As an issue, global warming is hotter now than ever - hotter, that is, everywhere but Washington.
In recent months, the list of leading players fighting global warming has exploded. They include countries like France and Great Britain, organizations like the World Bank and World Economic Forum, companies like British Petroleum, Shell, General Motors, and Honda. States and cities are taking action. Even religious groups are weighing in.
Their efforts, chronicled by ever-intensifying media coverage, have come amid a rush of new scientific findings indicating that the planet's rising temperature, and the changes to the global climate it can cause, are serious concerns. The most compelling was a National Research Council panel finding in January that global warming ''is undoubtedly real,'' with the rate of temperature increases accelerating in the last 20 years.
Yet in Washington, the world's blueprint for solving the problem - the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, a treaty negotiated by more than 150 countries in 1997 that specifies cuts in greenhouse gas emissions each country must make - remains stalled. The White House has yet to submit it to the Senate for ratification, knowing it would be rejected. And without US ratification, global implementation is nearly impossible.
At the same time, global warming - much like the environment generally - has yet to emerge as a serious issue on the campaign trail, despite poll after poll concluding that the environment is important to voters. A massive effort by environmentalists during the New Hampshire primary season to raise the issue failed, and - although George W. Bush last week proposed ways to develop contaminated ''brownfield'' sites, and Al Gore two weeks ago spoke about clean water and fuel efficiency - the candidates have been largely silent on environmental matters.
''Why does everyone in the world get this except our own government?'' said Donella Meadows, author of ''The Limits to Growth'' and a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College. ''We're the laggards on this issue, the outlaws unwilling to be dragged into the 21st century.''
This may soon change. Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, predicts that Vice President Gore is poised to launch the environment as a campaign issue, and that Governor Bush will retaliate, both candidates thus casting themselves as environmentalists, with global warming high on their agenda. White House sources say privately that Callahan's prediction is correct, and that the candidates' first tentative comments on the environment over the past two weeks mark the beginning of a new phase in which the issue will figure prominently.
Taking up the environment, and especially global warming, would make political sense; a likely drought this summer in the political battlefield of the Midwest will put global warming on the front burner. By that time both Gore and Bush will be scrambling for the votes of women - especially those age 25 to 45 - who are a key presidential swing constituency and a green voting block. And with campaign finance in the air, and environmentalists accusing the coal and oil industries of exerting political influence to thwart progress on global warming, both candidates can use the issue to tout their plans to overhaul the political contribution rules.
But for the moment, the relative silence on the environment has been nearly deafening - especially from Gore, who in his 1992 book, ''Earth in the Balance,'' called global warming ''the most serious threat we have ever faced.''
''Gore should make an issue of it, he wrote a book about it, everyone knows where he stands on it, and there's nowhere for him to run and hide on it,'' said Denis Hayes, chairman and CEO of Earth Day Network. Its April 22 international celebration of Earth Day's 30th anniversary is focused on global warming.
But the silence is also predictable, given that both candidates are vulnerable on the issue of environment. Gore failed in September to win the endorsement of Friends of the Earth, which backed Bill Bradley, ''who knows how to get things done,'' said Brent Blackwelder, the group's president. Gore has been ''a major disappointment'' over the last seven years, wrongly assuming he could take the environmental vote for granted, and trying to make up for that by associating himself with the many high-profile Clinton administration environmental proposals that have emerged since, he said.
Gore has been heckled on the campaign trail for his oil money ties - $500,000 in Occidental Petroleum stock, held as the company plans to drill in Colombia on the land of the indigenous U'wa people. His failure to follow through on a 1992 campaign promise to crack down on an Ohio hazardous waste incinerator has also drawn jeers.
''Gore feels a bit burned right now by the environmental community, feels he's not getting a clean shot at the issue because every time he lifts his head up, someone takes a shot at him,'' said Callahan.
Although Gore has felt the most pressure, environmentalists have also lambasted Bush for his ties to Texas oil money, his state's rampant smog, his lack of support for endangered species and public lands, and other concerns. Bush opposes the protocol, but has come around to believing that global warming is a real problem, although, he says, not one necessarily caused by people.
Meanwhile, in Washington debate over the protocol continues. White House and Senate staff members say environmentalists are wrongly viewing it as a panacea, failing to see the broader legislative efforts both camps are making. Bills, sponsored by some ardent protocol adversaries, are in the works to launch multibillion-dollar research and development programs on solar and wind power, to urge companies and others to voluntarily reduce their emissions, and other efforts.
President Clinton has proposed $4.1 billion in direct spending and tax incentives for global warming solutions, including clean energy technologies to capitalize on the billions of dollars to be made exporting them to developing nations like China and India. Such nations are not subject to the protocol's emission cuts, yet are industrializing rapidly, one reason the Senate resolved unanimously in 1997 to oppose it.
But there is no love lost between the White House and Senate on this issue.
Each side blames the other for the protocol's slow pace, although neither seems upset. After all, who would want to take political credit for emissions cuts that, however popular with environmentalists, would put an economic dent in the country while only slowing global warming, not stopping it?
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company