In his long-awaited plan to fight global warming, President Clinton is walking a delicate path marked by get-tough regulation and financial sweeteners.
It's a risky step - one that is likely to be hammered by activists and business interests at both ends of the US political spectrum while drawing skepticism aboard. But it is one, he hopes, that will attract what is becoming a broader and more assertive moderate center in this country on a profound environmental issue. And since the Republican-led Congress must approve the plan, it may be a political necessity.
The president is offering a carefully crafted combination of specific, binding carbon-reduction targets made more palatable with economic incentives - all smoothed out with a flexibility designed to win the approval of suspicious lawmakers and business leaders worried about the bottom line.
Over the years, Mr. Clinton's approach to climate change has gone through two phases. First, he waved the stern regulatory stick: a proposed "carbon tax" on fuels that contribute to global warming. That snapped against a congressional brick wall.
Then he offered the conciliatory carrot: a largely-volunteer program to encourage energy efficiency and thereby reduce the "greenhouse gases" (mainly carbon dioxide) that scientists suspect are behind climate change.
This has been more successful, bringing definite improvements in some areas of energy production, distribution, and consumption. But it has not put the US on track to meet the stated goal of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.
On the contrary, the Energy Department reported Monday, such emissions have risen 7.4 percent since 1990 and will likely keep rising as the robust US economy continues to expand - more people driving cars and working in more offices and factories.
So now the president is taking a more middle-of-the-road approach. Among the specifics he outlined in a speech Wednesday:
* Mandatory cuts in greenhouse gases to 1990 levels through a phased-in program to start now and be completed sometime between 2008 and 2012. These would be followed by further reductions to be completed in about 20 years.
* Several billion dollars in tax incentives and subsidies to stimulate renewable and energy-efficiency technologies. This would also include tax breaks for companies that meet carbon-reduction goals ahead of schedule.
* Clinton also hopes to generate international interest in a "pollution trading system" involving other industrialized nations. With this, companies racing toward compliance could sell "pollution permits" to those struggling to meet the deadline.
Nudge from Europe
The US plan to reduce carbon emissions is being offered this week in Bonn, Germany, where some 150 nations are preparing for a December summit in Kyoto, Japan. There, the specifics of how to get such emissions below 1990 levels are to be finalized.
The Clinton plan faces criticism - in some cases active opposition - on two levels.
Abroad, there are several plans that get to the 1990-level emissions goal (and beyond) before Clinton's does. Japan would push carbon levels 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The European Union would set the reduction level at 15 percent by 2010. Small island nations (which, presumably, would be the first to feel the effects of global warming when icebergs melt and ocean levels rise) want to cut emissions even sooner.
The rub at home
At home, the Clinton plan has been criticized by many environmentalists, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. And there is a powerful coalition of business interests - petroleum producers, chemical manufacturers, mining companies - that has mounted an expensive campaign questioning the reality of global warming. They also warn that the treaty to reduce carbon emissions could be devastating economically.
"I expect to probably be criticized by all sides," Clinton says.
But in the five years since the "Earth Summit" in Brazil, where the goal of reaching 1990 carbon levels by 2000 first was set, attitudes have shifted on global warming.
Thousands of prominent scientists (including most of the living Nobel laureates) agree that rising carbon levels are a concern and that climate change is likely to result. Polls show most Americans share this concern and want something done. More business leaders, too, are refusing to follow industry nay-sayers.
"It would be unwise and potentially dangerous to ignore the mounting concern," says John Browne, chief executive of the British Petroleum Company. "Climate change is a long-term problem, and what matters now is that we begin to take rational precautionary steps even if there are still areas of uncertainty and disagreement."
"We can't wait for a finished, polished solution which has unanimous endorsement," he adds.
And for many business leaders, the challenge of potential climate change brings with it the prospect of economic opportunity.
"There are many people from business and industry who believe we can reduce emission of greenhouse gases while continuing economic growth and job creation in the United States," says Robert Semple, former General Motors chairman. "Implementation of new technologies coupled with new energy-efficient programs can continue the quality of life we enjoy in this country while having a significant beneficial effect on the atmosphere."
President Clinton's challenge now will be to convince more business and government leaders that this is true.