urgent. Saudi Arabia, a key oil-producing nation, also opposed limits on carbon dioxide emissions.
Some delegates expressed disappointment that the US failed to propose targets to reduce emissions. They accused the US of playing political games - and charged that the new Clean Air Act in the US will be so costly to US companies that further environmental measures would be unpopular.
Nevertheless, more than 500 scientists were able to agree to a clear-cut statement that global warming is indeed occurring at an accelerated rate, and that carbon-dioxide emissions are largely responsible for an unprecedented climb in the world's mean temperature.
Environmental ministers from more than 100 countries agreed to meet in Washington in February to begin negotiations on a first-ever international climate agreement.
Margaret Thatcher of Britain and Michel Rocard of France, prime ministers from two countries that emit large quantities of the gases, threw their weight behind the conference by addressing it. Mrs. Thatcher stressed that it would be folly to wait for absolute scientific proof before taking measures to curb emissions.
King Hussein of Jordan linked the Gulf crisis to climate concerns by outlining the potentially dire environmental consequences of a war in the area. Several countries announced targets to curb emissions within 15 years.
Eight industrialized countries release half of the world's energy-related carbon dioxide (coal is a primary offender).
At the conference, the Soviet Union pleaded economic inability to deal with the problem, while the US declared skepticism that the problem exists.
Such doubts about the basic issue - that the world is heating up dangerously and unnaturally - have troubled scientists since they first brought the ``greenhouse effect'' to public attention at a meeting in Toronto in 1988.
Some critics question whether current climatic changes are anything new, while others point out that even if global warming is occurring, scientists have no means of making precise predictions about its impact.
Scenarios for the damage from global warming might cause vary, but problems cited include: rising sea levels, shifts in climatic zones and water supplies, and weather-induced catastrophes.
Governments of developing countries are clearly worried by the prospect of global warming. Not only do they have little control over gas emissions because they generate so little, but any greenhouse problems could be devastating for them. A group of 30 small island nations formed a coalition to press for immediate action.