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US on defensive at climate conference

By Joseph Coleman (Associated Press) - December 6, 2007

First Australia won international applause for abandoning the United States and signing a global warming pact Washington has long opposed. Then a U.S. Senate committee voted for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

The Bush administration’s position, that technology, private investment and economic growth — rather than mandatory emissions cuts — will save the planet from global warming, is taking a beating this week at a U.N. climate change conference in Indonesia.

The public defeats for the U.S. stance, coupled with mounting warnings from scientists and others that only decisive action will control rising temperatures, have cast the Americans as wayward sons who need to wake up and join the rest of the world.

“I think the United States will be judicious enough to accept the changes of atmosphere,” said Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar, the host of the conference. “I don’t think we should pressure them. They will come by themselves.”

A lot is at stake. The conference in Bali is charged with launching negotiations that will eventually lead to an international accord to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

Kyoto, which was rejected by the Bush administration, commits three dozen industrialized countries to cut their greenhouse gases an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels between next year and 2012, when it expires.

The U.S. mission arrived at Bali with the goal of blocking Kyoto-like mandatory cut targets from getting into the new agreement, while many other countries came to Indonesia in hopes of coming up with a deal the Americans would participate in.

But Washington has seen its hand steadily weakened in the first few days of the two-week conference.

First, newly installed Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reversed his country’s long-standing policy by signing the Kyoto pact Monday, leaving the United States as the only major industrialized country to reject the agreement. Rudd called on the U.S. to follow his lead, and the Australian delegation basked in applause and accolades at the opening of the conference in Bali.

The next blow came from a domestic source: Congress. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a bill Wednesday to cut U.S. emissions by 70 percent by 2050 from electric power plants, manufacturing and transportation, defying the administration’s opposition to mandatory caps.

The bill now goes to the full Senate. While President Bush is expected to veto it if it reaches his desk, the Wednesday vote cheered environmentalists and others who have argued the Bush administration is seriously out of step with the U.S. public’s serious concerns about global warming and willingness to do something about it.

“It does show the seriousness of the U.S. Congress in addressing with these issues, and really sends a positive signal to developing nations in particular that the United States Congress is not going to sit idly by,” said David Waskow, of the Oxfam humanitarian agency. “That is quite distinct from … the Bush administration.”

That has left the U.S. delegation in Bali struggling to put a positive spin on events.

U.S. climate chief Harlan Watson opened the American’s two briefings this week by outlining how Washington is fighting global warming its own way, with technology, aid and economic growth. He has denied the U.S. feels isolated.

The Bush administration says imposing mandatory emissions cuts will harm economic growth, and favors individual countries setting their own goals instead. Washington also backs private sector initiatives to develop energy-saving technology and alternative energy sources, such as ethanol and other biofuels. It also says industry should devise ways to burn coal and other fossil fuels more cleanly.

On Thursday, Watson was adamant the Bush administration would stick to its guns, no matter what Australia or the Senate did.

“In our process, a vote for movement of a bill out of committee does not ensure its ultimate passage,” he told reporters. “I don’t know the details, but we will not alter our posture here.”

In addition to the setbacks, the U.S. has been faced with a drumbeat of scientific reports demonstrating the world needs to limit the increase in global temperatures to 3.6 degrees above what they were before the world industrialized and started spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or face the worst environmental, social and economic impact of climate change.

Still, conference delegates recognize a deal without the United States is meaningless.

The U.S. is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and is home to the globe’s largest economy. Robust participation by Washington in a climate accord puts enormous resources at the disposal of the anti-global warming fight.

While welcoming both the Australian change of heart on Kyoto and the Senate moves in the U.S., U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer did not use the developments to taunt Washington. Instead, he told reporters delegates would have to deal with the Bush administration no matter what — at least until 2009.

“That’s a very encouraging sign from the United States,” de Boer said of the Senate vote. But “for us, as an intergovernmental process, we’re most interested in the views of the government of the day.”