The United States, after fiercely resisting any new international talks to address Earth's warming climate, agreed Friday night to a nonbinding dialogue to respond to climate change as representatives of nearly 200 nations prepared to conclude two weeks of meetings on the issue.
Brushing aside the Bush administration's initial protests, all the industrialized nations except the United States and Australia were near an agreement Friday night to embark on a new round of formal talks aimed at setting new mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions after 2012, when the existing pact known as the Kyoto Protocol expires.
In a separate set of negotiations aimed at extending a second, voluntary climate compact, the United States dropped its resistance -- which included a midnight walkout -- and brokered language that would allow for nonbinding talks.
The agreement to begin a process that would extend the Kyoto pact underscored how many nations now see global warming as the world's most serious environmental threat. The Bush administration disavowed the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 and has opposed any kind of mandatory limits on carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels, arguing that research, new technology and market forces are the best way to address warming linked to the buildup of greenhouse gases.
"We would have wanted a stronger outcome, but we should not underestimate the strength of this package," Stavros Dimas, the European Union's commissioner for the environment, told reporters. "Kyoto is alive and kicking."
The last day was also marked by high drama as former president Bill Clinton urged meaningful action to combat global warming, giving a half-hour speech that the Bush administration had tried to block, according to sources close to Clinton who would not speak on the record for fear of jeopardizing the talks.
Few question that the world is now warming at an unprecedented rate, due at least in part to human activity. On Dec. 15, scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center plan to release data showing that 2005 remains on track to be the hottest year in recorded history, with land temperatures between Dec. 1, 2004, and Nov. 30 at 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit above average. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and in Britain have interpreted the same data more conservatively and consider 2005 likely to be the second-hottest year on record.
Such statistics, coupled with evidence of melting glaciers, rising sea levels and more intense hurricanes, have prompted many policymakers to press for stricter limits on greenhouse gases. Under Kyoto, 157 countries agreed to cut such emissions by an average of 5 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012, and the same nations pledged Friday to begin negotiations on a possible new set of emission cuts.
The United States, which generates a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, had questioned the need to engage in even nonbinding talks on the subject. When the Europeans and Canadians proposed such talks Thursday, chief American climate negotiator Harlan Watson rejected it on the grounds that it would be tantamount to formal negotiations.
"If it walks like a duck and talks like duck, it's a duck," Watson told the other delegates, according to several participants in the closed midnight session.
As Watson walked out, one of the other delegates, baffled, responded: "I don't understand your reference to a duck. What about this document is like a duck?"
The Kyoto participants' agreement to pursue a new round of emission limits amounted to a bet that the United States will change its position once President Bush leaves office, participants said.
"We can't have an effective global regime without the U.S., but we can move ahead with the discussion about what the regime will be with everyone else at the table, leaving a seat for the U.S. and hoping the U.S. will fill its empty seat," said Michael Zammit Cutajar, Malta's ambassador for international environmental affairs, who helped oversee the initial Kyoto negotiations. "After all, things will change in the U.S. in a few years. There will be a new constellation of forces, and maybe there will be a greater readiness to engage."
The agreement among Kyoto parties both commits most of the world's most influential nations to negotiating a new set of emission cuts and forces them to evaluate at their 2006 meeting whether the current climate regime is working.
In the second, broader pact, nearly 200 countries agreed to start an informal dialogue to determine what else should be done to address climate change. This accord calls for developing nations such as China and India, which are not obligated by the Kyoto targets, to adopt voluntary emissions cuts that they could trade for credits on the international carbon market established under Kyoto.
A coalition of rain-forest nations, including Brazil, Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea, won passage of a draft plan to receive international carbon credits in exchange for preserving their rain forests. Deforestation across the globe accounts for about 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
Wari Iamo, who heads Papua New Guinea's Department of Environment and Conservation, said 30 percent of his country is under logging at the moment and his government is eager to find an alternative.
"It's important to preserve a lot of this before it disappears," said Iamo, who noted that Papua New Guinea boasts 7 percent of the world's biodiversity.
Several environmentalists said the move to bring developing countries into the carbon-trading market was nearly as important as the developed nations' agreement to press ahead with Kyoto. "This deal means that the world is now constructing a global framework to deal with climate change, not just emission reductions by industrialized nations," said Philip Clapp, president of the advocacy group National Environmental Trust.
But Margo Thorning, senior vice president for the free-market American Council for Capital Formation and managing director of the International Council on Capital Formation, said many European countries would not be able to meet their emissions targets unless they adopted "stringent new measures that the governments don't have the political will to do."
At times this week, Washington and its traditional allies seemed on the brink of divorce, especially after Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin told reporters Wednesday, "To the recalcitrant nations, including the United States, I would say this: There is such a thing as a global conscience, and now is the time to listen to it."
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli responded Friday: "If you want to talk about global consciousness, I'd say there's one country that is focused on action, that is focused on dialogue, that is focused on cooperation and is focused on helping the developing world. And that's the United States."
At one point Bush's deputies threatened to boycott the meetings if Clinton, who was invited by Montreal's mayor and the Canadian Sierra Club, spoke. Clinton offered not to come, said sources close to the former president, but the Canadians stood by the invitation.
Publicly, Paula Dobriansky, the U.S. undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, welcomed Clinton, saying in a statement that events at the conference, "such as the one involving former President Clinton, are useful opportunities to hear a wide range of views on global climate change."