US walks out of climate change talks as 150 nations move forward to adopt Kyoto

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The Bush administration's unwillingness to seriously confront global warming was increasingly at odds with the rest of the world last night as more than 150 other nations were poised to move forward with the Kyoto protocol.

The US faced widespread condemnation after persistently rejecting even the mildest commitment to deal with climate change at the UN talks in Montreal.

Washington's behaviour represents a serious embarrassment to Tony Blair who has argued that he could obtain an undertaking from the US to tackle the issue.

As the US position was highlighted by the walking out of talks by its chief negotiator Harlan Watson, the former president Bill Clinton launched an attack on his successor's environmental policy.

To thunderous applause from delegates from nations around the world who are readying themselves to move ahead with the next stage of the Kyoto Protocol, Mr Clinton said the environmental policy of George Bush's administration was "flat wrong".

Rubbishing the US administration's claim that signing up to Kyoto would damage the American economy, Mr Clinton, who was invited to the summit by the Montreal authorities, urged nations to take up the challenge of Kyoto.

"We will have a meeting like this in 40 years time on a raft somewhere unless we do something," he said, adding that scientific evidence is amassing that proves "if we had a serious, disciplined effort" to apply existing conservation technologies then "we could meet and surpass the Kyoto targets easily in a way that would strengthen, not weaken, our economies".

Last night, details on how to progress when the first stage of the protocol ends in 2012 were being finalised by ministers.

Campaigners hailed the apparent progress on Kyoto (albeit without the US) as a vital step forward in the effort to deal with climate change and said it showed the willingness of more than 150 nations to commit themselves to the process. Of those nations, 36 are legally bound to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases.

But amid that progress, the elephant in the room remained the refusal of the Bush administration to act. During negotiations on Thursday evening, Mr Watson walked out of the room after delegates sought an agreement for those nations not signed up to Kyoto simply to agree to further talks.

"If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it's a duck," Mr Watson reportedly said, as delegates sought to include the word "dialogue" in the draft agreement. That agreement would not have committed the US to anything binding, and would not "open any negotiations leading to new commitments". But even that mild undertaking was apparently too much for the Bush administration.

Campaigners have rounded on the US administration. Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said: "The US is responsible for 25 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. It should take its responsibility for leading the way. But instead, under George Bush, it has been taken backwards."

Arlen Myer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said there were many in the US who were already taking action to deal with climate change at a city and state level. He claimed the position of the Bush administration placed it more out of touch with the mood of the American public.

But America's behaviour was condemned not just by activists but by other delegates. The Irish environment minister, Dick Roache, said of Mr Watson's "duck" comment: "It might go down well in the Ozarks but not here."

Kenya's Emily Ojoo Massawa, chair of the African group of nations at the talks, said: "It's such a pity the US is still very much unwilling to join the international community, to have a multi-lateral effort to deal with climate change."

The talks in Montreal stemmed from an undertaking given by more than 180 nations who signed up to 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). That committed them simply to talks about further action.

It was unclear last night what sort of agreement, if any, the non-Kyoto nations would adopt. Campaigners said the US was now all but isolated, with only countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait sharing a similar position. Australia, which is not a Kyoto country, has been willing to agree to further talks.

The US argues that voluntary action is the way to deal with climate change. It says that it has spent more than $3bn (£1.7bn) a year on research and development of energy-saving technologies. It will meet with Asian and Pacific countries next year to discuss ways of using new technology to address the problem. But this appears to be a step back from the mild undertaking President George Bush agreed to earlier this year at the G8 summit at Gleneagles. Under the communiqué signed by Mr Bush, at the lobbying of Mr Blair, the US said the UNFCC was the appropriate forum for "negotiating" future action on climate change.

The British Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, said: "President Bush personally agreed at Gleneagles that America would be a part of discussions here. It would be a great pity if the US thought - for whatever reason - it cannot be part of a move forward."

Jennifer Morgan, of environmental group WWF, said: "By walking out of the room, this shows just how willing the US is to walk away from a healthy planet and its responsibilities."