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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release July 24, 1997
                           AND THE VICE PRESIDENT
                       AT DISCUSSION ON CLIMATE CHANGE

The East Room

1:57 P.M. EDT

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Please be seated ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of the President and the First Lady, it is my pleasure and honor to welcome all of you to the White House. I'm going to present the President in just a moment.

Before doing so, on his behalf, I would like to acknowledge the distinguished guests who are present. I will formally introduce our panel of Nobel laureates and university scientists in just a moment. I want to acknowledge members of the President's Cabinet who are here -- Administrator of the EPA Carol Browner; Secretary of Commerce Bill Daley; Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman; Secretary of Energy Federico Pena; Under Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers; Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency James Lee Witt; Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality Katie McGinty; the President's Science Advisor, Dr. Jack Gibbons, and other distinguished guests who are present. We meet today to discuss the future of our planet and the realities of global climate disruption.

I want to acknowledge one other person who is in the room somewhere and I haven't had a chance to see him yet, but Charles David Keeling is here. And, Dr. Keeling, thank you very much for joining us. And he was responsible, along with one other, in measuring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the very first time back in the last 1950s. And my own introduction to this issue came about as a direct result of the measurements which showed the annual cycle of carbon dioxide and the steadily increasing peaks of concentrations of carbon dioxide, and now, of course, we know other greenhouse gases, as well, that resulted from those measurements.

Later, when I came to the Congress quite a few years after that, in holding hearings I saw that those concentrations had increased dramatically and, of course, all around the world scientists were studying it intensively. And now we will soon hear from these scientists about what the world's scientific conclusion is about what this means for increased droughts and floods, dramatic changes in the distribution of forests and croplands. And all of this gives rise to great concern that we are committing future generations to a planet that is altered in profound ways that can cause great harm to future generations.

This administration has always worked on a simple principle when addressing problems of a scientific and technical nature, and that principle is: Science must inform policy decisions. Scientists are by nature a cautious group, but the world's scientific community is telling us in many ways that they believe that we as a civilization are disrupting the balance of the world's climate. In the words of the 2,000 scientists who participated in the intergovernmental panel on climate change -- and I quote -- "there is a discernable human influence on global climate."

More than 2,600 scientists have signed a letter about global climatic disruption, which we'll be hearing more about in just a few minutes. Today, we hear about the concerns of scientists. They speak as eminent experts and as U.S. citizens who care about the future of this planet. Each has a resume far too long to recount, but let me briefly introduce those who are with us today.

Dr. Sherry Rowland won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his pioneering research in atmospheric chemistry, explaining the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer. He is also a professor at the University of California at Irvine and an official with the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Mario Molina shares the 1995 Nobel Prize with Sherry Rowland. He is the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Science at MIT.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco is an eminent ecologist, past President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, very active with the AAAS, and also past President of the Ecological Society of America. She is currently the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology and a distinguished Professor of Zoology at Oregon State University.

Dr. Stephen Schneider is a climate scientist and professor at Stanford University, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Westinghouse Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology.

Dr. Bob Shope has devoted his professional life to the study of viruses carried by biting insects. He is currently a professor in the Departments of Pathology and Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Texas.

Dr. Henry Kendall won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1990. He is Chairman of the Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the J.A. Stratton Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And John Holdren is an expert on energy and environmental science and delivered the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences. He is currently the Director of the Program on Science, Technology and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Professor of Environmental Science and Public Policy in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard.

And now I would like to introduce the person who is leading our country and the world toward a recognition of what must be done to deal with this issue. It is my honor, ladies and gentlemen, to present the President of the United States, President Bill Clinton. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, first let me thank you for being here -- members of the administration and concerned members of the public, the scientists and other experts that are here.

I would also like to say a special word of thanks to the Vice President. In one of our earliest meetings together -- we meet once a week and have lunch -- he went over the whole history of greenhouse gas emissions and climatic change. And I became convinced first that he was convinced that something was wrong. (Laughter.) Then I became convinced something was wrong. And it's been a great help to me, and I believe, to the people of the United States to have him in the position that he's in not only with the convictions that he has, but with the knowledge that he has. And I'm very grateful to him for what he has done to help me come to grips with this issue.

To me, we have to see this whole issue of climate change in terms of our deepest obligations to future generations. I have spent most of my time in the last four and a half years trying to prepare the American people for a new century and a new millennium. It is also very important that we protect the Earth for that new millennium, to make sure that people will be able to take advantage of all the things we are trying to do, the opportunities we are trying to create, the problems we are trying to solve.

It is obvious that we cannot fulfill our responsibilities to future generations unless we deal responsibly with the challenge of climate change. Whenever the security of our country has been threatened, we have led the world to a better resolution. That is what is at stake here. And the scientists have come here to explain why.

As the Vice President said, the overwhelming balance of evidence and scientific opinion is that it is no longer a theory, but now a fact that global warming is for real. The world scientists believe that if we don't cut our emissions of greenhouse gases, we will disrupt the global climate. In fact, there is ample evidence that human activities are already disrupting the global climate, and that if we stay on our current course, the average global temperatures may rise 2 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit during the next century.

To put that in some context, the difference in average temperature between the last Ice Age, which was 10,000 to 12,000 years ago -- 10,000 to 12,000 years ago -- and today, is about 9 degrees Fahrenheit. So we could have two-thirds of that change in 100 years unless we do something.

If we fail to act, scientists expect that our seas will rise one to three feet, and thousands of square miles here in the United States, in Florida, Louisiana and other coastal areas will be flooded. Infectious diseases will spread to new regions. Severe heat waves will claim lives. Agriculture will suffer. Severe droughts and floods will be more common. These are the things that are reasonably predictable.

In the face of this, the United States must confront a challenge that in some ways is the most difficult of all democracy's challenges to face. That is, we have evidence, we see the train coming, but most ordinary Americans in their day-to-day lives can't hear the whistle blowing. They have no -- unless they have lived in a place where they have experienced severe and unusual and completely atypical weather disruptions in the last five years or so, the degree of the challenge is inconsistent with the actual perceived experience of most ordinary Americans. And this is true, indeed, throughout the world. And that presents us our challenge.

A democracy is premised on the proposition that if the American people, or any people in any democracy, know what the facts are and believe them, way more than half the time they will do the right thing. And so what we are doing today is beginning a process in which we ask the American people to listen to the evidence, to measure it against their own experience, but not to discount the weight of scientific authority if their own experience does not yet confirm what the overwhelming percentage of scientists believe to be fact today. This is a great exercise and a great test for our democracy.

I do want to say that I am convinced that when the nations of world meet in Kyoto, Japan, in December on this issue, the United States has got to be committed to realistic and binding limits on our emissions of greenhouse gases. Between now and then, we have to work with the American people to get them to share that commitment. We have to emphasize flexible market-based approaches. We have to embrace research and development efforts in technology that will help us to improve the economy -- improve the environment while permitting our economy to grow. We have to ask all nations, both industrial and developing, to participate in this process.

But if we do this together, we can defuse this threat. And we can make the 21st century what it ought to be, not only for our children, but for all the children of the world. I believe the science demands that we face this challenge now. I'm positive that we owe it to our children. And I hope that we can find the wisdom and the skill to do democracy's work in the next few months, to build the consensus necessary to actually make action, as opposed to rhetoric, possible.

And for all of you for your commitment to that, I thank you.

And now I'd like to ask Dr. Rowland to be the first of our distinguished scientists to lead off. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: I wish every American could hear what we've heard today. But thanks to our friends in the media, a good number of them will hear at least a portion of what we have heard today. And this is the beginning of a consistent long-term effort that we all have to make to involve the people of this country in this decision. And I thank you all for the points you've made because, in different ways each of them will resonate with citizens of this country in a way that I believe will give us the support we need to take the action that has to be taken.

In the weeks and months ahead, the Vice President, the Cabinet, other members of the administration and I will be out in the country discussing this. We'll be working with the American people; we'll be talking about solutions as well as problems. The truth is, it's like anything else -- the quicker you get -- another answer Dr. Holdren might have given is that the quicker you get after this the less extreme the remedy you have to embrace to have a measurable effect to avoid an undesirable outcome. And the longer you wait, the more disruptive the ultimate resolution will be. So that's another thing that I'd like to emphasize.

Before we close I hope you will permit me to make a brief statement. Just before I came in here to this meeting I learned that today, and not very long ago, retired Supreme Court Justice William Brennan passed away. He was a remarkable human being, one of the finest and most influential jurists in our nation's history. He served on the Supreme Court for 34 years. He was perhaps during that period the staunchest, most effective defender of individual freedom against government intrusion.

His devotion to the Bill of Rights inspired millions of Americans and countless young law students, including myself. And one of the great honors I have had as President was to be able to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in my first year in office.

He once said, the role of the Constitution is the protection of the dignity of every human being and the recognition that every individual has fundamental rights which government cannot deny. He spent a lifetime upholding those rights, and he authored some of the most enduring constitutional decisions of this century, including Baker v. Carr on one person, one vote; The New York Times v. Sullivan, which brought the free speech doctrine into the latter half of the 20th century. The force of his ideas, the strength of his leadership and his character have safeguarded freedom and widened the circle of quality for every single one of us.

We will miss him greatly. And I know you join me in sending our best wishes and our prayers to his family and friends, and our gratitude for his life.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

END 3:05 P.M. EDT