They say “the devil is in the details,” and so it was at The Hague recently during negotiations of the sixth Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Two weeks of stonewalling and hairsplitting, and we are really no closer to dealing with the global warming problem than we were three years ago in Kyoto. The analogy that comes to mind is a group of sailors, so busy poring over conflicting weather forecasts that they are oblivious to the black clouds boiling over the horizon.

However much we negotiate, refigure the science and look for a bright side, the fact remains that we, Americans most of all, are a society in delusion. To believe that we can continue to add some 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year without altering the biosphere, is madness. Compared to pre-Industrial Revolution levels, there are now 175 billion more tons of CO2 permeating our atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government cavalierly insists that tree planting and creative carbon accounting (buying and selling carbon-emission credits) should suffice, allowing sustained business-as-usual.

There is no wisdom in waiting. The vast majority of scientists agree that specific and comprehensive steps are needed, and now, to deal with the causes and effects of increasing greenhouse gases. Above all, they say, we must wean ourselves off our dependence on fossil fuel-based energy generation, and do it quickly. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan calls the task “enormous,” and says it will require “radical change in the ways our economies [run] and the way we all live.”

If the problem is so serious, and the need for change so urgent, why are governments so bogged down in the details? American John Dernbach thinks nations have become so enmeshed in the intricate mechanisms crafted for the Climate Convention’s Kyoto Protocol that they have forgotten the larger principles of law and ecology that should be guiding efforts to arrest climate change.

In a recent article in the American Bar Association’s “Climate Change and Sustainable Development Committee Newsletter” (September 2000), Dernbach, an associate professor at Widener Law School, takes a look at sustainable development principles found in both the Rio Declaration (adopted at the Earth Summit in 1992) and the Climate Convention. He suggests that a practical application of these principles might provide some of the inspiration needed to end the logjam that has built up behind the Kyoto Protocol. Here are three of the principles he raises.

* The Precautionary Principle: In short, if there is a good chance of harm, err on the side of caution. This is found in both the Climate Convention (Art. 3.3) and the Rio Declaration ( Principle 15). The convention reads, “The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures.” (Art. 3.3).

“There is nothing particularly profound about this,” Dernbach notes. “It simply reflects a common-sense approach to avoiding danger.” Nevertheless, we have yet to adopt and implement substantial cuts in greenhouse gases, despite science confirming “threats of serious damage” from global warming.

Dernbach’s logic is simple. Recognizing that specific gases tend to trap heat above the earth’s surface, that humans are emitting large amounts of these gases and that the earth’s surface temperature is warming, he concludes: “Prudent people, using common sense, would respond to these facts, even without total certainty about when adverse effects will occur or what they will be.” If caution and common sense dictate action, and none is being taken, we must lack both.

* The Intergenerational Equality Principle: “Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind.” This is found in Principle 3 of the Rio Declaration and in the Climate Convention, Article 3.1.

Dernbach points out that since concentrations of greenhouse gases are still rising, “it is highly likely that future generations will feel greater and more severe effects than we do.” Most experts insist we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than 5.2 percent (the overall cuts called for in the Kyoto Protocol), and some call for reductions of as much as 50 percent. Reasonably assuming substantial cuts are necessary, why are nations still unwilling to arrest warming-gas emissions, much less begin reductions?

The common wisdom is that we cannot risk fragile economies to uncertain science. More realistically, the concept of “future generations” is likely incomprehensible to those fixated on annual budgets and elections every two to four years.

* The Polluter-Pays Principle: Countries “should endeavor to promote the internalization of environmental costs . . . taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution.” (Principle 16 of the Rio Declaration)

The PPP is widely understood to apply to domestic industry, but Dernbach notes that it “is also relevant to the relationship between developed countries, which have created most of the global environmental problems about which they are concerned, and the developing countries, which have not.”

The Climate Convention preamble places the blame squarely: “The largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries.”

Here’s a concept so simple my 6-year-old has it down: You make the mess, you clean it up — unless, of course, you can whine and bully your way out of it, as the U.S. government is doing. Incredibly, the largest, strongest economy in the world (and the one responsible for about a quarter of all CO2 emissions annually) still refuses to take a leadership role in “cleaning up the mess.”

How principled our leaders are, when those principles offer economic benefits, such as insistence on open markets and free trade; and yet how very fast principle fades when less profitable notions of precaution, equality, health and welfare are at stake.

Dernbach concludes that negotiating a climate agreement from a framework based on sustainable development principles would “take the debate in a different and more constructive direction.”

It would also mean oil-dependent nations of the world would be forced to make slow and cumbersome U-turns. Meanwhile, developing nations that are not so far down the fossil-fuel highway could head off on alternative-energy freeways and get up to speed faster and cheaper than the gas-guzzling, industrialized world.

It may be this principle, of a leveled playing field, that leaders of developed nations find least appealing of all.