Clinton, Gore Set for Environmental Push

BILL Clinton's election raises high expectations for new executive leadership on the environment. The president-elect's choice of Sen. Al Gore as his vice president brings to the new administration an advocate well-versed in many of the intricacies of complex environmental issues.

As Mr. Clinton decides on the structure of his administration in this transition period, what steps should Americans watch for as indicators of the Clinton/Gore strategy on the environment?

While the United States has historically set the pace with high relative levels of protection for its habitats, US leadership has slipped during the last decade. The comprehensive Clean Air Act was passed in 1990, but many of its potential benefits to the environment were lost after implementing regulations were gutted or simply not issued. After promising no net loss of wetlands in America, Bush administration officials sought to change the definition of wetlands to open up protected areas to developmen t.

Perhaps most illustrative of absent environmental leadership was the obstructionist role the US played at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in June of 1992. The US showed that it remains one of the last countries in the world to recognize the key to providing for future generations: caring for the environment to ensure that sustainable economic growth is possible.

The meetings in Rio de Janeiro did make great strides toward this end with conventions on climate change and biodiversity as well as a broad agenda for the 21st century. But one can only imagine the progress that could have been achieved if the sole remaining superpower had put its muscle behind finding ways to sustain the environment instead of insisting on the least common denominator for climate change and refusing to agree on biodiversity.

There is great reason to believe the Clinton administration will bring some of that power and influence to bear on this critical international issue. The decisionmaking structures Clinton chooses to handle the environmental portfolio will help determine whether the environment receives priority attention by the administration. It is fair to expect a major role for Mr. Gore.

Many other questions, however, remain to be answered. Here are some possible changes to look for early in the Clinton administration:

* Centralizing the key actors. Numerous agencies and departments currently work on environmental questions in one form or another. Bringing at least some of the responsible actors together under one cabinet-level department would demonstrate a commitment to better coordination on environmental issues.

Such actions could include a recent bipartisan commission's recommendation that the new president ask Congress to create a Department of the Environment. The department should at least include the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA is now in the Department of Commerce).

* Issuing new regulations under existing legislation. Clinton can issue numerous executive regulations under existing laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. He also can declare his support for the Endangered Species Act while convening a forest-management summit to negotiate a compromise to the Spotted Owl standoff in the Northwest. Following through on the original intent of these laws will dramatically increase the beneficial impact this legislation is having.

* Bringing new expertise into the White House. The science adviser to the president has historically been a nuclear physicist or an engineer, reflecting the need for advice on military questions. Some former White House officials have called for appointing a natural or physical earth scientist to provide expertise on the new challenges presented by environmental degradation.

* Making a different kind of defense conversion. The defense and intelligence communities have begun efforts to identify data, hardware, and technologies that could prove useful for addressing environmental concerns. Clinton could, at the very least, task these agencies to redouble their search.

Perhaps most importantly, Clinton can announce to his fellow world leaders that the US will reassert its leadership role in working for a better environment. He could declare that the US will bring the resources of the remaining superpower to bear on these daunting problems.

Signing the biodiversity treaty agreed to by 160 other nations at Rio and pushing ahead on negotiations for forest and population treaties would be signals of the US return to constructive environmental leadership.

Clinton will realize there are costs to being an environmental president, something George Bush never did. Environmental decisions on fuel efficiency standards, gasoline taxes, and trade agreements all may carry tolls in terms of political and economic capital. But strong executive leadership can persuade this country, and by example the world, to make the necessary sacrifices.

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