Dismayed by President Bush's about-face on greenhouse-gas emissions, European leaders are questioning the new US administration's commitment to curbing climate change, and warning that the issue could undermine transatlantic relations.
"This is not just an environmental question," says Kjell Larsson, environment minister of Sweden, which currently holds the European Union presidency. "The European Union puts a very high priority on this subject, and it is very important for foreign-policy relations between the EU and the United States."
In a strongly worded letter to Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman last week, French Environment Minister Dominique Voynet expressed her government's "very active concern" about Washington's apparent rejection of international efforts to slow global warming.
She was responding to a letter that Mr. Bush wrote to Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska last Tuesday, abandoning a campaign pledge and saying he would not seek to impose mandatory emissions reductions for carbon dioxide (CO2) at US power plants. Bush also reasserted his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty designed to cut worldwide emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases by 5.2 percent by 2012. The US signed the treaty in 1997 and has been helping to develop it since then. A US delegation is due to resume negotiations with other treaty signatories in Bonn, Germany, in July to work out the rules that will regulate the treaty and give it teeth. Similar talks in The Hague in November failed to yield an agreement.
Bush's letter, in which the president said he believed the Kyoto Protocol "would cause serious harm to the US economy," shocked European officials. They had agreed to Washington's request to delay the Bonn meeting by two months, to give the new administration enough time to review its policy.
"Now we need to know whether the new administration is still in the negotiating process or whether it has taken another line, as the letter seems to suggest," says Raymond Cointe, an adviser on climate change to Ms. Voynet, who played a leading role in The Hague talks.
"We are worried," he adds. "The letter is not very reassuring about the administration's intentions with regard to Kyoto."
European governments are not prepared to renegotiate the Kyoto Protocol, officials insist. "The protocol must be the basis for continuing discussions," says Mr. Larsoon.
"All the parties have signed the Kyoto Protocol, and it would be a terrible setback if we could not continue to discuss on this basis and reach an agreement."
The US "would bear a very heavy responsibility if it called into question an agreement unanimously approved by the international community to combat the climate change that threatens the future of the planet and of humanity," Voynet said in her letter to Ms. Whitman.
While other signatory countries could, in theory, bring the treaty into force without Washington, "it would lose its point," says Mr. Cointe, since the US accounts for 25 percent of global CO2 emissions.
The EU Environment Commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, also declared her "concern" that the US president appears not to be convinced by majority scientific opinion that greenhouse gases are a cause of global warming.
In his letter to Senator Hagel, Bush referred to "the incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global warming."
A recent report by an intergovernmental panel on climate change "has once again confirmed the evidence on the causes of climate change and the solutions," Ms. Wallstrom said in a statement. "Nobody should ignore these warnings."
The Kyoto Protocol, largely shaped by the US, sets targets for developed countries to cut back emissions of greenhouse gases over a five-year period between 2008 and 2012. The US pledged to cut its emissions by 7 percent, the European Union by 8 percent.
President Bush said in his letter that the protocol is unfair because it does not cover developing countries, such as China and India. He rejected caps on CO2 emissions from power stations because they would force a shift away from coal toward natural gas, which he said would mean higher electricity prices.
"At a time when California has already experienced energy shortages, and other Western states are worried about price and availability of energy this summer, we must be very careful not to take actions that would harm consumers," Bush wrote.
Administration officials say they intend to continue talking with other governments about the Kyoto Protocol, and an in-depth review of Washington's policy is awaiting the nomination of new officials in the environment field.
The chairman of the climate conference in The Hague, Dutch Environment Minister Jan Pronk, is preparing to resume negotiations in July - and has taken a cautious approach to the Bush letter. "It would be advisable to await the results of the exchange of views within the US administration," he said last week. "The letter raises a number of questions that will come up in talks with the United States in the coming months."
"I don't think this letter is the last word," says Eileen Claussen, director of the Washington-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change, an environmental think tank. "But it is not a very positive first word."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor