The United States, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, staunchly defended its record on battling global warming Wednesday, as the U.N. chief lamented a “frightening lack” of international leadership on climate change.
“The United States is committed to addressing the serious global challenge of climate change,” said Paula Dobriansky, a U.S. undersecretary of state and head of the American delegation to the U.N. climate conference in Nairobi.
The two-week meeting, entering its final three days, has been working on technical issues involving the Kyoto Protocol, which obliges 35 industrial nations to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
The United States and Australia are the only major industrialized countries to reject Kyoto. President Bush says it would harm the U.S. economy, and it should have required cutbacks in poorer nations as well.
Dobriansky stressed U.S. efforts to develop clean energy technology in partnership with other countries, saying “we must act in ways that encourage economic growth.”
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the conference earlier Wednesday that those who would deny global warming or delay taking action against it are “out of step” and “out of time.”
“Let no one say we cannot afford to act,” Annan declared, in a clear reference to those, such as the Bush administration, who say reducing global warming gases would set back economies.
He referred to a recent British government report projecting that unimpeded global warming — with its predicted rising seas, droughts and other climate disruptions — could cost between 5 percent and 20 percent of global gross domestic product each year.
“It is increasingly clear it will cost far less to cut emissions now than to deal with the consequences later,” Annan said.
He also noted “a frightening lack of leadership” in fashioning the next steps to reduce global emissions. “I would want leaders around the world to really show courage and to know that if they do, their people and the voters will be with them,” he told reporters after his speech.
Scientists attribute at least some of the past century’s 1-degree rise in global temperatures to the atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, byproducts of power plants, automobiles and other fossil fuel-burning sources. Continued temperature rises could seriously disrupt the climate, they say.
Asked about Annan’s criticism of poor international leadership on climate, Dobriansky replied, “We think the United States has been leading with its groundbreaking initiatives” that take into account the economy and sustainable development. In the past five years, she said, the U.S. has invested $29 billion in climate science and technology.
“There are diverse approaches to address climate change,” she said. “We need to find ways to encourage and recognize different approaches and solutions wherever they occur.”
U.S. officials also say the country is doing better at voluntarily restraining the growth of such gases than are some countries committed to reductions under the Kyoto Protocol.
Closed-door talks in Nairobi are focusing on how to set emissions quotas after 2012 period — a regime many hope will include the United States. Cabinet ministers from around the world were arriving to take up such key issues.
Bangladesh’s environment secretary, Hyder Ali, told the conference it was vital that industrial nations commit to deeper emissions cuts. He said that according to one estimate, 5 million people may be displaced by rising seas in low-lying Bangladesh.
At best, however, the conference may simply set a timetable for talks into next year. Many think real negotiations will come only after the Bush administration leaves office.
“The United States will return to the negotiating table with a serious proposal when a new president takes office in 2009,” predicted conference observer Philip Clapp, head of the National Environmental Trust.
Clapp noted that Democratic and Republican contenders in the 2008 presidential election favor capping U.S. emissions.
Other climate campaigners oppose this strategy of marking time.
“That won’t work,” said Hans Verolme, Dutch spokesman for Climate Action Network, an alliance of environmentalist groups. “It would allow the U.S. to hold the negotiations hostage.”