The heat is on for international delegates assembling in Buenos Aires next week to find new ways to confront global warming under the 194-nation treaty on climate change.
The treaty's Kyoto Protocol, requiring initial cuts in "greenhouse gas" emissions by 2012, finally comes into force in February, seven years after it was negotiated. Next, European governments want the annual treaty conference -- Dec. 6 to 17 in the Argentine capital -- to get down to talks on steps beyond 2012 to limit heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
"We are, in fact, only at the beginning of what we need to do," Margot Wallstrom, the European Union's outgoing environment chief, recently told European Parliament members.
But the U.S. government, which rejects Kyoto and its mandatory controls, balks at that idea.
"We think it's premature to be discussing post-Kyoto 2012 arrangements," Paula J. Dobriansky, the undersecretary of state who will head the U.S. delegation, said.
Instead, she said, she will use the conference to spotlight Bush administration efforts to develop cleaner energy technologies and ways to capture and safely store carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. Developing countries, facing possible emissions controls for the first time after 2012, also have resisted opening talks about the "post-Kyoto" future.
That debate will go on in the corridors at Buenos Aires, while the formal meeting agenda puts a "major, major emphasis" on adapting to climate change, said the Dutch head of the treaty secretariat, Joke Waller-Hunter.
Small islands and low-lying lands such as Bangladesh worry over rising seas. Poor nations face possible water shortages if warmth washes away glaciers. Climate change may kill off traditional crops.
"Developing countries don't have capacity to deal with climate-related risk," Waller-Hunter said. They're seeking more technical and financial help to predict and cope with changed climates.
The focus on adaptation also suggests that warming is having an impact sooner than many anticipated.
A report Nov. 8 by the intergovernmental Arctic Council, based on a four-year study by 300 scientists, said average winter temperatures in the Arctic have increased as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years. Permafrost is thawing, buckling roads. The extent of Arctic Sea ice is shrinking. Polar bears and other animals are threatened. Satellite images show the summer melting area of the Greenland ice cap moving far inland. If it melts entirely, over hundreds of years, it could raise sea levels worldwide by 23 feet (7 meters), the report said.
As for global temperatures, U.S. scientists last April reported NASA satellite readings showed an average increase of 0.77 degrees Fahrenheit between 1981 and 1998. The temperature rise is consistent with carbon-dioxide warming, scientists say.
Carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fossil fuels burned in everything from automobiles to electricity plants, rose to a seasonal peak record of 379 parts per million in the atmosphere last March, up from 330 just 30 years ago.
Under the umbrella climate treaty, which took effect in 1994, governments pledged to limit emissions. But it wasn't until the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that they set quotas for industrial nations. By 2012 the European Union, for example, would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases by 8 percent below 1990 levels, Japan by 6 percent, and the United States by 7 percent.
The Americans, responsible for one-quarter of the world's emissions, subsequently withdrew their support. But 30 other industrial nations will be subject to Kyoto's mandates as of Feb. 16, now that Russia has ratified the pact as required.
A European emissions trading system also begins operation in the new year, enabling companies that emit less gas than allowed to sell unused "carbon credits" to others that overshoot their targets.
Although the Bush administration rejects Kyoto, northeastern U.S. states are moving toward capping carbon dioxide on their own and allowing emissions trading. California, meanwhile, has acted to reduce auto emissions sharply.
Such state-level actions, combined with international emissions trading and Kyoto's coming into force, make it "harder and harder for the U.S. to say we're just not going to participate," said Eileen Claussen, president of Washington's private Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
A veteran Brazilian climate negotiator, meanwhile, said his and other developing countries, such as China, are increasingly concerned about climate change's impact and open to "the idea that everyone should do his part."
Like others studying the issues, Luiz Gylvan Meira Filho foresees, "post-Kyoto," a more complex web of both rigid and less binding commitments -- to certain technologies, to emissions quotas for some and "goals" for others, varying from country to country. Informal discussions will begin at Buenos Aires, he predicted, and "it will take one or two years to get a mandate to negotiate a post-Kyoto regime."