In the face of an angry reaction from environmental leaders, Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) backed off yesterday from an earlier statement that he would support dramatic changes in a global warming treaty, including a possible shift from mandatory to voluntary compliance with the requirements to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Daschle and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last week that in light of President Bush's abandonment of the global warming treaty, they would support a whole new approach provided Bush takes the lead in reviving the international talks this summer.
If Democrats only want to take voluntary steps on global warming, they should stop criticizing President Bush, because they aren't any more serious about the issue than he is.
Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust
"I'm not averse to looking at voluntary approaches," Daschle said in an interview last week. "But if you do, there has to be some kind of incentive program that would cause a change in practice or approach."
Yesterday, after protests from prominent environmental groups, Daschle issued a clarification, saying that, while it makes sense to seek voluntary emissions controls in the short term, they "are not a substitute for binding measures to reduce carbon dioxide to meet the commitments we have made to our international partners."
The administration is reviewing alternatives to the treaty negotiated by the United States and its allies in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, including industry proposals for an incentive-based approach and new technologies that would scrap the tough emissions caps and deadlines contained in the agreement.
U.S. allies in Europe and Asia have said they would oppose any dramatic departure from the current global warming treaty, and environmentalists say that previous experiments with voluntary emissions reductions dating to 1992 have largely failed.
"Without clear mandates to meet specified emissions cap targets, [terms such as] voluntary, incentive and new technology are nothing but the fuzzy grammar of the special interests who want to avoid serious solutions to the critical global environmental problem of the 21st century," said Joseph Goffman of Environmental Defense.
Goffman and leaders of two other environmental groups said they were dismayed by Daschle's and Schumer's comments, fearing that they would provide Bush with additional leverage to ignore the concerns of the U.S. allies while charting a course more in tune with the concerns of industrial polluters and conservatives on Capitol Hill.
Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said earlier in the day: "If Democrats only want to take voluntary steps on global warming, they should stop criticizing President Bush, because they aren't any more serious about the issue than he is."
"Unfortunately, the large corporate emitters of CO2 pollution interpret calls for voluntary action as a signal that the government does not regard global warming as a serious problem," added David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Daschle's comments to The Washington Post last week caught many in the environmental movement and even some on his own staff by surprise.
According to senior aides, the Senate minority leader has been reassessing his views on global warming since Bush announced last month that he was disavowing the treaty because the emissions standards would harm the economy, and because China, India and other developing countries would not be bound by it. One aide said that Daschle had been thinking out loud during his interview with The Post and that some of his ideas were still in the formative stages.
"He was candid enough to say what he was thinking," the aide said, adding that, regardless of the confusion, Daschle continues to favor mandatory targets for the long-term reduction of the emissions of gases that trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere.
The Kyoto accord would commit the United States and 36 other industrial nations to the first binding limits on heat-trapping gases that many scientists believe threaten to unleash catastrophic changes in the planet's climate.
As part of the accord, the United States would have to reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants by 7 percent from the 1990 levels by 2012 -- a huge cutback after years of unprecedented economic expansion.
The accord has not been ratified by the Senate, nor by most other industrial nations. However, environmental ministers from around the world plan to resume negotiations in Bonn in July in hopes of breaking the deadlock.
Bush has ordered a Cabinet-level task force to prepare alternative proposals that might be offered at this summer's meeting. Officials said last week that the use of new technologies will be a major part of the recommendations.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company