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Saturday, 24 February, 2001, 01:05 GMT
'Odds against' a climate deal
Bush AP
George W Bush: Dog-friendly - and the environment's friend as well?
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A senior US climate expert says he thinks efforts to agree how to cut greenhouse emissions are unlikely to succeed.

Professor Tom Heller, of Stanford University, said he regretted the failure of attempts to secure agreement at last November's conference in The Hague.


In Europe, climate change is wrapped up with the mad cow scare and genetically modified organisms

Prof Tom Heller, Stanford University
He told BBC News Online that fears about climate change meant much less to Americans than to people in northern Europe.

But he thought President George W Bush could in time adopt more environmentally friendly policies.

Professor Heller, a lawyer and economist, is a member of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but does not represent any government.

Early days

He was speaking in London, en route to Ghana for a meeting of an IPCC group finalising a report due out in March on measures to mitigate climate change. Professor Heller is the group's lead author.

Heller Stanford
Professor Tom Heller
He said it would be some time before the new administration's climate policy was decided.

Professor Heller said: "I haven't seen any sign of scepticism about climate change in Washington. But perhaps that's because it's still early days on filling positions.

"President Bush was sceptical, but he moderated his scepticism as he was better briefed, and as he came closer to office.

"But at the popular level, the political culture in the US remains firmly divorced from that in northern Europe, and I think the administration will step fairly carefully."

Popular imagination

He said: "The things that motivate voters may well prove to be subjects like energy security, not global warming.

"In Europe, climate change is wrapped up with the mad cow scare and genetically modified organisms.

"In the US, there really is no portfolio of environmental issues that's stirred up the popular imagination in the same way.

"That difference in culture reinforces tendencies in the administration and the legislature not to go after this issue with the aggression of the Europeans.

No agreement

"All the same, the government has a focus on energy issues which could lead it to substantial support for developing new, environmentally friendly energy sources.

"Moving away from traditional sources could become a hallmark of this administration."

Exxon Valdez BBC
The US wants energy security
Last year's talks in The Hague were meant to finalise the workings of the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate treaty, which commits industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5% below their 1990 levels.

The meeting foundered on the refusal of the European Union to allow the US, Canada and several other countries to use the protocol's "flexibility mechanisms" as fully as they wished.

The Europeans argued there was a danger the US and its allies could meet all their commitments by paying other countries to cut pollution, while doing nothing to cut their own domestic emissions.

The talks are due to resume in late June or July, but Professor Heller doubts they will succeed.

New opportunity

He said: "I'd want some fairly substantial odds before I'd bet on a deal.

"I wish it had been done at The Hague. It would feel less like starting over now, and there are things back in play that could have been settled.

"But whether Kyoto fails or succeeds, it's not the answer. We have to start showing that climate change is not just a burden.

"It's an opportunity to do what people want to do anyway, like moving to greater energy security.

"The policy now assumes that the risks will scare people into political action, and I don't think that's the case."

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See also:

21 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
Climate 'uncertainty' stumps UN
22 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Climate change outstrips forecasts
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