BERLIN, Germany -- At the United Nations conference on climate change last week, which called for a new accord to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, the debates revealed one striking difference between the northern European countries and the United States.
Because the European countries are so much more thickly settled than the United States, there is a much higher consciousness here of the urgency of environmental problems and of the need for joint action to confront them.
The political success of Green parties has awakened other parties, even some of the most conservative, to the importance that voters attach to environmental issues.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl set the tone. The greenhouse effect "threatens to thwart our efforts toward economic development and increased prosperity," he told the conference.
In the United States, by contrast, "there is no constituency" pressing for new limits on the gases that are slowly warming Earth's atmosphere, said Undersecretary of State Timothy Wirth, who headed the U.S. delegation. "This issue is just not on the radar screen in the United States."
Even at top levels of government, the tone of public rhetoric on environmental topics is much sharper and more urgent in Europe than in the United States (a fact that some American industrialists attribute not so much to altruism as to a calculation that global environmental restrictions would cost producers in Europe less than those in America, thus producing a trade advantage).
Adam Markham, an official of the World Wildlife Federation, offered this explanation: "Because the United States is so big, many Americans feel isolated from other countries. Europeans are constantly discussing which policies in one country are having effects on other countries.
"In the United States there's a feeling that everything needed to control environmental destruction can be decided at home, that there's no real need for international instruments."