President Clinton unveiled an ambitious proposal Wednesday to restrain global warming over the next century, a sweeping pledge that left many important political and economic details to be resolved.
Critics attacked the plan’s lack of specifics, but the president’s promise to reduce air pollution to 1990 levels by early in the next century is only the first step in a long, complicated global negotiation.
Clinton’s strategy offers no estimates of how much it might increase energy prices, no details on complex pollution-permit trading schemes at its heart, and no specifics on what big, developing countries like China would be required to do.
The missing details underscore the problems Clinton faces in winning cooperation from Congress. And U.S. obstacles are only the beginning, for Clinton’s plan is the U.S. bargaining position for the global treaty to be negotiated by more than 150 nations at a United Nations-sponsored conference from Dec. 1 to 10 in Kyoto, Japan.
That, White House aides say, is a big reason the plan lacks details for now. It is intended as a set of principles to guide complex multinational political bargaining, not as the final blueprint.
The Kyoto conference is part of “an ongoing process that the world is going to engage in coming decades,” explained Dan Tarullo, a top Clinton aide for international economics.
Similarly, the plan’s immediate focus is to challenge U.S. business and industry to begin preparing now for transition steps to a more energy-efficient future. Small steps now can yield big results 10 years down the road.
“It can’t be ruled out that there could be some effect on energy prices,” conceded Gene Sperling, head of Clinton’s National Economic Council. The price impact will depend upon how successful the plan’s voluntary initiatives turn out to be, he insisted.
Sperling dismissed long-range estimates of price hikes, saying: “If you want an econometric model to show something 13 years out, you can do anything you want. We clearly think that if this country mobilizes the right way, that we can get there without having a significant price increase.”
Critics weren’t buying such reasoning Wednesday. Business groups assailed Clinton’s plan as a prescription for economic disaster, while most environmentalists damned it with faint praise - or simply damned it.
“We regard this proposal as a one-way ticket to ship America’s industrial capacity overseas,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donahue.
“It’s all pain and no gain,” said Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.
Environmentalists were not much kinder.
“The president has shown some leadership, but not enough leadership to protect the planet,” said John Adams, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This is the Black Wednesday for the climate negotiations,” said Kalee Kreider, director of the Greenpeace USA climate campaign.
Such reactions illustrate the U.S. political obstacles confronting the plan Clinton laid out Wednesday in a 24-minute speech to the National Geographic Society here.
Clinton emphasized that the United States is obliged to lead the world in seeking a solution to global warming because the country is the biggest source of the problem; Americans are only 4 percent of the global population, but they pump out 25 percent of so-called greenhouse gases worldwide.
These are gases from industrial civilization - primarily carbon dioxide fumes from burning oil, coal and gas in cars, buildings and power plants - that are building up in the atmosphere in a way that traps the sun’s heat.
Most scientists now agree that this “greenhouse effect” will slowly raise the Earth’s surface temperature over the next century, possibly resulting in rising sea levels that swamp coastal communities, spread tropical diseases, disrupt forests and agriculture, and spawn increasingly severe weather such as droughts, floods and hurricanes.
Significant uncertainties remain over just how much or how fast the planet’s surface may warm and over what the effects will be.
As Clinton stood before a symbolic blue globe, he called global warming “one of the most important challenges of the 21st century.”
“It is our solemn obligation to move forward with courage and foresight to pass our home to future generations,” Clinton said. “Our children and grandchildren will thank us for the endeavor.”
The president outlined a strategy that would:
Require the United States and other major industrial economies to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels, on average, between 2008-2012. In the following five years, emissions would go below 1990 levels, but the plan does not say by how much. Under business-as-usual policies, economic growth is expected to raise U.S. emissions by 28 percent above 1990 levels by 2010.
Ask Congress to approve a $5 billion, five-year package of tax incentives next year to spur U.S. businesses to increase energy efficiencies and to spend more on energy research and development.
Offer a “bold plan” next year to restructure the U.S. electric utility industry to spur efficiency and cut emissions.
Develop complex U.S. and global systems for market-based trading of pollution permits to encourage nations and businesses to seek least-cost methods of investing in new technologies that curtail gas emissions. The earlier firms and nations act, the more credits they would get under the systems.