Forcing Americans to cut back on their use of fossil fuels by up to 20 percent in order to slow down global warming isn't a task any American president would relish.
President Clinton gave the idea - required in the Kyoto accord - his signature, but not his active support. The Senate overwhelmingly rejected the plan. Now President Bush has begun to propose alternatives that he hopes will win over skeptics in the US and leaders in Europe.
Kyoto had its flaws, such as leaving out big polluters like China and India. It also gave an advantage to Europe by setting 1990 - when Europeans were in the process of closing dirty power plants in Eastern Europe - as the marker year for setting the level of greenhouse gases each country could emit.
But the accord reflected the art of the possible, and was not meant to strike an ideal solution. Negotiations were long and tough, and they struck a reasonable compromise at the time. But times have changed, with a conservative president taking office and with Americans showing little inclination to cut energy use voluntarily, though they are concerned about global warming.
Like Mr. Clinton before him, Mr. Bush wants to amend Kyoto with ideas that, in essence, would let the US off the hook on Kyoto's difficult goals. Europe, too, has not moved swiftly to keep its end of the deal.
Having stated the obvious - that Kyoto is "dead" - and taken flak for it, Bush appears to be serious about implementing alternative solutions that would still make progress in cutting harmful pollutants. His task force on the topic promises to do far more than Clinton ever did.
But how committed will he be over time? Can he persuade Europeans to reopen Kyoto? And will his ideas work fast enough to turn the world's largest air polluter into a model of cleanliness?
Bush wants to rely mainly on market incentives and technological fixes to reduce pollution, rather than force Americans to curb their lifestyles. But even with that, he needs to set specific targets. Changing the process is one thing, but Kyoto's real value was in having many nations agree to a specific, collective goal.
In rejecting Kyoto's goals, Bush dampened hopes that something is being done on global warming. He can restore those hopes by setting a goal and rallying Americans behind it.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor