By its formal signing Thursday of the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change, the Clinton Administration strengthened the hand of U.S. negotiators in down-to-the-wire talks over implementing the pact, due to end today in Buenos Aires. Even though the signing was largely symbolic (Congressional approval is still needed), it has drawn criticism from industry associations. By signing the protocol, the U.S. signals its willingness to take another step down a road that leads to a weaker economy and lost jobs. That is the wrong message to be sending, says Thomas R. Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric utilities. Noted Mark Whitenton, environmental vice president of the National Assn. of Manufacturers: The act of signing the treaty as a good-faith gesture is designed to entice the developing countries into fully participating in the Kyoto Protocol. But, given the complete lack of interest in the developing world to malign their own economies, the Administrations endorsement only reduces what little bargaining power the U.S. has in these negotiations. Environmental groups, predictably, praise the signing. Said Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund: Signature is a necessary step forward. The same people who opposed signature opposed the protocol, and oppose protecting the planet.