Five years ago, a well-known environmental analyst wrote that "the current pattern of our civilization is creating dramatic changes in global climate patterns, likely to be many times larger than any experienced in the past 10,000 years."
Today, the man who warned of this "catastrophe in the making" - Vice President Al Gore - is speaking to some 160 delegates to the conference on climate change in Kyoto, Japan.
But instead of sounding the charge for environmental protection, as he did in his 1992 book "Earth in the Balance," Mr. Gore will argue that attacking global warming should be done much more slowly than almost all other industrialized nations want.
Gore will, in essence, be a voice for moderation quite different from the one that called for "bold and unequivocal action [to] make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization."
As the No. 2 man in the Clinton administration, Gore must follow the official line: That the goal of reducing greenhouse- gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000 cannot be met because of economic considerations. The administration also insists that developing countries play a significant role in any plan to cut such potentially climate-changing gases (mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels).
This puts the US at odds with the European Union and Japan, both of which want to cut carbon emissions below 1990 levels far sooner than the US proposal.
And it also puts the vice president - once the darling of environmentalists who saw him as a fresh, "green" influence in the White House after 12 years of Republican control - at odds with activists who provided major help in getting him and President Clinton elected.
"Vice President Gore, we are dismayed by your record on climate change over the past year," 155 religious, health, and environmental groups wrote the White House recently. "You have nearly reversed your position. We call on you to change course."
Some of the attacks from the environmental left have intensified. Midway through the Kyoto summit, Greenpeace held a press conference in Washington to charge that Clinton and Gore were "in bed with the oil industry."
The administration position, which was to be articulated by Gore in Japan today, comes attached with a large political practicality: The Republican-controlled United States Senate, which must ratify any climate-change treaty. The Senate is demanding concessions from developing nations on emissions reduction, but third-world leaders have so far been unable to commit to those reductions. Several Republican senators are in Japan to keep an eye on the proceedings, and to watch 2000 presidential contender Gore, whose trip to Kyoto was a last minute White House decision.
Environmental lobbyists know this, so they're keeping the heat on the administration - especially on Gore, who (as a US senator himself) was the senior Democrat at the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992 when Republican President George Bush very nearly stayed home.
All of this puts Gore in something of a political bind.
Gore in the balance
Ever since "Earth in the Balance" presented him as the most overtly environmental politician of national stature, he has been hammered from the political right and by some scientific experts for overstating problems involving global pollution and the loss of species.
In a collection of articles critical of Gore's "Earth in the Balance," Robert Balling, director of the Office of Climatology at Arizona State University in Tempe, writes: "I believe that the best evidence available does not support Gore's contention."
On one of the vice president's key points (that increases in greenhouse gases already are driving temperatures upward), Mr. Balling asserts that "Gore is simply dead wrong."
Many other scientists are more willing to accept the notion that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could change climate patterns - if they haven't begun doing so already.
But polls indicate that most Americans, while they generally want more environmental protection, favor a go-slow approach to global warming - especially if it involves high personal costs or major lifestyle changes.
It's one thing for a senator from Tennessee to be out front of the public - even radical at times - on issues like the environment. But as a vice president with ambitions to advance further, being too far out front can come back to haunt one.
And while environmentalists may be disappointed with the position that Clinton and especially Gore have taken, another traditional Democratic constituency - big labor - is tugging the vice president in the other direction. Auto workers and miners - both of whom would be impacted by any attempt to reduce reliance on fossil fuels - have lined up with manufacturers in opposing the president's modest global- warming plan.