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Office of the Vice President

For Immediate Release March 20, 1995
                      REMARKS BY THE VICE PRESIDENT
                             March 17, 1995
                      George Washington University

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much for your warm welcome. And, President Steve Trachtenberg*, thank you for your kind introduction and your friendship and your leadership of this great university. I want to also acknowledge Walter Boortz*, Vice President for Administration and Information Services, and my longtime friend and partner in the efforts to deal with this issue, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs and Former Senator Tim Wirth, who is doing an outstanding job in addressing these issues. (Applause.)

I also want to acknowledge another partner who works with me, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jim Baker, who is here from the administration, doing a great job. (Applause.) And there are many others I probably ought to acknowledge, and I hope you will forgive me for not doing so. I'm afraid I'd miss somebody.

I want to give a special word of thanks to the AmeriCorps students from G.W., who are volunteering to help with today's event, and I want to thank them, also, for their excellent community service work in the District's Shaw neighborhood. And also, I want to recognize this university for its many achievements in the sciences, some of which inform the debate of which this speech is a part today.

It is great to be back at G.W. again. And one reason is, this is the nation's first green university. The commitment you have made in a unique partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency has made you the first university in America to develop a truly comprehensive plan of environmental awareness in all of the university's activities. And I want to congratulate you for that.

I mentioned the AmeriCorps students earlier -- 15 of them are part of the Green University Initiative, doing a great job, working to draft a model environmental audit plan that will establish practices that are both environmentally sound and cost-saving.

And, by the way, Happy St. Patrick's Day. This is one day out of the year you can't be accused of being too green. There couldn't be a better day to address the issue that I believe is the single most serious manifestation of the environmental crisis which now characterizes the radical change in the relationship between human civilization and the Earth's environment.

Two weeks from now, this issue of global climate change will be discussed by more than 120 different countries in Berlin as they begin the first conference of the parties for a framework convention on climate change. Since it's St. Patrick's Day, I thought I would begin a discussion of this issue by quoting an old Irish politician, Sir Boyle Roche*, who once asked in the last century, sarcastically, "Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity? For, what has posterity ever done for us?" That way of thinking would go over real well in this session of Congress. (Laughter and applause.)

Posterity is particularly relevant when talking about global climate change, because our actions today will have far-reaching implications for the environment that we leave to future generations. A commitment to posterity requires that we accept and understand this profound change in the nature of the relationship between human civilization and the ecological system of the Earth.

I mentioned a moment ago that in my view global climate change is a manifestation of that radical change in the fundamental relationship between civilization and the Earth. There are other manifestations - - the rapid destruction of forests, especially tropical rain forests; the unprecedented loss of living species at a rate that has not taken place on this planet since the disappearance of the dinosaurs so many tens of millions of years ago; the poisoning of air and water in many places on the Earth; and the degradation of important ecosystems, from the Aral Sea in Central Asia to the coral reef networks in shallow areas of the world's oceans.

All of these, including global climate change, are manifestations of this change in the relationship between human beings and the environment. This radical change has come about in the lifetimes of people gathered here in this auditorium because of a confluence of three factors. The first is the unprecedented explosion in the numbers of human beings around the world. We're adding the equivalent of one China's worth of people every 10 years. Still, we have begun to address a sensible plan of action to assist nations that wish to stabilize population growth. But the momentum built into the numbers themselves ensure -- ensures that the rapid growth will continue for quite sometime to come.

The second of these three factors is the acceleration of the scientific and technological revolution, which has vastly magnified the ability of the average human being to have an impact on the environment around him or her. To use an analogy, warfare is an ancient habit of human civilization. But the invention of nuclear weapons so completely transformed the consequences of all-out warfare as to require us to go back and think anew about that age-old habit. The Cold War was in part a result of that sobering reexamination of what all-out warfare would mean with these incredibly powerful new weapons.

But all of them taken together have transformed the consequences of all-out exploitation of the Earth, just as surely as nuclear weaponry transformed the consequences of all-out warfare. And so we must think anew about the way in which we go about exploiting the land and the sea and the air or the sustenance that we need to survive.

The third factor leading to this radical change is in some ways the most important. It is a philosophical shift in our way of thinking about the consequences of what we do to the environment, a change which has led too many people to assume that we need not take into account the future effects of our present actions.

All three of these factors together have created a change that we are attempting to come to grips with in sessions like the one in Cairo on population and sustainable development; sessions like the many which led to the Montreal Protocol to limit the introduction of ozone- depleting substances into the stratosphere; and conferences like the one in Berlin two weeks from now, which will address global climate change.

In order to deal with this issue, we have to begin with the facts. And any discussion of the facts must take into account categories upon which there is agreement and categories that are featured by disagreement. I would like to concentrate on the former rather than the latter, because there is widespread agreement about the central facts which characterize this problem.

The revisionist view not withstanding, there is a firm domestic and international consensus on the most salient issues. Number one: We know that greenhouse gases are building up rapidly in the atmosphere. Concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased about 25 percent since the Industrial Revolution; nitric oxide has gone up by 15 percent; methane has gone up by more than 100 percent.

Number two: Scientists also agree that continuing this buildup of greenhouse gases will cause the climate to change. The operative word in that sentence is not may, it is will. A continued buildup of this kind will cause the climate to change. About that there is no serious disagreement. The scientific community cannot tell us the pace of these changes or the precise pattern they will take, but they are telling us that change is coming.

There is an international consensus that global surface temperatures could increase from an average of 2 degrees fahrenheit to 8 degrees fahrenheit over the next century. That is the rate unseen on this planet for at least the last 10,000 years. That is, unseen during the entire history of human civilization. Since the first cities appeared on the Earth, no such change has been seen.

The United States and other areas in high latitudes are projected to warm even more, with increases of up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. In just the last century, the Earth's temperature has risen by about one degree Fahrenheit. The nine warmest years in this century have all occurred since 1980, even though the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, as predicted at the time, held down temperatures for about three years, until the heavy particulates blocking out a tiny fraction of the sun's radiation fell back out of the atmosphere to Earth.

Already, there is ominous evidence of significant change underway. Alpine glaciers in every part of the world are retreating rapidly. You may have seen the pictures not long ago of the prehistoric traveler whose body was found in a mountain pass in the Alps in Italy. They were walking along, and there he was. Why had no one noticed him there for the last 5,000 years? Because the ice covering him has not melted in 5,000 years. It is now -- it has now melted.

In other areas that have not seen the ice retreat in human experience, it is now retreating. There is a decrease in northern hemisphere snow cover; evidence of a decrease in Arctic sea ice. Average precipitation in the lower 48 States has increased in the last century by about five percent. Torrential rains have increased in the summer during agricultural growing seasons.

These are troubling, complex and challenging issues to confront, but we should not image that they occur according to a pattern of slow and gradual change. We know that natural systems are replete with thresholds beyond which change can occur suddenly and dramatically. A warmer Earth alters precipitation, soil moisture and sea level that can lead to changes in the ideal ranges for crops, forests and wetlands. Changes in precipitation patterns cause draught in some areas and more rainfall in others. It causes a change in the distribution of microbial populations and vulnerabilities to viruses and bacteria; a change in the distribution of pests; a change in the distribution of plant and animal life.

Combinations of changes can have dramatic effects --increased rainfall can lead to more floods, which together with higher sea levels, can threaten the existence of some low-lying coastal communities, threaten the existence even of some small island nations and low-lying coastal nations.

We have seen concern expressed by scientists in several parts of the world about the increased frequency of drastic weather events. In our own country, we have seen the effects of a shift in the pattern that we call El Nino, from a pattern that occurs every two to five years to a relatively new pattern during the last decade and a half in which it has a tendency to become almost constant.

Some members of the business community, whose lines of work make them especially sensitive to these kinds of changes, are also beginning to express concern. Recently, I met with a large number of representatives from the insurance industry and the reinsurance industry. Frank Nutter*, President of the Reinsurance Association of America, has warned about a serious risk of bankruptcy within the insurance industry, that can come from, in his words, "significant and perhaps, permanent changes in our climate in this country and in the world."

It's easy to see why insurance companies are concerned. In 1993, the Mississippi flooding caused an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion worth of damage. Hurricane Hugo cost the federal government alone about $1.6 billion. Hurricane Andrew topped $2 billion in federal disaster payments and cost property insurers at least $16 billion. The floods and mud slides in California have caused over $2 billion in damage already this year.

Does it make sense for us to assume that we need not take action to diminish the chance that an altered climate pattern will lead to an increase in the frequency of severe events of this sort? We ignore these changes at our peril. I mentioned that climate change can cause a shift in the distribution of microbial populations. The range of infectious diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, can change significantly.

How should we respond to this kind of threat? The Clinton administration believes that we must guard against potentiallydevastating effects, even as we deepen our scientific understanding of these issues through an aggressive research program. This approach is, in fact, analogous to an insurance policy and is not just an abstract notion.

Three years ago we joined the international community in signing the historic Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was the beginning of a process to design a kind of insurance policy. It was a treaty that called on all nations to work together in an unprecedented effort to protect the global environment. Specifically, the industrialized countries were urged to take the lead by stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

Soon after taking office, President Clinton went beyond the vague, non-binding language of the treaty, declaring that the United States would meet the goal set out in the treaty. The President's commitment was made to complement his economic objectives. He promised to turn our economy around, and he has delivered. Inflation is down, growth is up, unemployment is down, jobs are up. All told, we are demonstrating that economic and environmental progress can go hand in hand.

No doubt, the powerful economic course set by President Clinton challenges several of the assumptions of the plan. Rather than shirking away from this good news, we embrace it. Today I want to reaffirm the President's pledge: The United States is committed to reaching 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2000. We've developed an ambitious plan aimed at fulfilling the President's commitment. Forty out of forty-seven of these initiatives have received funding are now underway. Most of these initiatives share at least one common feature -- they will mean new, clean American jobs for our future.

For example, we have signed voluntary agreements with the bulk of our utility industry to keep greenhouse gas emissions down. Similar partnerships have been forged with U.S. industry on energy-efficient computers, buildings and lighting systems. We have pledged 430 million to the global environmental facility for its second phase -- the largest contribution of any nation in the world. We have created a new environmental technology initiative, totaling more than $1 billion to develop and disseminate environmentally superior technology. And, the U.S. has launched the world's first pilot program to assess the feasibility of joint investment projects with other countries aimed at reducing or sequestering emissions of greenhouse gases and promoting sustainable development.

In addition, we have launched a partnership for a new generation of vehicles, also know by some as the Clean Car Initiative. It is a real partnership. All three of the big three automakers are participating, along with the national laboratories; all of the relevant federal agencies; and many suppliers of parts, materials and equipment; also, engineering faculties and students across the country. Together we're tackling a technological challenge in some ways as tough as putting a man on the moon. We're going to develop a car with three times the efficiency of today's automobiles with no sacrifice in cost, comfort or safety.

In the process we hope to discover the best ways to apply new technologies which may, in fact, lead to even greater improvements in efficiency -- all in 10 years' time. Success will mean less dependence on foreign oil and lower emissions of greenhouse gases. And, of course, in addition to the benefits for the American consumer, the project also holds the promise of an extremely attractive and competitive automobile for world markets at the turn of the century and the thriving U.S. auto industry to produce them.

In our building and construction initiative, our goal is to improve the competitive performance of this $800 billion industry by developing much better construction technologies that lead to less emissions. With the full cooperation of the industry, we're determined to ensure that our buildings, like our industry, are the most productive, efficient, safe and durable in the entire world. That means cutting delivery time in half with a 50 percent reduction in cost.

We want to see a 50 percent reduction in construction work injuries and illnesses also, while there's a 30 percent improvement in productivity and comfort. And we're developing detailed plans with the industry to reach these objectives. We want to see 50 percent less waste and pollution and 50 percent more durability and flexibility.

We recognize that our plan is ambitious. And we recognize that it requires support from leaders on Capitol Hill. Some of our previous requests were not fully funded, and Congress is now considering taking previously approved funding back. Just as this treaty requires international consensus, our domestic response to it requires a national consensus. We are committed to working with the Congress in a true partnership on behalf of our nation, the world and all of its people. But it is incumbent upon the new leadership on Capitol Hill to step up to the plate and recognize both the challenges and the opportunities presented by climate change and recognize, too, the need for U.S. leadership.

Fulfilling this responsibility in the future requires acknowledging that our plans and those of our industrialized partners are only the first step. In two weeks, in Berlin, nations will meet to determine what more the international community can do in response to the dramatic scientific evidence that now exists. Once again, this administration will be at the forefront of this global effort.

We have said for almost a year that we do not believe that the current agreement is adequate. It only contains an aim or goal for the year 2000, and this aim only applies to a limited number of countries. We are now in a situation in which the maximum response that is politically feasible throughout the world still falls short of what is really needed to address the problem. All the nations of the world will need to work together to develop guidance on what steps to take beyond the year 2000. So we must negotiate a new aim for the future.

In view of these limitations, and mindful of our responsibility to the future, we are working with other nations to develop a mandate that can be agreed upon in Berlin and can set the course for next steps under the treaty. This will require us all to carefully examine what we each can do to contribute to further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Our goal, in other words, in Berlin is to build a foundation and begin momentum.

Just as there are thresholds in the natural climate system there are also thresholds in the political system. When evidence accumulates to the point where enough people are no longer willing to listen to skeptics that have arguments that are not grounded in the facts, then beyond that threshold, the possibilities for significant action improve dramatically. That is why it is important to develop quality research. We've already begun that process here in the United States, and that will be a part of the process we will follow in the future.

But now is the time to re-launch negotiations and walk more concretely toward the treaty's objective. Now is the time to establish a new negotiating mandate that will allow us to fulfill our responsibilities to future generations -- a mandate that ensures we move forward from the important first steps outlined for the pre-2000 period.

We strongly believe that all nations must participate in this effort. Certainly, industrialized countries who have contributed most of the problem can and should take the lead. And we shall. But we simply cannot ignore the fact that emissions are rising fastest in developing countries, which together now account for almost 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world. We know that industrialized countries have special responsibilities, and we fully support the Convention's call for common but differentiated responsibilities. But we very much want the developing nations to join us at the negotiating table, so that together we can define these common but differentiated responsibilities in the post-2000 era. Not so that alone we can do less, but so that together we can do more -- through trade, technology cooperation, and a host of strategies that offer benefits for all nations.

We also must do a better job of ensuring that nations are matching rhetoric with reality; that we are accountable for what we say we will do. To date, only a handful of nations have put forward clear substantive proposals that move them toward the emission reductions they have enunciated. We must be clear: Good intentions and high- flying rhetoric will not come close to helping us meet the very significant challenges inherent in reducing emissions. What is needed and expected under the treaty is concrete action.

In the negotiations that will follow the Berlin meeting it is imperative that we establish a menu of measures from which to choose strategies for reaching any new aim set for the post-2000 period. Only an analytic phase as part of the negotiating process can provide us with realizable measures, and the realistic understanding of what our expectations and goals should be for the future. But the measures selected must truly achieve emissions reductions, and nations must be prepared to show actions and results.

Finally, we believe that the mandate for negotiations should be concluded as rapidly as possible. We believe that an aggressive, ambitious approach, looking at short-term and long-term goals -- that is for the years 2010 and 2020 -- can be concluded by 1997, when the third conference of the parties will be held. We think this date is a fair one, one that reflects our view of the importance and urgency of the climate change problem and also gives us the lead time to develop and begin to take advantage of new technologies.

On the one hand, we have nations that will be trying to appease strong constituencies in their countries by outbidding the rest of the national community in their pledges to reduce emissions by future actions. But what future generations need is aggressive, measurable and ambitious actions, and not political promises of future actions.

On the other hand, we have political extremists -- some of them in our own country -- who would have the United States evade and ignore tough issues like global climate change, ozone depletion, or any number of threats to human and environmental health. Far outside the mainstream of scientific consensus, they would deny the existence of the problem and seek to prevent the United States from even acknowledging its concern, even though the actions that we envision are good both for the environment and for the economy.

This is an intellectually, politically, and morally bankrupt position which must be resisted. It is similar to the position that was taken for so long by the tobacco industry in the face of mounting medical and scientific evidence about the connection between smoking and lung cancer. To this day, the precise causal relationship and all the details about exactly how smoking causes lung cancer cannot be established with precision. But the relationship is accepted. It is a medical fact. Yet, for so long, those -- some of those with an economic interest in delaying the recognition of that connection argued implausibly that the scientific evidence was questionable, ought to be ignored, was insufficient upon which to base any conclusions.

They were wrong. And those who are now seeking to delay the time at which we recognize the connection between the accumulation of greenhouse gases and global climate change are also wrong. If you think back to the dramatic fires in Kuwait when the oil fields were set ablaze in 1991, all of that carbon pollution put together amounted to less than one percent of what we put into the Earth's environment every year. And that amount continues to increase every year.

We cannot forget that we are now witnessing the most extreme and concerted assault on the environment in history. The core of the socalled Contract with America is a borehole through the heart of the nation's environmental laws and commitments. Buried in arcane rhetoric about regulatory reform is a deliberate attack, widely acknowledged in the popular press, that effectively revokes many of this nation's most important environmental laws from the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act. The President and I don't support this, and will not accept it. The health of our children, the safety of our workers, and the integrity of our environment cannot be so recklessly jeopardized.

Rather than attack environmental initiatives, we hope the Congress will work with us to craft policies that are as environmentally sound as they are economically beneficial.

Let me close by drawing an analogy to the response by the international community to another problem that was similar in some ways to global climate change. That is the problem of ozone depletion. Ten years ago, at about the same stage in the development of scientific knowledge, the nations of the world came together in Montreal to take prudent steps toward protecting the Earth's stratospheric ozone layer. These initial efforts were expanded in the aftermath of a stunning scientific discovery -- a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica which was the size of the North American continent.

After that discovery was confirmed, the world's political system crossed a threshold beyond which it became much easier to secure agreement on the need to act. That led to the London Amendments in 1990, where the world agreed to phase out the most damaging ozone- depleting chemicals, and the subsequent Copenhagen Agreement which accelerated the process by five years. Every American can be proud that the United States helped to lead these efforts politically and scientifically.

As with the ozone issue, nations have agreed on the nature of the climate change threat, and we have taken the first tentative initial steps to thwart that threat. But this is just a beginning. I think we can answer the question that I quoted from Sir Roche* at the beginning of my speech about posterity, and answer it with another Irish sentiment written by the great poet, William Butler Yeats. He wrote, "I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

Unless we tread softly, our dreams for the future will be nothing but dreams. Let us make sure that our next steps are the right ones. Thank you very much. (Applause.)