WITH the United Nations meeting on global climate change in New York March 15, the Clinton administration faces its first major test on international environmental issues.
As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton criticized George Bush for failing to lead on efforts to stem global warming - specifically for arm-twisting other countries at last year's Earth Summit in Brazil to accept a watered-down document on climate change that does not include specific "targets and timetables" for reducing carbon emissions.
The four-day UN meeting that begins March 15 is being held to negotiate funding of what is called the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was signed by 157 countries. It is the first such meeting since President Clinton took office, and it comes at a time when many other industrialized nations seem to be losing interest in the subject.
"This is a real opportunity to provide momentum," says Scott Hajost, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. "A lot of countries are looking to the United States for direction."
Reducing so-called "greenhouse gases" (mainly CO2, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons) was one factor in the administration's recent proposal to tax energy sources based on British Thermal Units (Btu). The Clinton team wants to boost funding for renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, weatherization of low-income housing, and other programs which, at least in the long run, could help the environment. And Mr. Clinton has indicated a commitment to reducing United States carbon emissions to 1990 levels b y the year 2000.
But the administration says the Btu tax will achieve no more than 20 percent of that carbon-reduction goal. Environmental groups urge Clinton to do more.
"If you're serious about meeting the target - which we think Clinton and Gore are - then you need policies in place that will actually produce the results you're looking for," said Alden Meyer, director of climate change and energy programs for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Such advocates note that many key administration players are not in position to craft such policies, including former Sen. Tim Wirth (D) of Colorado, who will head the State Department's international environmental efforts but has yet to be confirmed.
Those who want a stronger US stand on the issue are urging the administration to push for protocols strengthening the UN climate-change convention. They also want Clinton to beef up and resubmit the US "National Action Plan," required under the convention and submitted by the lame-duck Bush administration.
"The Bush administration's plan is a great disappointment," said Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D) of Connecticut, who chairs the House foreign affairs subcommittee dealing with environmental issues. "It does not require the US government to do anything new."
On the other hand, many business interests that would be affected by the energy tax and other measures related to global warming are urging the Clinton administration not to do anything precipitous. The Global Climate Coalition, an organization of business trade associations and private companies, have called for more research on climate change, development of new technologies to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, and more analysis of the economic impact that may accompany proposals under the national acti on plan.
"Adoption of rigid targets and timetables does not provide the flexibility to evolve meaningful action plans as the science and national circumstances permit," said John Shlaes, the coalition's executive director.
Meanwhile, two important developments have occurred related to the theoretical threat of global warming. Increasing numbers of scientists say the threat is not as great as earlier pronouncements had indicated. (Temperatures last summer dropped to a 10-year low in the Northern Hemisphere and to a 15-year low in the Southern Hemisphere, although this was likely related to the "shadow" cast by the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines.)
And many countries that had been talking about setting targets and timetables or imposing carbon taxes have backed off, including Japan, Canada, and some European Community nations. "Once the Earth Summit was over in Rio, some of the political pressure was off," Mr. Meyer said.
While they are eager for US movement, environmentalists are also realistic about the large plate load of issues the administration faces. "We're cognizant that `it's the economy, stupid' that got them elected and not the environment," said Daniel Becker, energy-issues director for the Sierra Club. "So we're trying to be patient."