Climate: Clinton takes his own raincheck

Click to follow
President Clinton and more than half his Cabinet took part in a day-long conference on climate change yesterday. Mary Dejevsky reports on Mr Clinton's latest effort to persuade the US to accept cuts in greenhouse gases For the President of the United States to devote the best part of a day to chairing a series of scientific and economic panels on global warming - its causes, effects and possible remedies - was a sign of the importance this issue is assuming for his administration.

Abroad, the United States is under mounting pressure to commit itself to specific cuts in carbon emissions at the international conference that will be held in Kyoto in December. At New York earlier this year, Mr Clinton virtually agreed that the United States would sign up to targets.

This, however, is anathema to a large section of the American public and American industry. What is worse for the Administration, which risks being sidelined or becoming a pariah at Kyoto, is that the more the American public hears about cutting carbon emissions, the less they seem to like the idea.

Where the Administration sees a chance for international leadership, acceptance and even some environmental benefit, the American public and industry see only dollar signs added to their bills.

When the White House party arrived at Georgetown University yesterday morning, they were met by a small demonstration. In a scene almost inconceivable on any university campus in Europe, the students waved placards with slogans like: "Just say No at Kyoto", "Global warming is a bunch of hot air", "Bad science, big costs, no benefits".

Opening the conference, which was sponsored by the White House and weighted to favour the Administration's view - Mr Clinton indicated that he stood by his commitment at New York to accept obligatory targets for cuts in greenhouse emissions.

But he also appeared concerned to say nothing that would encourage the negative public mood. While repeatedly laying his own cards on the table - "I'm convinced that climate change is real" and "what we know is more than enough to warrant responsible action" - he described the day's discussions as part of "an ongoing national dialogue". He said there were "many honest disagreements" about the nature and threat of global warming, and he stressed the need to combine increasing energy efficiency with continued economic growth - a goal he said his past five years in office had proved to be possible.

Mr Clinton repeated his commitment to "realistic and binding goals" for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, but still declined to say what targets the US might accept. Echoing the argument made by the Europeans (who favour mandatory targets) and by developing countries that are resisting any commitment unless the United States joins in, he noted that the US has 4 per cent of the world's population, 20 per cent of its wealth and produced 20 per cent of its greenhouse emissions. "We must show leadership."

Despite Mr Clinton's commitment, the difficulties he faces in getting his message accepted are enormous. Immediately before the conference opened, half a dozen chief executives of US electricity companies called a press conference to stress their opposition to compulsory targets: "voluntary is best and most efficient", they said to a man.

They emphasised the billions of dollars invested in power plants that could become prematurely obsolete if the US adopted mandatory targets at Kyoto (though they accepted they might be necessary in the long term). And they minimised the difference that, they said, cuts by the US would make anyway - given that by far the greatest growth in greenhouse gas emissions would come in future from developing countries.

Their companies were among hundreds of organisations sponsoring a three- page advertisement in US newspapers yesterday. It read: "Mr President: 95 US senators and millions of Americans can't be wrong. The global climate treaty doesn't make sense for America or the world."