AS world leaders gathered this week at the Earth Summit to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, critics complained that the United States succeeded in making the treaty so general and vague as to be virtually meaningless. But considering how new, complex, and far-reaching the climate issue is, the fact that an agreement was reached at all is not insignificant.
Although the treaty does not commit nations to specific reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it establishes a process designed to produce more concrete results should scientific evidence continue to mount that human activities are changing Earth's climate. The challenge now is to use that process to put flesh on the skeleton that has been created.
Our experience with the ozone problem is an encouraging precedent. The original ozone convention adopted in 1985 was even weaker than the climate convention and did not establish any specific obligations.
Within two years, states had adopted a protocol mandating a 50 percent reduction in emissions of chloroflourocarbons; in 1990, they agreed to a complete phaseout of these chemicals by 2000; and earlier this year, the phaseout was advanced to 1995.
In judging the success of the recently completed negotiations, several factors should be borne in mind.
First, a vast array of human activities produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases - generating electricity from fossil fuels, driving cars, growing rice, and raising cattle, to name a few. Hence, measures to curb global warming could profoundly affect our economies and lifestyles.
Second, states have widely divergent interests that had to be reconciled. Consider the differences between major fossil-fuel producers and small island states in the Pacific and Caribbean who fear being inundated by rising sea levels.
Third, the climate negotiations involved not just a few key countries but virtually every nation in the world. As a general rule, the more countries involved in a negotiation, the more difficult agreement becomes.
Finally, the climate negotiators had very limited time since their mandate was to develop a convention in time for adoption at Rio.
Critics like to portray the climate negotiations as a battle between the US and the rest of the world. But, in fact, the situation is more complex.
Industrialized countries broadly agreed that the convention should establish a strong process to address climate change, including regular meetings of the parties, scientific and implementation committees, detailed reporting requirements, and procedures to resolve questions about a country's compliance. The dispute between the US and other industrialized countries focused on one particular issue - whether to establish firm targets and timetables to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Even here, there were a variety of views. While the US was the only industrialized country flatly to oppose binding targets and timetables, other Western countries differed about the types of gases covered, whether to focus on gross or net emissions, and whether to allow states to implement their obligations jointly.
TENSIONS between industrialized and developing countries, north and south, were also pronounced. Since emissions of greenhouse gases - particularly carbon dioxide - have been a traditional byproduct of industrialization, developing countries feared that if they accepted any commitments, this would tend to interfere with efforts to achieve the level of development and affluence in the north.
On the other hand, if developing countries follow the same development path as countries in the north, they will eventually become the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, swamping any reductions in emissions that might be achieved by industrialized countries.
The task of the negotiators was to craft an acceptable balance between the general obligations of the south to develop in an environmentally conscious way, and the obligations of the north to provide financial assistance and technology to help in that development.
A long-term, complex problem such as global warming will not be solved overnight. What is important initially is to establish a meaningful process for addressing the issue. That is the necessary first step taken by the climate convention. Parties to the convention will be required to monitor and report on their greenhouse gas emissions and to elaborate programs for controlling those emissions, which will be considered by a newly established implementation committee.
If our experience with other international agreements is any guide, these processes will help legitimize global warming as an international issue and draw even skeptical countries, such as the US, into international efforts to address it.