Environment: Clinton shackled by barons of the energy industry

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The Independent Online
The United States can singlehandedly make or break the Kyoto conference on global warming. Mary Dejevsky in Washington warns that domestic constraints severely limit President Clinton's room for negotiation.

The official US position calls for stabilisation of greenhouse gas emissions world-wide at the 1990 level by the year 2012. This was the formula announced at a White House conference by Mr Clinton two months ago, and it has not been altered since, despite expressions of disappointment, especially from European leaders. The US would also support an international system for trading permits for greenhouse emissions.

Left to himself, Mr Clinton has indicated he would go much further. At the same White House conference, he accepted the case for global warming and said the US, as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases - 25 per cent of global emissions for 4 per cent of the world population - should set an example.

His Vice-President, Al Gore, paraded his green credentials to advantage during the 1992 presidential election campaign, and his Environment Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, has been forthright in support of scientific groups that see global warming as the scourge of the future.

Yet neither Mr Gore nor Mr Babbitt will be going to Kyoto. Two weeks ago the man seen as the the administration's truest believer in global warming, the Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs, Tim Wirth, resigned. He is to oversee the $1bn (pounds 625m) gift from Ted Turner to the UN for environmental programmes. The word in Washington is that he felt US policy was hamstrung by the demands of America's big energy-producers, and that he could do no more.

Now the US team will now be led by Stuart Eizenstadt, Under-Secretary of State, regarded as more even-handed on the greenhouse-gas issue than Mr Wirth - in other words, less likely to sign an agreement US industry will not like. Mr Gore - who was said last week still to be considering going to Kyoto - would travel only if the conference resulted in greenhouse gas targets he could accept and a diplomatic victory for the US. With his sights on the next presidential campaign, to be associated with anything less would be a liability.

In signing the US up to emissions targets at the level the Europeans are aiming for, the problems for Mr Clinton and Mr Gore are two: the might of the US energy sector - which is particularly defensive because of Mr Clinton's plans for deregulation - and an American public that fears a fall in living standards if the US is forced to become less profligate in its use of energy.

The energy industry has run a television advertising campaign designed to confirm Americans' worst fears about Kyoto. For the US to accept cuts in its own emissions, the commercials argue, could mean a 50 cent increase in the price of petrol. The punchline plays on a simplistic sense of justice: "It's not global, and it won't work." The inference is that less developed countries should make the same efforts as the developed countries - or else any treaty is meaningless.

Mr Clinton and his administration know that acceptance of this argument would be the quickest way to ensuring that there is no treaty at all. It would fuel Third World suspicions that the industrialised world just wants to retard their development and they would refuse to sign.

But the state of US public opinion may be more complex than the energy sector would like to believe. One poll for this week's issue of Newsweek magazine finds 63 per cent of Americans believe a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions need not damage the US economy. However, only a bare majority (51 per cent) said they would pay even 12c more for petrol. At least, the Newsweek poll suggests, a majority of Americans appreciate the advisability of appearing green in public. Whether they act on this is another matter.

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