The Global Warming Time Bomb

It could blow up in Clinton's face -- or ours

Published August 29, 1996 5:37PM (EDT)

Yesterday was "environment day" in Bill Clinton's whistle-stop parade toward his re-anointment in Chicago. He spoke of the need to clean up more hazardous waste sites in the United States and to ensure that our drinking water remains safe. No argument on any of those fronts. Later, in his foot-stomping speech at the convention, Vice President Al Gore, author of "Earth in the Balance," made a passing reference to how the administration had stopped the Republicans from rolling back environmental protections of the past 20 years. Again, very safe and voter-friendly terrain.

Unmentioned by either man were recent moves on another environmental front which the government's own scientists say is far more important, and therefore controversial: the fight against global warming.

Last month in Geneva, an official U.S. delegation, led by Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Tim Wirth, endorsed the position of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- made up of 2,500 climatologists and scientists -- that human activities are altering the global climate. Greenhouse gases, Wirth stated, threaten "human health, from projected increases in diseases like malaria, yellow fever and cholera; food security, water resources; and coastal areas, where a large percentage of the global population lives, at risk from sea level rise."

Second, the United States acknowledged that"voluntary" measures to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000 -- as contained in the 1992 Rio agreement -- are not working. In fact, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased from 1990 to 1994.

Third, and perhaps most significant of all, the United States signed an official declaration calling for "legally binding objectives for emission limitations and significant overall reductions (of greenhouse gases) within specified time frames, such as 2005, 2010, 2020." Conscious no doubt of the political firestorm such a declaration could cause back home, Wirth called for flexibility in reaching these goals. The United States, he said, would favor "market-based" approaches like trading pollution permits rather than tough new regulations or new taxes on polluters.

The next step is an environmental summit meeting in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, at which nations are supposed to agree upon fixed emission reduction targets. The U.S. position will be critical, since we emit more greenhouse gases per capita than any nation on earth. Unless we lead, developing nations who are presently projected to increase their carbon emissions by more than 100 percent by 2015 are hardly likely to follow.

Options under discussion include a minimum "stabilization" goal that would reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2010; proposals by the United Kingdom and Germany that would reduce emissions by 10 to 20 percent by 2010; and a call by the Alliance of Island States (AOSIS) -- nations most threatened by a rise
in the sea level -- for a 20 percent decrease below 1990 levels by 2005. Most environmental groups support the AOSIS position, but the United States and Western European countries have already ruled it out as "unrealistic."

For the United States, even the minimum "stabilization" goal will require a dramatic decrease in energy consumption -- and that will likely mean major public policy changes. According to a State Department document, "without additional policy intervention, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise by at least 20 percent by 2010" from 1990 levels. In other words, we would need to cut our projected energy use by one-fifth -- requiring far more fuel-efficient cars, industrial plants and resource-efficient homes.

Environmentalists, business executives and economists are sharply divided about the economic impact of meeting such goals. Ecologists like Amory Lovins argue that economic growth and many more jobs would come from retrofitting homes, retooling industries to make them more energy-efficient and creating a whole new market for electric cars. Oil and coal companies (and the United Mineworkers) say that millions of jobs will be lost and gasoline and electricity prices will skyrocket.

A number of high-ranking Clinton Administration members expressed fears that the true import of the Geneva declaration will leak out before the November election, handing a potentially major issue to the struggling Dole campaign. That may explain why Clinton and Gore are keeping it on the back burner for now. However, should Clinton win, he will have little more than a year until the Kyoto meeting to build the kind of public understanding and support that such changes will require. He will also require support from Congress, a task likely to be made much harder if it has no mandate from the electorate on the issue.

The Geneva declaration represents a major step forward in confronting the perils of global warming. Taking the next necessary steps will require considerable political courage and an even greater degree of environmental consciousness among the American public. An election campaign, ideally, offers an opportunity to confront such challenges squarely. That, unfortunately, is not likely to happen this year.

Quote of the day

Politics and the people

"You have a serious legitimacy problem. (The system) is substantially broken in a number of important respects. How that is going to be repaired is one of the great challenges of the next century."

-- University of Texas political scientist Walter Dean Burnham

"It's frightening. They don't have a stake in it. They don't have an interest in it. People say, 'Forget about it, I'll watch ESPN.'"

-- Bill Daley, brother of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

(From "Broad Changes Loom In Campaigns as Parties Address Voter Apathy," in Thursday's

Wall Street Journal

By Fred Branfman

Fred Branfman can be reached at His Web site is

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