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U.S. global warming `plans' are embarrassment

For a month, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore toiled to educate the public about the dangers of global warming.

First, the president met with scientists at the White House. Then the vice president visited a shrinking glacier in Montana. Next it was back to the White House for a joint media circus with TV weather anchors.All this "public education" obscured an embarrassing secret: For the second time in five years, an American administration was wrecking international negotiations to set binding targets for reducing the pollution that causes global warming.

First came 14 months of policy paralysis. The negotiating session in Kyoto, Japan, called for by the United States in July 1996, is now fewer than 50 days away.

At this stage in any normal international negotiation, the documents have all been drafted, circulated among the parties, major and minor areas of dispute identified, and allies lined up to buttress positions at the table. This process would take months, with over 160 nations involved.

Yet as former British environment minister John Gummer put it to reporters recently, "In 17 years as a minister, I have never seen the central player in an international negotiation handle anything so badly. To come right up to the negotiations and still have no position at all is unheard of."

This is a far cry from the "year of vigorous U.S. leadership" on global warming that candidate Clinton said he would have provided in place of George Bush's tight-lipped silence leading up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It is totally incomprehensible on an issue Vice President Gore called "the most serious threat we have ever faced" in his 1992 book, "Earth in Balance."

Five years ago, the developed nations now comprising the European Union pledged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2000. When he took office, President Clinton pledged the U.S. would do the same.

The EU nations are on course to meet the goal. Now, the EU is willing to go even further, pledging to cut 15 percent below 1990 levels overall by 2010.

Meanwhile, the United States, the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, has increased its emissions annually and will be at least 13 percent above its 1990 levels by 2000.

The White House proposal for Kyoto is that somewhere between 2008 and 2012 we cut our greenhouse gas pollution back to 1990 levels.

The international reaction to such a position will be justifiable outrage.

In the domestic environmental community, the reaction will be simple and clear: No one would want to fight for ratification of a treaty on those terms. It would merely be a license for the United States to continue polluting and a disincentive for other nations to address a critical problem that threatens us all.