WITH the environmental security of America and the world at risk, George Bush is playing a cynical political game.
To support his claim that he is an environmentalist, he is expected to put in a last-minute cameo appearance at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro next month. But Mr. Bush is no environmentalist.
If he were, long ago he would have discarded his fears of the right wings of both parties.
He would have had the vision to grasp the leadership of this international effort to control forces that present a greater threat to civilization than the cold war ever did.
Instead, by longstanding indifference, if not hostility, to the Earth Summit and a negative approach to many of its complex issues, the administration has nearly sabotaged it.
Holding off on accepting the Rio invitation for months, Mr. Bush discouraged other heads of state from coming, but not some close friends and keen competitors, including Japan, Britain, Germany and Canada. Their leaders understand what is at stake.
The Third World's demand for first world economic and technical help to meet the environmental crisis has brought on a super-crisis of its own.
This is the dilemma the Earth Summit faces, and only first world leadership can solve it. Mr. Bush, supported by his party and Congress and untroubled by the flaccid Democrats, is not providing that leadership.
Whether he goes to Rio is now of less importance than the impact of administration foot-dragging on the issues to be considered there. They include the inexorable advance of global warming and the linkage among poverty, population, destruction of forest resources and loss of species in the developing world. Combating these dangers requires major help from the first world.
No better example of the government's obtuseness on environmental and economic issues can be found than in its near-sabotaging of the "climate convention" intended for signature at Rio.
This treaty would require industrial countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Carbon dioxide is the most profuse of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming: a catastrophe in the making that, unless checked, will raise sea levels, drown coastal areas and change agricultural production before the end of the 21st century.
Every major industrial nation has agreed to stabilize its carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels within eight years. Only the U.S. has refused to make a legally binding commitment to do so. Mr. Bush has said such a treaty would "put a lot of Americans out of work."
This is disinformation. The truth has finally leaked out: The government has just admitted that measures it has taken and is willing to take to increase energy efficiency would come close to meeting the proposed emission goals.
It would do so at great economic benefit and, according to a natural gas industry estimate, yield a net increase of more than 80,000 jobs.
However, without a legally binding commitment to reach these easily attainable levels, promises to try to meet them are evasive at best and deceptive at worst.
John B. Oakes is former editor of the editorial page of the New York Times.