Steamy White House Fight Over Global Warming

House vote expected today as vice president uses summer heat to pitch climate program.

The hottest six months on record after the hottest year on record. A searing heat wave in Texas, endangering crops and lives. Devastating drought and fires in Florida after an earlier period of record rainfall.

For the Clinton administration, whose climate-control program now faces a hostile Congress, there is no better advocate than the weather extremes affecting millions of Americans.

"How much more proof do we need that global warming is real?" Vice President Al Gore asked incredulously Tuesday, lambasting Congress for ignoring the problem and advising lawmakers to "go outside and feel the temperature."

The administration is furious over proposed cuts and restrictions to its $6.3 billion, five-year climate-control program awaiting approval in Congress. The program would spur more efficient and cleaner energy through a series of tax incentives and research and development spending.

But various cuts being considered by lawmakers would essentially eliminate any increase in the program's R&D spending, keeping it at the 1998 level. In real terms, that level is a fifth of what the US spent on energy efficiency R&D 20 years ago.

Especially galling to the White House is an appropriations bill the House is expected to vote on today. The bill includes a rider that would block funds from supporting any rules, regulations, or orders relating to the Kyoto climate-control treaty. An accompanying report directs the administration to refrain from even educating the public about Kyoto.

Mr. Gore likened the bill to a "gag order," and administration officials will advise the president to veto the bill if it survives in its current form.

Tough sell

The White House has a long way to go in persuading the Senate to ratify the Kyoto protocol, in which 38 industrial nations, including the United States, agreed last December to sharply reduce "greenhouse" gas releases.

The Senate opposes the treaty unless developing nations join the commitment, a foreign-policy objective the administration is working on but which is yielding only incremental progress and no commitments yet. The president has said he won't submit the treaty for ratification until key developing countries, such as China, come on board.

Trent Wisecup, spokesman for Rep. Joseph Knollenberg (R) of Michigan, who penned the rider, says the president's tax-incentive and research program is really just a way to further the Kyoto treaty without having to actually submit it for ratification.

"The problem is, it's all designed to forward Kyoto. We feel it [Kyoto] should first be debated in the Senate," explains Mr. Wisecup. Lawmakers like Mr. Knollenberg, he says, believe implementation of the treaty as it now stands would destroy jobs and hurt the American economy, though the administration argues just the opposite.

Lawmakers aren't the only ones who have a problem with the administration's program. Last month, Victor Rezendes, an official with the General Accounting Office, criticized the program in testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The administration is asking for money without an analysis of what kinds of results that spending would bring, says Mr. Rezendes: "Is $3 million enough? Would $1 million buy the same reductions?"

But John Holdren, a Harvard University professor on the environment and public policy and a member of the president's Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology, says it's impossible to pinpoint results from R&D spending. To critics who say the president's program is simply Kyoto broken down into little pieces, he counters that it's a continuation of efforts that predate the Clinton administration.

"If you look at what's really going on in the budget debate, it's not really just about Kyoto," says Professor Holdren, who presses the president's case on Capitol Hill. "If you talk privately to many of the veteran members of Congress, they will say the recommendations for energy are indeed perfectly sensible, but that this is an election year."

Energy efficiency can't compete with highway spending, and besides, he says, Republicans see Kyoto as a "very juicy" target to attack the administration. Because it's a favorite issue for Mr. Gore - potential Democratic front-runner in the next presidential election - it's especially susceptible to criticism.

Public perceptions

Meanwhile, the best hope for the administration might be in the millions of Americans growing suspicious about the weather:

"The evidence of global warming keeps piling up, month after month, week after week," Gore told scientists and the media this week. "How long is it going to take before these people in the Congress get the message? People are sweltering out there."

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