MONTREAL - The Bush administration's unwillingness to seriously confront global warming was increasingly at odds with the rest of the world last night as more than 150 other nations were poised to move forward with the Kyoto protocol.
The US faced widespread condemnation after persistently rejecting even the mildest commitment to deal with climate change.
Washington's behaviour represents a serious embarrassment to Tony Blair who has argued that he could obtain an undertaking from the US to tackle the issue.
The US position - highlighted by the walking out of talks by its chief negotiator Harlan Watson - was in contrast to other nations who readied themselves to move ahead with their commitments under the Kyoto protocol on climate change.
Ministers in Montreal were last night finalising details on how to act when the first stage of the protocol ends in 2012.
Campaigners hailed the apparent progress on Kyoto (albeit without the US) as a vital step forward in the effort to deal with climate change and said it showed the willingness of more than 150 nations to commit themselves to the process.
Of those nations, 36 are legally bound to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases.
But amid that progress, the elephant in the room remained the refusal of the Bush administration to act.
During negotiations on Thursday evening, Mr Watson walked out of the room after delegates sought an agreement for those nations not signed up to Kyoto simply to agree to further talks.
"If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it's a duck," Mr Watson reportedly said, as delegates sought to include the word "dialogue" in the draft agreement.
That agreement would not have committed the US to anything binding, and stressed it would not "open any negotiations leading to new commitments".
But even that mild undertaking was apparently too much for the Bush administration.
Not even the anticipated arrival of former US president Bill Clinton - was enough to shift the US.
Indeed, it was reported that the US delegation was not impressed by Mr Clinton's plan to attend the conference, at the invitation of Montreal authorities.
Clinton told the meeting that the Bush administration was "flat wrong" to reject the Kyoto accord and said cutting greenhouse gases was good for business and the planet. In an impassioned speech to hundreds of delegates and nongovernmental groups, Clinton rejected a major tenet of the Bush administration's argument for pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol emissions pact in 2001.
Clinton, whose administration negotiated Kyoto in 1997 but never submitted it to a skeptical Senate for ratification, said the belief that Kyoto would hurt the economies of developed nations was incorrect.
"We know from every passing year we get more and more objective data that if we had a serious, disciplined effort to apply on a large scale existing clean energy and energy conservation technologies that we could meet and surpass the Kyoto targets easily in a way that would strengthen, not weaken, our economies," he said.
Under Kyoto, some 40 industrialized nations agreed to cut emissions in 2008-12 by over 5 percent from 1990 levels, but Bush says mandatory cuts on emissions from fossil fuels would hamper growth and job creation.
Last night, campaigners rounded on the US admistration.
Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said: "The US is responsible for 25 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. It should take its responsibility for leading the way towards a low carbon economy. But instead, under George Bush, it has been taken backwards."
Arlen Myer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said there were many in the US who were already taking action to deal with climate change at a city and state level.
He claimed the position of the Bush administration placed it more out of touch with the mood of the American public.
But America's behaviour was condemned not just by activists but by other delegates, who have spent two weeks trying to get agreement on pushing forward with climate change action.
The Irish environment minister, Dick Roache, said of Mr Watson's "duck" comment.
"It might go down well in the Ozarks but not here."
Kenya's Emily Ojoo Massawa, chair of the African group of nations at the talks, said: "It's such a pity the US is still very much unwilling to join the international community, to have a multi-lateral effort to deal with climate change."
The talks in Montreal stemmed from an undertaking given by more than 180 nations who signed up to 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).
That committed them simply to talks about further action.
The Kyoto protocol grew from that, committing more than 150 nations to further action with legally binding cuts in emissions for 36 industrialised nations.
It was unclear last night what sort of agreement, if any, the non-Kyoto nations would adopt.
Campaigners said the US was now all but isolated, with only countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait sharing a similar position.
Australia, which is not a Kyoto country, has been willing to agree to further talks.
The US argues that voluntary action is the way to deal with climate change.
It says that it has spent more than $3bn (NZ$4.2bn) a year on research and development of energy-saving technologies.
It will meet with Asian and Pacific countries next year to discuss ways of using new technology to address the problem.
But this appears to be a step back from the mild undertaking President George Bush agreed to earlier this year at the G8 summit at Gleneagles.
Under the communique signed by Mr Bush, at the lobbying of Mr Blair, the US said the UNFCC was the appropriate forum for "negotiating" future action on climate change.
The British Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, said: "President Bush personally agreed at Gleneagles that America would be a part of discussions here.
It would be a great pity if the US thought - for whatever reason - it cannot be part of a move forward."Jennifer Morgan, of environmental group WWF, said: "By walking out of the room, this shows just how willing the US administration is to walk away from a healthy planet and its responsibilities."