When they were unveiled last week, President Clinton's proposals for international action to combat global warming got poor reviews from Europeans abroad and environmentalists at home for not going far enough.
"Insufficient," said German Finance Minister Angela Merkel. "Not strong enough," said Natural Resources Defense Council official John Adams.
But in designing his plan, Mr. Clinton had to keep in mind the attitudes of another powerful political player: Congress. And many in Congress think the plan goes too far. In fact, opposition to the administration's greenhouse-gas proposals among Republicans is such that the Senate probably wouldn't approve them, says Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
Thus Clinton's attempt to deal with the global-warming issue is something of a centrist plunge between his critics.
Among GOP lawmakers the reaction of Rep. Bill Paxon (R) of New York is typical. "It's another big-government boondoggle crafted in secret. The goals may be noble, but it will wind up costing taxpayers billions," he says.
Congressional reaction is crucial, because the Senate would have to ratify any global-warming treaty that might be negotiated. And new limits on the greenhouse gases that many believe contribute to global warming could require congressional action as well.
Clinton announced his program in the runup to an international conference in Kyoto, Japan, Dec. 1-12. Diplomats at that meeting will try to negotiate a treaty that would reduce emissions of such gases as carbon dioxide (CO2), most of which are produced by automobiles and coal-burning electric plants.
Skeptics question basic premise
Clinton proposed reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012, using $5 billion in tax breaks and incentives for American industries to improve fuel efficiency. He also suggested an international emissions-trading system in which companies would collect credits for reducing emissions that they could then sell to other firms to help them meet emissions targets. He boosted electricity deregulation to increase competition in such a way that greenhouse gases will be cut.
Conservative Republicans, however, say the link between increased CO2 emissions and global warming is far from established. House majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas cites a recent Science magazine article stating that "most modelers now agree that the climate models will not be able to link greenhouse warming unambiguously to human actions for a decade or more."
Clinton's plan is "arbitrary, premature, and unwarranted," charges Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma. "It is based ... on selective science, alarmist rhetoric, and political calculations."
Scientists who advocate taking action now say that by the time a link between human activity and global warming is made, it will be too late to take remedial action. Hence the necessity, they say, of taking steps now to reduce emissions.
Environment vs. economy?
GOP critics also charge that the proposals will hurt the US economy, claiming even the president acknowledges "almost a 30-percent reduction" from current projected emissions, according to the Senate Republican Policy Committee. And while Clinton calls for developing nations to "meaningfully participate" in the effort, critics warn the treaty will exclude developing countries, meaning only countries with advanced economies will be subject to reductions. Developing countries will produce 60 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions within 20 years, these critics say. But since they will not be subject to emissions reductions, they will have a competitive edge over the US and other advanced economies.
The president also draws criticism for pushing much of the potential economic pain far into the future. "Just like many of the president's past proposed federal budgets, all the heavy lifting comes well after he is gone from office," the Senate Republican Policy Committee complains. "This proposal would not directly raise energy prices until 2008 but would require the vast majority of the reductions between 2009 and 2012 - achieved through higher prices."
But Clinton does have GOP allies. "I believe that the overwhelming majority of independent ... scientific studies have demonstrated the need for an international treaty that includes ... binding emissions targets," says Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "I believe that the administration is heading down the right path."
But even Senator Chafee warns that developing nations must participate in a treaty.