Melting glaciers, the shrinking ice cap, warming oceans and rising sea levels — all are urgent concerns around the world, and cause for frustration among many nations that believe the United States has set a glacial pace toward reversing the onset of global warming.
Critics said the Bush administration's isolation at the United Nations-brokered international climate talks that ended last week in Montreal doesn't make much sense.
The White House acknowledged Sunday that it holds "a different view" from most other nations, but said it is nonetheless providing global leadership on heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases.
Eileen Claussen, president of the private Pew Center on Global Climate Change and a former U.S. climate negotiator in the Clinton administration, said the current U.S. position reflects an unhealthy tendency toward unilateralism, mistrust of international treaties and a belief that the only things that will make any difference are investments in new technologies.
"I think most of the rest of the world doesn't believe that for a second," she said. "It's something else that's driving this, and it's not rational. I think it's ideology."
More than 150 nations, including nearly every industrialized country except the United States, agreed Saturday to negotiate a second phase of mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Those include carbon dioxide, methane and other gases accumulating in the atmosphere from fossil-fuel burning.
A 1997 treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, covers the first phase through 2012, but the United States, whose tailpipes and smokestacks are responsible for one-quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, won't participate.
Claussen said: "If you really want results, you have to do something that's mandatory. It's not going to happen with voluntary approaches."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the Bush administration favors voluntary efforts and bilateral and regional arrangements to tackle climate change, including $3 billion a year in U.S. government spending on research and development of energy-saving technologies.
"If you only focus on debates about binding emissions caps, more specifically the Kyoto Protocol, then yes, we have a different view than the participants that have signed onto Kyoto," Perino said. "However, when you consider the real actions that will be needed to address the issue, there is no doubt that we are leading the world in a global and long-term effort."
Others see a different type of leadership. Alden Meyer, strategy and policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the Bush administration arrived in Montreal "determined to prevent the rest of the world from extending and deepening their commitments under Kyoto."
The administration failed, he said, because Europe, Canada, Russia and Japan "understand that mandatory limits on global warming pollution, combined with market-based emissions trading mechanisms, are essential. ... The Bush approach of relying solely on voluntary efforts and long-term R&D simply won't get the job done."
Only in the final hours of the Montreal talks did the U.S. delegation, led by State Department and White House officials, accept a weaker agreement to join a preliminary discussion on future steps to slow global warming, and then only on condition that it ruled out "negotiations leading to new commitment" to reduce greenhouse gases.
The Bush administration committed itself to slowing down the growth rate of those gases, not reversing the trend. But the United States was included in the talks because it is among 189 nations that signed onto a 1992 agreement, negotiated under the first President Bush, that set voluntary goals for cutting greenhouse emissions.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol grew out of the 1992 agreement.
The Montreal meeting was the first annual climate conference to be held since that 1997 accord took effect last February, mandating cuts in gases in 35 industrialized countries. President Bush rejected it in 2001, saying mandatory energy cuts would harm the U.S. economy and major developing countries also should be covered.
Despite the U.S. opposition, the head of the Montreal talks, Canadian Environment Minister Stephane Dion, said the "Kyoto Protocol has been switched on, a dialogue about the future action has begun, parties have moved forward."
Perino said the White House has reached voluntary, market-related climate agreements with nations that represent 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That includes a U.S. plan to encourage global trading in methane, which accounts for 16 percent of global greenhouse emissions, compared with carbon dioxide's 74 percent.
"The goal is to together work on developing clean energy technologies that are the key to addressing climate change in the long term," Perino said.