Volunteers against global warming

November 05, 1993

President Clinton's lengthy plan to stem global warming by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels relies heavily on the V word -- voluntary.

It's another environmental balancing act by the administration, heavy on the apocalyptic rhetoric but short on strong policy measures. Vice President Al Gore's urgent but fuzzy predictions of environmental dystopia overlay what is really an appeal to the volunteer conservation ethic of individuals and corporations.

Planting more trees (at least he didn't blame them for air pollution) and creating another task force on greenhouse gases were typical of the 50-some presidential ideas. So were a one-year study of auto emissions (as if that hasn't been studied to death) and the venerable exhortations to use more methane gas from wastes and windmill power.

Industries that had been wary of the Clinton blueprint boasted that they are already taking many steps listed by the president, including use of more efficient lighting and motors. Their relief was obvious, as was the disappointment of environmental activists at the lack of bold measures, incentives and sanctions in the "action plan".

Fact is, data on global warming trends and the resulting Greenhouse Effect are highly debatable. Scientific interpretations change as more long-term information is digested. Even Mr. Clinton conceded that "the precise magnitude and patterns of climate change cannot be fully predicted."

So his voluntary, "first step" would only cut back emissions of warming gases such as carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by the year 2000, an 8 percent reduction. That is a small concession to what Mr. Gore calls "the highest-risk environmental problem the world faces today."

Mr. Clinton ducked the troublesome but critical issue of higher gas-economy standards for vehicles. But he pressed ahead with vexing proposals to eliminate parking vouchers for commuters (by requiring that all employees get the cash equivalent) and to ++ switch, yet again, to another less-polluting coolant used in refrigerators and air conditioners.

Most important for the president was fulfilling a campaign pledge to deal with the threat of global warming, in contrast to the inaction of George Bush, and to endorse the United Nations climate change convention resulting from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The Clinton plan mostly rounds up old ideas and gives them the presidential imprimatur for implementation through "personal responsibility." Most are sound ideas, but they haven't been widely embraced by the public. With Mr. Clinton focused on trade and health care issues, don't expect the greenhouse gases plan to warm up in Congress.

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