WASHINGTON A U.S. summit in September on climate change, one of at least four international meetings set for this year, is already raising doubts about any action being taken before President George W. Bush leaves office.
The big question is what will replace the Kyoto Protocol when that agreement to cap greenhouse gases expires in 2012.
The United States has never been part of the Kyoto pact, with Bush having said its economic costs make it "fundamentally flawed." But the president has been vocal recently about the need for a new strategy to curb climate-warming emissions.
In May, Bush announced plans to develop the strategy by the end of 2008, which critics were quick to point out is less than a month before the end of his second and final term.
A White House announcement on Friday of a gathering of the world's biggest greenhouse-gas emitting countries on September 27-28 in Washington is part of the strategy to involve developing countries in the move to cut the pollutants.
But even before the announcement, participants in the first full-scale U.N. session on climate change last week questioned the U.S. role in the debate.
"The constant excuse that the United States has given for not participating in a climate regime, by blaming India and China ... is not just unfortunate but I think is very far from the truth," Sunita Narain, director of India's Center for Science and Environment, told reporters at the U.N. session.
Fast-developing China and India are not compelled to cut emissions. Narain said the long-term emissions racked up by the industrialized world more than make up for the rising emissions from the two Asian countries.
As an example, she said China's annual per capita carbon emissions are 3.5 tons, compared with 20 tons for the United States. Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases that trap heat near the Earth's surface and spur global warming.
The Bush administration's position has evolved from questioning how much human activities contribute to climate change to agreeing to work with other rich countries to craft international goals.
Bush has rejected mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions in favor of voluntary caps -- the main divergence between the U.S. stance and countries in the Kyoto Protocol.
The Washington gathering, to be led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and addressed by Bush, is set for the same week world leaders convene at the United Nations, including a one-day session dedicated to climate change on September 24.
The list for the Washington meeting includes some of the world's worst contributors to global warming: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, Canada, India, Brazil, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Australia, Indonesia and South Africa.
In the invitation, Bush said the United States wants to work with these countries on a "new global framework" that would contribute to an international agreement under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change by 2009.
While Washington has avoided committing to Kyoto, it is a party to the U.N. climate change treaty -- Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, signed it in 1992 -- which aims to avert dangerous climate change.
By agreeing to dovetail with the U.N. treaty, the Bush administration has raised cautious hopes for U.S. action among environmentalists, even as they worry that dangerous climate change is already occurring.
The White House assertion that the September meeting is the start of a process likely to end by late 2008 "could leave other nations with the perception that (the U.S.) administration is trying to run out the clock," said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the group Environmental Defense.
But the Bush team could play a useful role if it re-engages other nations within the context of the U.N. climate change treaty, Petsonk said in a telephone interview.
The U.N. treaty framework is where the international community is working out a way forward after the Kyoto pact expires. The U.N. treaty countries are to meet later this month in Vienna, Austria, and again in Bali, Indonesia, in December.
Because the United States is a long-time greenhouse gas emitter, Petsonk said, "the administration has to overcome a pretty major credibility problem with other countries if it wants to make that useful contribution."