WHILE the Eastern United States has sweated through a sizzling summer, Clinton administration officials have been trying to put together a plan to curb global warming. They are seeking to fulfill the president's Earth Day promise to stabilize emissions of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000 and ``continue the trend of reduced emissions'' beyond the turn of the century.
One of the beneficial effects of President Clinton's promise has been to move debate from questions about the scientific validity of the global warming theory to what policy steps are appropriate. An international consensus of scientists holds that the threat of climate change is real, and the time for action is now. Most, if not all, of the actions the world should take to curb global warming would be desirable anyway because they would save money and enhance the environment.
The president recently decided to delay the August deadline for launching the Climate Action Plan. The delay itself is not worrisome, but indications that it will not include policy measures with teeth is disturbing.
The most glaring omission is a significant increase in the gas mileage attained by new cars and light trucks. As a group of senators recently said in a letter to Mr. Clinton, ``increasing corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards is the biggest single step we can take toward reducing carbon dioxide emissions.'' Carbon dioxide is the most important global warming gas, and each gallon of gasoline burned pumps 19 pounds of it into the atmosphere.
While he was campaigning for the presidency, Clinton supported increasing the CAFE standard to 45 miles per gallon, a level that could be attained within 10 years.
Unfortunately, the president and his advisers now seem to be backing off from that pledge.
Making cost-effective increases in fuel efficiency would achieve reductions of 30 million to 40 million metric tons of carbon emissions by the year 2000, a significant chunk of the president's goal of 100 million tons. And emissions cuts would grow rapidly in the next century as new gas sippers replaced the gas guzzlers now on the road.
Drafts of the Climate Action Plan options show that the administration is cooking up a weak formula that avoids the tough issues. Most of the options being considered are voluntary. One would give US companies credit for reducing emissions overseas. Voluntary measures and international programs are fine but should not be used to avoid taking the actions necessary for the US to meet its commitments and get a grip on its emissions.
Constructing a climate plan without boosting motor-vehicle efficiency is like building a house while ignoring termites that are eating away at its foundation. No plan to stabilize carbon emissions can succeed without seriously addressing the burgeoning emissions from our transportation sector. The US needs to reduce the growth in the number of cars on the road, seek alternatives to petroleum-based fuels, and put cost-effective, energy-saving technologies on new cars and light trucks.
Contrary to the arguments of the auto companies, making cars more efficient will not mean making them smaller or less safe. Existing technology could make tomorrow's motor-vehicle fleet cleaner, safer, and more efficient without altering the size mix of cars on the road.
Higher gas mileage standards would also boost the economy. Instead of shipping tens of billions of dollars overseas to pay for oil imports, which constitute more than half of the US trade deficit, Americans would be able to invest more money at home, resulting in a net increase in jobs. And consumers would save money because a 68 percent hike in gas mileage can be achieved at a cost of only 53 cents for every gallon saved - quite a bargain compared to the price of gas at the pump.
In addition to using its authority to raise the mileage standards for cars and light trucks, the Clinton administration should use financial incentives to promote the development and sale of more efficient vehicles.
One way to do that would be to increase the tax on gas guzzlers and use the resulting revenues to provide investment assistance to auto manufacturers and suppliers who meet the higher mileage standards.
These steps are technologically feasible. The question is whether Clinton is willing to risk his harmonious relationship with the US auto industry in order to fulfill his promise to combat global climate change.