The United States received a chilly response during its opening statements Monday at the start of the United Nations’ climate-change treaty talks, a meeting that Japan’s foreign minister said “could change the history of mankind.”
In Washington, President Clinton, after months of resistance to sending a high-ranking leader to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, said Vice President Al Gore will attend the meeting.
At the opening assembly in Kyoto, U.S. delegate Melinda Kimble reiterated the U.S. position, which includes stabilizing greenhouse-gas emissions at the 1990 level by 2010. Although she mentioned no other nations by name, she characterized more stringent proposals made by the European Union and others as unrealistic or ineffective. Her comments were met in the assembly hall with silence.
However, Kimble, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, said for the first time that the United States is willing to consider a proposal to lighten the burdens of some countries that face unusual difficulties in cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. Known as “differentiation,” this proposal would allow countries to adopt different goals, instead of assigning one target for all developed nations. Coal-dependent Australia is one of the leading advocates of flexible targets.
“In the interest of moving our negotiations forward, and seeking to be as flexible as possible … we are prepared to consider the possibility of limited, carefully bounded differentiation,” Kimble said in a speech to delegates.
By showing flexibility on differentiation, the U.S. side - which is being led by Stuart E. Eizenstat, the undersecretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs, Kimble and Tom Foley, the U.S. ambassador to Japan - was hoping to soften resistance to some of its pet proposals. But the gambit did little to quell criticism of the United States, which some groups regard as a major obstacle to a successful climate treaty.
“The United States is not winning any friends here,” said Richard Mott, vice president of the World Wildlife Fund. “It is striking what a sour note the U.S. hit.”
The aim of the conference is to get world leaders to agree to legally binding steps to limit the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and cause the Earth to warm. Scientists fear continued warming could cause many dangerous changes including the spread of malaria into colder climates, the swamping of low-lying shores by rising seas and crop-killing droughts.
While the United States and the European Union are showing some signs of compromise, Washington finds itself far apart from the majority by demanding the participation in some form of developing countries in any agreement reached.
In preliminary meetings in Berlin that preceded this U.N. conference, member nations agreed that the richer countries would take the lead. Some now feel that the United States is using this issue to cloud discussions.
As the United States takes on China and other developing nations on this issue, Mott said, some say it is inappropriate because Washington has done more to cause the greenhouse-gas problem than any other country. What it amounts to, he said, is “The nation of sports-utility vehicles is lecturing a nation of bicycles.”
Automobiles are a leading cause of carbon-dioxide emissions, and the U.S. appetite for big, gas-guzzling vehicles has not gone unnoticed. Some Japanese government officials and others are leaving their cars at home and pedaling to work as a symbolic sign that they are doing some small part to address the problem.
Japan, as conference host, especially wants the meeting to be judged a success when it adjourns Dec. 10. For that to happen most people here say a significant, legally binding reduction of emissions must be agreed to; holding the line as the United States proposes - even if that means cutting back on expected economic growth - is not seen as good enough.
Differing views about how to achieve the cuts spurred a new round of diplomatic sniping during Monday’s opening session. Kimble, speaking to reporters after her speech, reiterated the administration’s criticism of the European Union’s so-called “bubble” system for distributing the economic pain among its members. The EU is promising to cut emissions overall to 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. But some European countries would be allowed to reduce emissions only a little, while a few nations could increase their output by as much as 40 percent.
Kimble said the EU’s “bubble” would give Europeans an advantage, one that could actually harm U.S. trade interests. EU spokesman Jorgen Henningsen, director for the environment and natural resources, dismissed the complaint.
“If the strong concerns … are the fact that the EU position is uncomfortably ambitious for the U.S., then I would say we have a comparable concern that the U.S. position is uncomfortably unambitious from our point of view,” Henningsen told Reuters Television.
The mood and maneuvering Monday in Kyoto resembled Capitol Hill during votes on major legislation. While conference participants met and made speeches, lobbyists worked hard around the edges. The world’s major industrial concerns, which say they stand to lose billions of dollars if strict new standards are adopted, are everywhere in this ancient Japanese city. Lobbyists from oil companies and car manufacturers are easy to spot in hotel lobbies or the conference hall, chatting up officials or working cellular phones.
Environmental groups have mounted an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign of their own, providing the media with snappy quotes about the day’s activities.
The lobbying and negotiating is expected to continue for 10 days. By then, Japanese Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi told the assembly it is the world’s responsibility to agree on how to solve the global-warming problem. “It is our responsibility, which is of historical importance, to determine the future shape of the Earth and hand it over to posterity,” he said.
Graphic: Why is the Earth heating up?