Enviroment: Clinton pulls out the stops to turn the US green

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The Independent Online
The United States is under pressure to match Europe's reductions in carbon emissions before world leaders meet in Kyoto to negotiate a global climate treaty.

President Clinton has been trying to persuade his nation by enlisting car makers, scientists and television weather forecasters. But he is meeting some fierce resistance.

Mary Dejevsky says that a scientific conference to be held at the White House on Monday could tip the balance.

Whenever Americans switch on their televisions or open their newspapers at the moment, they come face to face with lavish advertisements forecasting imminent environmental disaster.

This is not the scientists' nightmare of rising sea-levels, flooded cities and desiccated fields that has so impressed itself on European minds, but the claim that - if the Europeans and others get their way - Americans will have to pay an extra 50 cents for each gallon of petrol they buy, the price of electricity and gas "could soar", and, because of higher production costs, so could the price of everything else.

The advertisements are sponsored by lobbyists for the powerful United States energy and automotive industries, which fear that the administration is about to bow to pressure from the Europeans (and almost everyone else in the world) and finally agree to reductions in its emissions of carbon gases.

These are the gases that many scientists believe cause the phenomenon known as global warming. The US, with its gas-guzzling cars, wasteful power plants and thirsty central heating and cooling systems is far and away the world's biggest producer of such gases.

From the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to the five-year follow-up meeting held in New York this summer, the US has managed to fend off the increasingly insistent calls for action.

At New York, however, President Bill Clinton could only buy time, promising to announce US measures at Kyoto in Japan. Now, with the main preparatory meeting for the Kyoto conference to be held in Bonn later this month, the US must decide whether to support or scupper the planned treaty. The outbreak of cut-throat lobbying in the American media, a succession of briefings and seminars on climate change in Washington this week and some frantic activity at the White House in recent days - to culminate in Monday's "science summit' - are the outward manifestations of a policy battle that is approaching its climax.

At the beginning of the week, President Clinton finally decided to lead from the front and said publicly that he accepted the need to combat global warming.

On Tuesday, he sent his environment secretary, Bruce Babbit, to address a meeting organised by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Mr Babbit's first duty was to receive an open letter, signed by more than 1,500 eminent scientists, calling on world leaders - including US leaders - to act urgently to reduce carbon emissions.

On Wednesday, Mr Clinton invited 100 of the country's television weather forecasters to the White House to hear his pitch again, along with the presentations of assembled scientists.

The idea was not, it was said, to impose a "reduce emissions" slant on the nation's weather forecasts, but to inform the broadcasters of the arguments.

Yesterday it was the turn of the car-makers. The chief executives of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had reportedly requested such a meeting to air what a Ford spokesman described as their "deep reservations" about the Kyoto conference. They fear that higher petrol tax and more environmentally geared specifications could damage the US car market.

Cars and the price of petrol are - as the lobbyists, and the administration well realise - a prize card in the hand of those who oppose a US commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

Only recently liberated from the 55mph speed limit introduced during the Seventies energy crisis, and still wedded to large, heavy cars, Americans are scared by nothing more than the prospect of gasoline and car prices rising to European levels.

The argument, presented forcefully in Washington this week by the former Tory British secretary of state for the environment, John Gummer, is that the vastly higher fuel consumption of American cars makes motoring in the US almost as expensive as in Europe and that low fuel prices have allowed cars, heating systems and electrical appliances to remain irresponsibly wasteful. It is not one that most Americans want to hear.

Mr Gummer was in the US to make the point that a Conservative government had been both convinced enough of the risk of global warming and concerned enough about its consequences to take effective action - reducing carbon emissions in the UK by almost 20 per cent since 1990.

His message was addressed partly to the Republican majority in the US Congress, which remains unconvinced by the scientific arguments, reluctant to pass legislation that would increase costs, and could block ratification of a treaty. But he was also warning the Administration of the international opprobrium that the US would incur if it diluted or refused to sign the planned Kyoto treaty.

Although Mr Clinton now seems fully converted to the cause and is making it his own, the battle is by no means won. Mr Babbit told Tuesday's meeting that the President found himself having to manoeuvre between the whirlpool of international disapproval and the "monsters" of the US Senate and revealed that a furious debate was going on inside the administration. That debate, like the one in the country at large, is complicated by Mr Clinton's plans for the imminent deregulation of the US energy sector. The energy industry is thus fighting on multiple fronts - not just against the scientists of global warming, but against anything that would jeopardise their current market position and their future competitivity.

At Tuesday's conference, Mr Babbitt tried to console the scientists by saying that the US would announce its position at Bonn later this month. Significantly, however, he was substituting for the meeting's billed keynote speaker, Vice-President Al Gore - until recently the administration's "Mr Environment".

Mr Gore's decision to stay in the White House and have the television cameras film him operating a "V-chip" - the device that would allow parents to censor their children's television viewing - showed which cause he judged the politically safer bet. If Mr Gore returns to his role as chief environmentalist, this could be a sign that Mr Clinton has turned the tide. But no one, not even the weather forecasters, is making any firm predictions.