US environmental chief quits for UN post

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Casting a shadow over critical global warming talks that begin on 1 December in Kyoto, Japan, Tim Wirth, the US Under-Secretary of State who had been expected to lead the American delegation, is resigning his post in order to manage the $1bn donation recently made by Ted Turner, the American media magnate who founded CNN, to the United Nations.

Although Mr Wirth, 57, who is a former US Senator from Colorado and a longtime supporter of the environment movement, will not technically leave the State Department until the year's end, it was thought likely yesterday that he would be replaced as leader of the United States team at the Kyoto talks.

The unexpected change dismayed many in the environmental community. The Kyoto meeting, which aims to bring 160 countries together to sign a global treaty on reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, faces possible failure because of a wide gap between the European Union and the United States. Hopes that those differences could be bridged were partially being pinned on Mr Wirth.

"It's not a great signal," said Greg Whetstone, of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. He emphasised that Mr Wirth's presence in Kyoto was considered vital because of his "intimate familiarity" with the complicated issues involved. Just a week ago, Mr Wirth confirmed that there were "still significant disagreements" between the EU and the US on the agenda for Kyoto. Washington wants a treaty that would return emissions of gases like carbon dioxide to 1990 levels. Taking a harder line, however, Europe wants emissions reduced to 15 per cent of what they were in 1990.

Mr Wirth has publicly denied that he was motivated to leave the State Department because of any frustration with the US position ahead of Kyoto. Rather, he said, he was attracted by the challenge of being President of the United Nations Fund that is to manage the historic donation made by Mr Turner two months ago. Mr Wirth will raise additional money and oversee distribution of cash to UN projects.

But in detailing all of the areas in which he expects to the new fund to operate, ranging from immigration, to international crime and the environment itself, Mr Wirth hinted at dissatisfaction with how the US government, and the State Department functions. "These are new issues," he told the New York Times. "We have these new issues and in a way you have old bottles. You have systems set up at the State Department and elsewhere that were designed for a Cold War era."