President Bush's decision to reject the international treaty on global warming presents a major challenge to US relations with Europe, and it calls into question the diplomatic work done on climate change dating back to the 1992 Earth Summit.
But it comes as no surprise to those who have watched this fledgling administration put together its program on energy and the environment. Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have all said recently that the Kyoto Protocol - signed by 38 nations in 1997 - is flawed in that it would harm the US economy and does not deal with pollution in developing countries.
EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman confirmed the administration's position this week when she said, "We have no interest in implementing that treaty."
Without being specific, White House officials say they're working on an alternative plan for reducing the greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) that most experts say are the cause of global warming.
"The president does care about global warming," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday. "He believes it is a serious matter, and the administration is committed to working with our allies on a plan that includes developing nations as well as developed nations."
Other nations could go ahead
Still, Bush's dismissal of the Kyoto treaty threatens to spark a major transatlantic row with European allies, who are all committed to the protocol. Many are likely to try to implement it even without Washington's participation.
French Environment Minister Dominique Voynet recently warned Ms. Whitman that "my country is ready to undertake discussions on putting the Kyoto Protocol into practice in an open spirit, ready to debate any topic. It is not, however, prepared to enter into a ... discussion that calls the Kyoto Protocol itself into question."
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder is expected to voice European dismay forcefully when he meets Bush in Washington today.
US environmental groups are furious as well.
"Declaring the Kyoto negotiations dead - rather than proposing changes which would make it acceptable - will delay action on global warming for years and years," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.
The Kyoto Protocol (named for the Japanese city where it was signed) requires the United States to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Without major changes in energy generation and transportation, however, this could be very difficult to accomplish since the country and its economy have continued to grow at a steady pace.
Early in his first term, President Clinton tried to impose a "carbon tax" that would have forced reductions. That got nowhere in Congress, and since then the Senate (which ratifies treaties) has gone on record by a 95-to-0 vote as generally opposing what the Kyoto negotiations produced.
Since the Earth Summit in 1992, where the groundwork for Kyoto was laid, many US business leaders (including some in oil production and auto manufacturing) have come to accept the reality of global warming, and many have taken specific steps to reduce their industry's greenhouse-gas emissions.
Others stress the need to aggressively pursue new technologies that would help reduce the apparently changing climate. These might include clean coal technology, new power-generation systems for automobiles, and more efficient means of production for energy-intensive industries like steel.
"The president has said repeatedly that he does believe that one of the answers to a lot of these environmental issues ... is the evolution of technology so we have the proper balance of reducing pollutants and making certain that our economy remains strong," says spokesman Fleischer.
"What's needed is an international framework that allows for the transfer of these technologies from the industrialized world to the developing world where they're critically needed," says Glenn Kelly, executive director of the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group that opposes the Kyoto treaty.
Hot under the collar in Europe
None of this is expected to mollify US allies in Europe, however.
In their view, the US pulling out of Kyoto represents a major setback, since this country, with its large cars and relatively low fuel prices, produces a significant percentage of the world's greenhouse gases. Many see Bush's call for technological fixes as a US attempt to go it alone in a way that could further delay emissions reductions by decades.
Kjell Larsson, Swedish environment minister, yesterday described Whitman's comments as "really appalling," but said he hoped to "find a joint basis for discussions." Sweden holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
"If that is not possible, if the Americans are so determined ... of course we have to continue with other countries, although the difficulties will be much bigger if the country with the biggest emissions is not part" of the treaty, he added. "No one has pointed to any way out except the Kyoto Protocol."
Staff writer Peter Ford contributed from Paris.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor