When President Clinton sits down today to hear scientists, environmentalists and business leaders discuss how to deal with emissions from power plants and other industries, he might find trouble wherever he looks.
With both sides digging in, the meeting is unlikely to produce a consensus. That means Clinton will probably be criticized no matter what proposal the United States takes to an international climate conference in Kyoto, Japan, at the end of the year.
“The science is solid,” Clinton said recently, adding that the United States will press for “realistic and binding” commitments to reduce carbon emissions. “We have a responsibility to cut back … because the world is looking to us for leadership.”
Clinton and Al Gore, the vice president who hopes to succeed his boss in 2001, would like to keep environmental support while not antagonizing business. That may not be possible.
The administration has not hinted how far it is willing to go to control emissions or what timetable it will suggest. The answers may depend in part on an assessment of the economic impact of new controls on emissions.
Lobbying has been intense. As environmentalists and many scientists warn that unchecked pollution could lead to disastrous long-range warming of the planet, business has waged a $15 million advertising campaign suggesting that gas and electricity prices would soar and drag down the economy.
Five years ago, at the last international conference on global warming, industrial countries set a goal of emissions at the 1990 level by 2000. Instead, even more carbon is pouring into the atmosphere, so much that getting to 1990 levels in the United States even by 2010 would require U.S. industry and cars to reduce them by 20 percent from current levels.
Because serious consequences may be years away, there is little public pressure yet on members of Congress, who must ratify any treaty that comes out of the Kyoto conference. Clinton made that point last week in a White House meeting with dozens of television weather forecasters.
“Right now, while the scientists see the train coming though the tunnel, most Americans haven’t heard the whistle blowing,” the president said. “They don’t sense it’s out there as a big issue.”
Environmentalists, some leading scientists and European leaders want a treaty that would cut emissions by the United States and other industrial countries well below 1990 levels. Even with that, they contend, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere will continue to grow.
It’s a target that would require U.S. industries to cut emissions by more than one-third.
“That’s not feasible,” said Undersecretary of State Timothy Wirth, who is expected to lead the U.S. delegation to Kyoto.
While the U.S. proposal is up in the air, it is widely expected that the administration will recommend stabilizing emissions at 1990 levels, with reductions to be phased in over a number of years. The administration also has proposed internationally traded pollution permits to blunt the economic cost of shifting from fossil fuels, especially oil and coal.
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