The Kyoto treaty to reduce global warming goes into effect today after seven years of wrangling, harangues, and dramatic entrances and exits by Russia and the United States.
The global environmental movement calls it a historic victory, but critics in the industry and elsewhere say the bang could end in a whimper: Emissions of carbon dioxide will continue to rise, many of the cuts in greenhouse gases claimed under Kyoto probably would have happened anyway, and its future could be derailed by the stony opposition of the Bush administration.
Supporters acknowledge those realities but argue that the real impact of the treaty is not tangible.
"The greatest value is symbolic," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, an independent research and advocacy organization that works with many large companies interested in addressing the risks of global warming.
With the United States on the sidelines, the Kyoto treaty could end up as ineffectual as the post-World War I League of Nations. But by uniting the vast majority of the world's nations, Kyoto could equally be the harbinger of an international model that rewards pollution-cutting innovation and pushes countries and companies to pursue cleaner forms of growth.
The treaty is aimed at controlling global warming linked to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It was negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. Although the United States helped shape it, President Bush pulled the United States out as soon as he took office.
The pact, ratified by 141 nations, limits emissions from 35 industrialized countries. Developing countries were exempted from limits to give them a chance to catch up with the economic development of the industrialized world.
Australia and the United States have refused to join. Bush administration officials said the treaty would hurt the economy and is ineffective and discriminatory because large, rapidly industrializing countries such as China and India escape the limits. Moreover, they say, many countries, including Japan and several in the European Union, are unlikely to meet their emission-control targets and will have to buy "credits" -- most likely from Russia, which will have plenty to sell because many of its industrial plants shut down during the economic meltdown in the 1990s.
"They are going to take credit for sagging economies and flat populations," said James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Bush's proposals for voluntary emission controls and incentives to develop clean technologies would have as much impact on American emissions as Europe would achieve under Kyoto, he said.
Claussen disputed Connaughton's claim. And Robert Donkers, an environment counselor for the European Union in Washington, said binding limits are needed for countries and companies to make the investments needed to cut emissions.
"It is not just the European Union versus the United States," he said. "This is Australia and the United States against the rest of the world."
Mountains of paper and oceans of ink have been expended debating Kyoto, but the ultimate fate of the treaty may be determined by what happens not within the Beltway but under the polar ice caps.
Global temperatures are indisputably rising -- and, while there are persistent skeptics, the vast majority of scientists say human activity is to blame.
Rising temperatures have already been linked to impacts on agriculture, coastal areas and public health. Melting ice caps could raise sea levels and inundate coastal areas, scientists say. Changes in ocean temperature could disrupt the Gulf Stream and make Europe much colder, said Annie Petsonk, international counsel at Environmental Defense, an advocacy organization. Tropical diseases such as malaria are spreading into new areas as a result of climate change in Africa, said Ken Newcombe, a senior manager at the World Bank, which has been setting up a system to help developing countries invest in clean technologies and sell credits to wealthy nations under the Kyoto accord.