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Gore Decides To Go to Japan For Global Warming Meeting

By Joby Warrick
The Washington Post

President Clinton announced Monday that he will dispatch Vice President Al Gore to Japan next week to help forge an international agreement to combat global warming even as representatives of 160 nations began exploring just how difficult that will be.

After months of resistance to sending such a high-ranking leader to the U.N. climate change conference that opened Monday in Kyoto, the White House decided the presence of the vice president would signal to skeptics at home and abroad that the administration is genuinely committed to finding a solution.

"It shows that we consider this to be a profoundly important issue and we have taken it very seriously, we have worked very hard on it," Clinton said during a joint appearance with Gore in the Cabinet Room.

By shifting strategies on the conference's opening day, however, Clinton invested far more political importance to the negotiations even as they appear unlikely to produce a treaty acceptable to the United States. And, by attending, Gore risks taking the blame if the talks collapse or fail to produce an agreement with meaningful limits on the greenhouse gases blamed for warping the planet's climate.

The Clinton plan calls for more modest cuts in pollution than Japan or Europe while also insisting on restrictions on developing nations, leaving the United States isolated from much of the world. Senior administration officials hold out little hope of reaching a definitive pact in Kyoto and instead hope mostly to make progress.

Gore plans to telephone European leaders this week to press the U.S. position. But the White House tried to control his political exposure by limiting his role in Kyoto and sounding a hard-line bargaining position. Gore will arrive in Kyoto Monday morning and stay just for the day to outline the U.S. stance in a speech and to meet with some delegations, but not to lead negotiations personally.

"I would like to make it clear that, as others have said, we are perfectly prepared to walk away from an agreement that we don't think will work," Gore said.

The White House long played down the possibility of Gore or Clinton attending the Kyoto meeting, in part because it is being conducted by officials at the deputy minister level. But Gore has absorbed criticism from those in the environmental movement for not attending.

In Kyoto, environmental groups cheered the move but some wondered what, if anything, Gore could accomplish in what would amount to a drive-by visit.

"The vice president's decision to come is obviously very welcome to everyone here if it indicates a more flexible position on the part of the U.S.," said Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "But a cosmetic, one-day trip by the vice president will not make up for a year of neglect of these negotiations by the Clinton administration. The talks are in bad shape now because the administration put little effort into this before the last 30 days."

John Passacantando, executive director of Ozone Action, said Gore's visit would at least add heft to a U.S. delegation that, during the early phase of negotiations, is being led by an acting assistant secretary of state who is not a Clinton appointee.

The head of the delegation will remain Stuart E. Eizenstat, an undersecretary of state tapped just last week and who will not arrive in Kyoto until later this week. Eizenstat was a last-minute replacement for Timothy E. Wirth, who surprised the administration by taking a new job shortly before the conference.

The White House has been close to announcing Gore's trip for more than a week, but delayed to avoid undercutting Eizenstat. Officials wanted to give Eizenstat a chance to plant his feet and establish himself among his foreign counterparts.

Kathleen A. McGinty, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said Gore was "not Polyanna-ish" about the tough selling job he faces in Kyoto, as well as the political difficulties he could face at home. "This entire issue is fraught with political peril," she said. "But this is a question of leadership."

White House aides said the vice president decided to accept the risks because he knows this is a signal moment for environmental issues. "This is not a political winner as an issue," said a senior official who asked not to be named. But "it's very hard for the vice president to pass up an opportunity to talk about this issue."