FIRST the good news: President Clinton has told China's President Jiang Zemin that America wants to work with Beijing on ways to modernize its economy without damaging the global environment.
Then the bad news: Nothing much has been done, officially, about this major problem of our era.
We are indebted to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's recent interview with Mr. Clinton for belated news about the environmental content of the two presidents' closed-door meeting last Oct. 24.
They met at New York's Lincoln Center after a protocol brouhaha that illustrates how strange diplomacy sometimes becomes. Here they were, ready to talk about human rights, the spread of major lethal weapons, and pollution affecting the whole human race - and the meeting almost failed to take place. That's because of arguments about whether it would be a "summit" in Washington or something less in New York.
But meet they did. And now Mr. Clinton reveals the crucial exchange.
Jiang: Are you trying to contain China...?
Clinton: I don't want to contain you. It might surprise you to know [that]... the greatest threat to our security you present is that all of your people will want to get rich in exactly the same way we got rich. And unless we try to triple the automobile mileage and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if you all get rich in that way we won't be breathing very well.... We should be able to figure out how to help you solve this problem.... I hope we will be cooperating on [it] in the years ahead.
Apparently neither leader has done much about lower-pollution economic growth since then.
Given this lack of momentum, let us make some practical proposals:
First, Washington could lend more support to, and learn more about, existing private efforts to help China grow in ways safe to Earth's atmosphere and crust.
There is already a framework for moving on what is known as "sustainable development." Unbeknown, apparently, to Mr. Clinton or Mr. Friedman (and possibly even to Mr. Jiang), a major US-Chinese-Japanese-European conference on this very problem took place in Beijing last July. Its welcoming address came from none other than the daughter of China's veteran leader, Deng Xiaoping.
Madame Deng Nan is a major leader of China's Agenda 21 program, charged with finding better ways to marry environmental protection to the leap into prosperity China is bent on achieving. The other principals at the meeting were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Tokyo, the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, and China's Tsinghua University. These universities are linked together in a global research and education effort called the Alliance for Global Sustainability, which is developing for China projects aimed at more efficient energy use in factories and homes.
Second, Clinton could act on his Oct. 24 words by proposing to have his able science adviser, Jack Gibbons, meet with President Jiang's equivalent, Dr. Song Jian, chairman of China's State Commission on Science and Technology, or with Mme. Deng, its vice chairman. Aim: to discuss how the US might help to cushion the environmental impact of China's industrial growth.
It would smooth relations if such quiet summits of science advisers were designed as regularly recurring fixtures. It might also help if the first meeting were charged with setting the agenda for a summit of the two presidents during next fall's UN General Assembly, when they will both be in New York.
Third, Clinton could nudge Mr. Jiang's interest in making this a priority by noting that it would give Beijing, as well as Washington, an opportunity to lead the developing world in an effort that would benefit much, perhaps all, of humanity.
Anyone who has been to a Chinese city understands the most dramatic metaphor for the impending 21st century problem: car exhausts. Take a street jam-packed with bicycles. Multiply the width of each biker by three to simulate the width of even a mini "people's car" of the kind China hopes to build with Western automakers. Envision the traffic jams. Then imagine perhaps as many as 300 million new cars and motorcycles on China's roads and streets, all spewing exhaust gases. Add new coal-burning power plants, home heating systems, industrial plant effluents, and increased water usage.
The July conference of technology universities made it clear that research to solve these problems is advancing. The Clinton-Jiang exchange hinted at high-level political attention. There's no excuse for delay. Not American elections. Not Chinese succession struggles. Not opposition sniping. (Senator Dole's campaign would benefit if he announced he favors divorcing China's environmental progress from Taiwan, missiles, and human rights issues.)
The China problem is huge. Benefits to a billion Chinese from starting to solve it now are clear. So is the benefit to the other 5 billion of us.