WASHINGTON -- Dozens of world leaders are to gather at the United Nations today for a full agenda of talks on how to fight global warming, and President Bush is skipping all of the day's events but the dinner.
His focus instead is on his own gathering of leaders in Washington later this week, a meeting with the same stated goal: a reduction in the emissions blamed for climate change, but a fundamentally different idea of how to achieve it.
Bush's aides say that the parallel meeting does not compete against the United Nations' process - hijacking it, as his critics contend. They say that Bush hopes to persuade the nations that produce 90 percent of the world's emissions to come to a consensus that would allow each, including the United States, to set its own policies rather than having limits imposed by binding international treaty.
"It's our philosophy that each nation has the sovereign capacity to decide for itself what its own portfolio of policies should be," said James L. Connaughton, the president's chief environmental adviser.
Bush's approach sets the stage for a new round of diplomatic confrontation. And it raises the prospect that he could once again put the United States in the position of objecting to any binding international agreement intended to slow or reverse the emissions linked to rising temperatures.
Whether Bush prevails remains to be seen, but the effort is the last chance in his presidency to shape the debate after years of being excoriated for keeping the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement that limits the emissions of greenhouse gases from most industrialized countries.
"The leadership role of the United States is absolutely essential," said Timothy E. Wirth, a former senator and an environmental official in the Clinton administration, who is president of the U.N. Foundation. "Unless the United States decides that it wants to be a major and committed leadership player in this and make very specific commitments, much of the rest of the world is effectively going to hide behind the skirts of the United States and not do anything."
The growing scientific consensus that humans contribute to rising temperatures and sea levels - reflected in melting glaciers, shrinking Arctic ice and the concerns raised by former Vice President Al Gore - has pushed the issue to the top of a crowded diplomatic agenda at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly this week.
So has the looming expiration in 2012 of the binding restrictions under the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended to reduce participating countries' emissions of greenhouse gases below the levels recorded in 1990.
Ban Ki Moon, the U.N. secretary general, scheduled today's forum - diplomatically speaking, a "high-level event" - to jump-start talks on how to replace Kyoto, saying an agreement needed to be reached by 2009 to avoid "any vacuum" after its restrictions lapse. Negotiators are to begin those talks in December in Bali, Indonesia.
"Climate change is a challenge to our leadership, skills and vision," Ban said at U.N. headquarters last week, "and we have to address that challenge boldly."
About 80 heads of state or government are expected at the meeting, and 154 leaders and officials have signed up to speak. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will represent the United States, though Bush will attend a closed-door dinner tonight. Michael Kozak, a National Security Council official, called the event a "working-dinner format."
Bush's meeting in Washington this week, to be held Thursday and Friday, involves 15 countries - or "major economies," as the White House calls them - as well as the United Nations and the European Union. The 15 countries, though, are the major emitters of greenhouse gases.
They include the members of the group of industrialized nations, as well as other large countries with developing economies, such as Indonesia, Brazil, China and India. Developing countries did not face emissions limits under Kyoto, which was one of the major reasons the United States ultimately opposed it. China, like the United States, has also gone on record as opposing mandatory caps in the future.
Bush, long skeptical of reports of human-driven climate change, proposed for the first time this year negotiating a "long-term global goal" for cutting emissions, while persuading countries to agree to invest more in research on alternative energy sources and lower trade tariffs for products that reduce emissions. While opposing a binding cap on emissions, either domestically or globally, he has supported some mandatory measures, including increases in renewable fuels like ethanol and higher fuel-efficiency standards, efforts his administration once resisted.
Briefing reporters before the week's meetings, senior aides emphasized that each nation should decide for itself how to reduce emissions.
"The president's central proposition is really this: Tackling global climate change requires all major economies developed and developing to work together," said Dan Price, a deputy national security adviser. "And it requires each to make a contribution consistent with its national circumstances."
Critics argue that the administration's approach is not aggressive enough because it remains essentially voluntary.
"There's no serious environmental problem that's ever been solved by voluntary measures," said David Doniger, climate policy director at the National Resources Defense Council.