Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water placed on a gradually heating stove, the Bush administration is feeling the increasing fire of global warming as a major domestic- and foreign-policy issue.
Scientific evidence that earth's temperatures are rising keeps mounting. This week's change in the US Senate power structure puts greater focus on all environmental issues - one of President Bush's weakest areas with the public. And an important meeting in Sweden next week - his first trip to Europe as president - will bring Mr. Bush face to face with European leaders who have been very unhappy with what they see as his dismissive attitude toward global warming.
Bush and his top advisers acknowledge that climate change is occurring. "The president agrees action has to be taken to fight global warming." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said this week.
But the administration's actions - for critics and much of the public, at least - seem to indicate otherwise.
In mid-March, Bush reversed a campaign pledge to regulate power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide (a leading "greenhouse gas" causing global warming), overruling and somewhat embarrassing Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.
Two weeks later he announced that the US would reject the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 treaty signed by 38 industrial nations and aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. This set off a firestorm of criticism from many European leaders.
More recently, Bush's energy plan was criticized by environmentalists and much of the public for emphasizing building more power plants while giving short shrift to conservation and renewable sources of energy.
The administration starts work on the climate question with a public-perception problem. Many top White House officials - Vice President Dick Cheney, staff chief Andrew Card, and the president himself - have business backgrounds in the oil and auto industries. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice served as a director of Chevron Corp. and has an oil tanker named after her.
Given the timing of events - next week's meeting in Sweden and an international meeting on global warming in Bonn in July - experts say the administration must come across as more than a naysayer. "It is essential that the United States have something to propose of some consequence, given the bluntness of their pullout from Kyoto," says James Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.
And given what appears to be a long list of irritants between Europe and the US, the increasing focus on global warming gains importance. "The broader aspect of this is that the US-European relationship is an enormously important relationship worldwide, because only the Europeans and the United States can shape the international system in positive ways," says Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and former Democratic congressman.
The National Academy of Sciences this week reported that "temperatures are, in fact, rising." Among the results of warming, the panel of experts reported, are "retreating glaciers, thinning Arctic ice, rising sea levels, lengthening of the growing season in many areas, and earlier arrival of migratory birds."
The report represents "another step in the fight against the psychological denial that justifies doing nothing or doing as little as possible" to combat human-induced climate change, says Jerry Mahlman, former head of the federal Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab at Princeton University in New Jersey.
The difference with this report is that the Bush administration asked for the study and is now focused on finding a response. "[The president takes [climate change] seriously enough to also want to understand better what we don't know," says Dr. Rice.
Rice and other officials say a detailed proposal is unlikely to be put forth by the Americans next week. But an administration team is looking for ways to credibly attack the issue while ensuring that developing countries (now excluded from the Kyoto process) are involved in reducing global warming. The administration also continues to insist the US economy must not be harmed by any scheme to reduce greenhouse gases - perhaps by relying more on voluntary measures than regulation.
There is general agreement that the US - even if it can't mollify other countries more wedded to the Kyoto deal - must remain a key player in efforts to stem global warming.
Staff writers Francine Kiefer and Peter N. Spotts contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor