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Clinton Lays Out Environmental Program

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth's Peter Thomson reports on President Clinton's speech marking Earth Day. The President announced that the US would sign the UN's biodiversity treaty, cut greenhouse gases to 1990 levels within seven years, and stimulate the market for environmentally-friendly products.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

After months of letting his aides do the talking on environmental issues, for the first time as President, Bill Clinton has laid out his own agenda for the Federal Government. There were some surprises in his speech, timed to commemorate Earth Day, but not many. The President largely stuck to the broad generalities he voiced in the campaign, rather than the hard specifics of implementation. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson has our report.

THOMSON: The speech was Bill Clinton's first major statement on the environment since last Earth Day, when he was still just one of several challengers to then-President Bush. Since then, the signals on the environment have been mixed. Clinton chose leading environmentalist Al Gore as his Vice-President, but Gore has been nearly invisible since taking office in January. Meanwhile, the President included such bold environmental initiatives as an energy tax and reform of Federal land policies in his budget plan, only to back off from or modify the plans almost right away. But on this day, the President seemed to be saying to people on all sides of the environmental debate, don't sweat the details -- we're committed to making big changes.

CLINTON: To protect the environment at home and abroad, I'm committed to a government that leads by example, brings people together, and brings out the best in everyone. For too long, our government did more to inflame environmental issues than to solve them.

THOMSON: With that implicit criticism of his Republican predecessors as a starting point, Clinton announced the reversal of two major Bush Administration environmental policies. He pledged to sign the United Nations biodiversity convention, and to commit the US to reduce its output of atmospheric greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The US's major trading partners had already agreed to these commitments, but President Bush had said they would hurt the competitiveness of American industry. President Clinton, however, without giving many specifics, said the US can find ways to meet those goals and protect the interests of business.

CLINTON: We cannot walk away from challenges like those presented by the biodiversity treaty. We must step up to them. Our administration has worked with business and environmental groups toward an agreement that protects both American interests and the world environment.

THOMSON: The President also announced that the Administration would produce a plan by August to help American businesses cut their greenhouse gas emissions in a cost-effective way. Commitments like these go a long way toward pleasing the mainstream environmental community, much of which has recently been troubled by the President's seeming indecision on key issues. Michael Oppenheimer, an atmospheric scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, has been among those leading the call for tougher action on greenhouse gases. He says Clinton's pledges at least put the US on par with most of the rest of the industrial world.

OPPENHEIMER: On both biodiversity and climate, again, what's happened is that the US has been put back in step with other industrial nations. It's not clear we're really assuming a leadership role. So what the President seems to have done is sort of done a 180-degree turnaround in US policy, but he hasn't really started walking in the right direction too far yet.

THOMSON: Walking in the right direction, and ultimately leading on greenhouse emissions, Oppenheimer says, would mean pledging never to exceed the 1990 emissions levels once the country has met them.

President Clinton did pledge to make the government itself a more responsible environmental player.

CLINTON: Today, I am signing an executive order which commits the Federal Government to buy thousands more American-made vehicles using clean, domestic fuels, such as natural gas, ethanol, methanol, and electric power. This will reduce our demand for foreign oil, reduce air pollution . . (Fade into) I plan to sign an executive order, committing every agency of the national government to do more than ever to buy and use recycled products. This will provide a market for new technologies . . . (Fade into) That's why I am also signing an executive order to require the Federal Government to purchase energy-efficient computers.

BROWN: We're talking about levels of purchases that are really on a massive scale, and when the US government decides to buy high-energy efficiency computers, it not only sends a signal to the market, it really begins to dominate the market.

THOMSON: That's Lester Brown, head of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. Brown says Clinton's pledges to purchase more environmentally-friendly products, and to help companies develop and market those types of products, will have a profound impact on the entire marketplace. But more importantly, Brown says, the President seems to be moving toward making good on a campaign pledge by Vice President Gore to bring environmental considerations into every facet of government, from foreign policy to procurement.

BROWN: This is what the world has needed, a government that was environmentally visionary, could see where the world needed to go and to begin to move the United States in that direction.

THOMSON: But others aren't so sure this vision isn't misguided. Ike Sugg is an environmental analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He says Clinton's initiatives to influence the market for supposedly environmentally-friendly technologies -- whether through purchasing power, R&D or caps on greenhouse emissions --- are just more unnecessary interference in the marketplace.

SUGG: Some companies, some industries in fact will do very, very well under this. I don't think that's right, I don't think government should be picking winners and losers. But other people will hurt, will become hurt as a result of this, because we're socializing the cost of Federal policies.

THOMSON: And even supporters of the President's plans seem reluctant to endorse them completely. Despite the President's efforts to get us all to look at the big picture, they say the devil is in the details -- and they'll be watching closely to see how Mr. Clinton's words translate into action, especially if the President doesn't make any more major speeches on the environment for another year. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson.



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