The Greening of the White House

April 22, 1993

The United States celebrates Earth Day today with its bona fides as a nation dedicated to preservation of the world environment somewhat restored. Last year this country took a public relations shellacking when President Bush found himself all alone among the major powers in refusing to sign a treaty to slow the disappearance of endangered species and in forcing the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to accept a policy to combat global warming that lacked specific goals and timetables. But yesterday, President Clinton took firm action to reverse his predecessor's policies.

In his first major environmental speech, the new president said he would sign the Biodiversity Treaty before a June deadline and committed this nation to reducing "greenhouse gas" emissions to 1990 levels by the year to 2000. He contended he had and would continue to work with affected industries to protect them from the economic damage Mr. Bush saw in the Earth Summit initiatives.

Mr. Clinton's move came at a time when environmental advocacy groups were becoming loudly restive about some of his recent actions -- particularly his decision under pressure from Western senators to drop plans to increase grazing and mineral extraction fees on federal lands. But whether he can ever do enough to satisfy such organizations is questionable. Although the Clinton-Gore administration is vividly a lot greener than the Bush-Quayle administration, it knows it will stand or fall on how the nation recovers from recession -- not on how well it protects the environment.

Vice President Albert Gore is at the forefront of those who believe the purported conflict between the environment and the economy is a false one. Picking up on this theme, Mr. Clinton contended there is a $200 billion to $300 billion industry developing in environmental technologies.

Such upbeat rhetoric still leaves this administration with the task of proving its ideas are correct. The proposed energy tax, for example, may indeed reduce polluting emissions by 25 percent of the global warming goal specified by the president. But there are no details on how the other 75 percent is to be attained, or how much an energy tax and related measures might slow economic growth. Moreover, close attention must be paid to preserving U.S. patent rights and other proprietary interests as the Biodiversity Treaty is implemented. The administration is to be complimented for working with some of the same pharmaceutical companies Mr. Clinton was lambasting not so long ago.

Americans should surely take comfort that their government is joining the international mainstream in seeking to preserve the Earth from physical degradation and overpopulation. But there is no denying that trade-offs will have to be made, both domestically and on the world scene, and that results of a positive nature will be slow in overcoming the plundering of the planet.

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