WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Wednesday urged Americans to join him in undertaking the most ambitious "environmental mission" in history, outlining a series of steps that he wants the United States to take in advance of an international accord to combat global warming.
To make sure the country does its part to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, Clinton announced plans to reward companies that reduce harmful emissions ahead of schedule, to encourage energy efficiency with $5 billion in tax breaks and research and development and to develop a trading system that would allow companies that reduce pollution to profit by selling their leftover emission allotments to others.
In a strongly worded speech delivered at the National Geographic Society, the president warned that failure to move aggressively would put the nation and world in peril.
"Many previous threats posed clear and present danger. Global warming is far more subtle, warning us--not with roaring tanks or burning rivers but with invisible gases, slow changes in our surroundings, increasingly severe climatic disruptions that, thank God, have not yet hit home for most Americans," Clinton said. "But make no mistake. The problem is real. And if we do not change our course now, the consequences, sooner or later, will be destructive for America and for the world."
At the same time, Clinton announced the long-awaited U.S. position on a proposed international treaty on global warming. In international negotiations in Bonn, the United States will seek binding commitments from all industrial nations to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide to 1990 levels during the period between 2008 and 2012. He called for further, unspecified reductions in the following five-year period. Current emissions are 7.5% above 1990 levels.
Environmental groups, which wanted the administration to set an emissions target of 5% below 1990 levels for the second five-year period, criticized the president's effort as too modest.
"Unless we get a stronger deal in Kyoto [where international negotiators are scheduled to draft a treaty in December], we will be passing this burden on to future generations," said Alden Meyer, director of government relations at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Many representatives of business groups, meanwhile, warned that the president's proposal could starve the American economy.
"A 1990 level is a harsh level to meet, and it acts like a vise" on economic growth, said Gail McDonald, chief representative of the Global Climate Coalition, which includes such major industrial and manufacturing concerns as auto makers and power utilities.
Business groups were critical of Clinton for not providing an economic analysis of his proposals or spelling out how American industry could grow while cutting emissions.
"He did not define how we are going to go on this strict energy diet that will be required to reach the 1990 levels of emissions," said Andrew H. Card, president and CEO of the American Automobile Manufacturers Assn. "Will it be energy rationing, energy taxes or a combination of both?"
While Clinton said the United States will not accept binding restrictions unless key developing nations agree to "meaningfully participate," business leaders criticized him for not demanding full participation from the developing world.
"If it's not global it won't work, and if it's not global it will put us at a competitive disadvantage and will hurt American jobs," Card said.
However, another coalition of businesses said the president's plan is reasonable.
"These targets are extremely modest targets," said Michael Marvin of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, whose hundreds of members include Southern California Gas Co. "The average consumer will not recognize the effects of this," he said.
Noting that the president's proposal "is being pummeled by the environmental community for being too weak and . . . harangued by the more traditional business community for being too strong," Marvin said this "probably means you've got a good compromise position."
As Clinton spoke, the international negotiators in Bonn were trying to narrow their differences before the Kyoto conference.
Complicating the American effort, the large bloc of developing nations voiced general support Wednesday for the European Union's call for a 15% reduction in emissions. In all, about 150 nations have lined up behind the European proposal, while two others--the United States and Japan, which has proposed a 5% cut--are standing apart.
But "it's hard to overestimate the importance of the U.S. position because" it spews 25% of the world's greenhouse gases, said Jennifer Morgan, who is monitoring the Bonn negotiations for Climate Action Network, a U.S. environmental group. Thus the impact of any global warming treaty to which the United States has not agreed would be severely limited.