UNITED NATIONS -- Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon warned world leaders at a climate change summit yesterday that "the time for doubt has passed" and urged them to act quickly to save future generations from the devastating effects of global warming.
"I am convinced that climate change and what we do about it, will define us, our era and, ultimately, the global legacy we leave for future generations," Ban told more than 80 national leaders in the General Assembly chamber.
"We hold the future in our hands," he said.
The U.N. summit, billed as the largest gathering of global leaders on the issue, kicked off negotiations for a treaty to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which placed limits on global warming emissions. The pact, which was not signed by the United States, expires in 2012.
Ban has said he is trying to wrest the issue away from environmental ministries and put it in the hands of heads of state, who are better positioned to change and coordinate their nations' international policies.
The Bush administration insists each nation should be allowed to set its own limits and should not be bound by a U.N. treaty.
President Bush initially declined to attend the U.N. session and will host a competing conference in Washington this week for 15 of the world's biggest polluters. But after a plea from Ban, Bush said he would join a dinner for 20 heads of state last night.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice represented the United States on the podium and said the country, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, "takes this challenge very seriously" and would "actively participate" in future negotiations, and not walk away as it has in the past.
The next U.N. meeting is slated for December in Bali, Indonesia, where delegates will attempt to form consensus on new emission limits. U.N. officials hope to establish those limits by 2009, giving them three years to enlist nations to ratify it.
At a June meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, the U.S. blocked an agreement to cut emissions in half by 2050. The U.S., along with Australia, has continued to reject the 1997 Kyoto Protocol's emission caps, arguing they would hurt the U.S. economy and that the country could compensate for its pollution with new technologies.
The Bush administration has also complained that the Kyoto agreement exempted large developing nations such as India and China from emission limits.
Former Vice President Al Gore spoke at a luncheon and said the United States could be on the verge of changing its policy.
"We will have a new president in a little over a year, one who I predict will be more committed to solving the climate crisis," he said. He also called for the new agreement to be put forward by two years to 2010.
"The north polar ice cap is melting; it may be gone in 23 years," he said. "It's a planetary emergency. Let's not wait."
Maggie Farley writes for the Los Angeles Times.