THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT DURING PRESENTATIONS AT WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCE ON CLIMATE CHANGE
Georgetown University Washington, D.C.
THE PRESIDENT: Isn't there some evidence already that malaria in nations and areas where it presently exists is becoming more prevalent and moving to higher climate?
DR. LIVERMAN: Yes, there is some evidence that, for example, there is more malaria at higher elevations in some developing countries, and certainly there is some more anecdotal evidence of malaria moving into the United States. That's partly climate, but it's also because we have a much more mobile population today than we had in the past.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me ask you one other question, because -- let me go back to what I said in the beginning. This is one of the most difficult problems of democracy because we get 100 percent of the people to agree that it exists, and only 10 percent of the people have experienced it and another 10 percent of the people can imagine it and, therefore, are willing to deal with it. You still have to have to have 51 percent in order to develop any kind of political consensus for doing anything, I think, commensurate with the need.
So would you say -- I have -- and I know this happens to a lot of people -- but I had a number of people -- I had a young congressman in to see me the other day who was a member of the Republican Party and he said, you know, in my state we've had 300 year floods in 10 years. I met a man over my vacation who said that he was moving away from the place he had lived for a decade because it was a completely different place than it had been just 10 years ago; it was hotter, there were more mosquitoes, it was a very different and difficult place.
Do you believe that these anecdotal experiences are likely related to climate change, or are they just basically people's imagination?
DR. LIVERMAN: No, I actually think there is a scientific basis for these perceptions of climate change; there's such an area I did research in. And we've done very carefully structured scientific surveys of farmers and of city dwellers that show that many people do believe that the climate is changing -- whether it's a farmer in Mexico or a resident of Los Angeles. We have a lot of studies where people do believe it's changing, and in many cases it correlates with the type of observed temperature changes that Tom Karl talks about.
So my feeling from my own work interviewing people is that many people in this country do think that the climate is changing and are concerned about it.
THE PRESIDENT: Dr. Karl, do you want to say anything?
DR. KARL: Yes, actually I think the anecdotal evidence is consistent with the notion that although no single event is the basis for saying global warming is taking place, if you look at many of -- in fact, I have a number of statistics you might find of some interest here. Just during 1996 , we had six states that set their all-time annual precipitation amount -- not to belabor it, but totals like 16 feet of rainfall in Oregon during the year 1996; over eight feet of precipitation and Mt. Mansfield in Vermont, and there are a number of other records like this.
These are the types of things that certainly have an impact and I think people remember.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: If I could add a word to this, I noted earlier James Lee Witt, who is head of FEMA here, he and I have gone out, as he and the President have gone out frequently to the sites of these disasters, and the budget for the consequences for the flooding event and the other disaster events as well now reaches an average of $1 billion a week in the United States.
You mentioned, Doctor, about malaria. One scientist was telling us recently about a case of malaria that showed up in Detroit during a month when the average temperature was a full six degrees warmer than the 30-year average, and while of course you can't again say that's the cause and that's the effect, the odds of diseases of that kind, as Secretary Donna Shalala who is here, has told us, increase quite dramatically.
The other thing I wanted to ask just briefly is, in terms of the effects on human beings. The weather forecasters who were at the White House last week talk about the heat index, the combination of temperatures and humidity. And your presentation followed right on Dr. Tom Karl's, and somebody was saying that the heat index here in Washington, D.C., by the middle of the next century is predicted to go from -- do you know the numbers, Dr. Karl?
DR. KARL: I think it's up to 105 or 110. I don't know the exact numbers, but --
DR. LIVERMAN: It's under 100 now, and it's going to go to about 105 on average, they think, during the summer months.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we'll get some more on that. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: We certainly will. (Laughter.) One reason I believe this is occurring is that James Lee Witt is the only member of my Cabinet who is actually disappointed when his budget goes up. (Laughter.) And he's had a lot of disappointments these last five years.
I'd like to now call on Donald Wilhite to talk about the relationship -- we've heard about increased precipitation and I'd like to ask him to talk about drought and the apparent paradox in drought patterns and increased precipitation patterns and what implications this might have for American agriculture, which is a terribly important part of our economy and we have all been counting on it being a very important part of our export economy for the indefinite future.
DR. WILHITE: Thank you, Mr. President, Mr. Vice President. I was asked to talk a little bit about -- give the dry talk, I guess, of the presentation. (Laughter.) Each drought event I think is a vivid reminder of our nation's continuing vulnerability to climactic variations. If one can remember the severe drought of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, those resulted in severe economic and environmental consequences in many parts of the country.
In 1988, for example, nearly 50 percent of this nation was affected by severe drought and resulted in excesses of $15 billion in agricultural losses in this country; a very dramatic number. In 1996 we had a reoccurrence of drought in the Southwestern United States, and this also resulted in severe economic and environmental losses, a higher incidence of forest fires and so forth. This also is of concern. In the state of Texas alone, impacts were in excess of $5 billion.
Now, American agriculture, while technologically advanced, is still subject to the sensitivity of weather conditions or the vagaries of weather, the slide that's up on the screen now shows a dramatic upward trend in corn yields since 1950 in the United States. But note the deviations on that trend. Those deviations are largely the result of variations in climate or extreme weather conditions. Most of those are the result of drought events, some of those are the result of excessively wet events which delayed or hampered spring planting.
Drought also is of high incidence in a normal part of the climate in virtually all portions of the country. This next diagram shows the incidence of drought in the United States over the last 10 years. So while it's true we've had maybe an increase in precipitation, I think it's interesting to note from this slide which shows the number of years experiencing moderate, severe or extreme drought in the last 10, that while you have a rather surprisingly large area in the Western United States that shows a high incidence of drought, we are also demonstrating the high incidence of drought in the Great Plains states, in the Southwest, in the Midwest and also along the Eastern Coastal states.
So drought is clearly a phenomena that affects all portions of the nation, not just the Western United States. So that projected increases in temperature and a possible accelerated water cycle that we've been hearing about this morning may lead to changes in both the amount and the seasonal distribution of precipitation which may alter then the incidence of drought events and also flood events in this country.
So while we don't know precisely what the regional impacts of climate change may be, as Dr. Liverman was speaking about a few moments ago, we do know the impacts associated with these extreme weather events, and we also know where our vulnerabilities are as a result of this. And I think it's prudent that we sort of assess what our vulnerabilities are and use these as a way to reduce the impacts of drought events and flood events today that will help us in the future.
THE PRESIDENT: I want to ask a question and try to make sure that are all as clear as we can be based on what is known about two apparently contradictory things. That is that the total volume of precipitation has increased virtually everywhere and the number and severity of droughts has increased across the country.
Now, Dr. Karl said earlier that part of the explanation is that the precipitation we're getting is coming in bigger bursts. But what I would like to do is have somebody offer basically a line of explanation that everyone in the audience and hopefully those who will be following these proceedings can understand, why did it happen at the same time that we had more drought and more floods? How could we have more droughts when the aggregate amount of precipitation on an annual basis was increased? And I think it's important that people kind of "get" why that happens.
DR. WILHITE: Well, I'll take a first shot at that. First of all, the increased precipitation amount that Tom Karl was referencing earlier, a lot of this increased precipitation is coming in the form of short-term, intense precipitation events which leads to very high runoff. So there's not a lot of moisture that goes into the soil.
Secondly, increasing temperatures tends to increase evaporation and, therefore, the resulting impact of that is soil drying. So you have a combination of these things going on that help to explain this paradox.
THE PRESIDENT: So I think that's important. When the temperatures warm, they dry the soil and create the conditions for the floods simultaneously.
DR. WILHITE: That's correct.
THE PRESIDENT: And because these floods don't wash away the soil, rather than sink down into the soil, you get very little benefit out of them, and farmers lose a lot of topsoil.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me ask you a follow-up question, and perhaps someone else would like to answer. But I think it's important again -- and forgive -- for those of you in the audience who know a lot more about this than I do, you will have to forgive me, but I'm also trying to imagine how this is going to be absorbed by our nation and by people who will be following this.
It appears that we are headed into a powerful El Nino, and I wonder if one of you would just simply very briefly explain what that is and whether you believe there is a link between the power of the El Nino and climate change.
DR. WATSON: Yes. Every two to seven years we have a phenomena called "the El Nino phenomena." The ocean temperatures off South America in the Pacific warm up and they effectively have a large-scale effect on temperature patterns and precipitation patterns throughout the world. You get heavy rainfall in Peru, a drought in Northeast Brazil, a drought in Zimbabwe, and major effects in countries such as Australia.
One of the questions we have to ask ourselves is, are these En Nino events changing? What we've observed in the last 20 years is we've now had the largest, most intense El Nino in 1982 and it's looking like the one we have now may well be the most intense of the last 200 years. The question is, are we changing the frequency and the magnitude of these so-called El Nino events because of global warming? We don't know. But just like there are more floods at the moment and more droughts throughout the world, it is interesting to note that as the greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing, it does appear that the frequency and magnitude of these El Nino events also seems to be changing, and they have profound effects, as I said earlier, both on temperature and precipitation truly around the globe.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I would just like to comment on your remarks concerning the skeptic. I personally believe we've had experience with a form of skepticism that I think is similar to this before. In 1964, the scientific community through the Surgeon General's report said that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer. And for the last 33 years, up until this summer, the CEOs of the tobacco companies said with a straight face and seemingly no embarrassment, there is no link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. Some scientists say even today the exact causal relationship is very difficult to pin down because science can't answer all of the questions. But it's abundantly obvious that it does, and the President's been leading our country's fight on that issue. And, thank goodness, eventually, the weight of the pinion got to be such that most everybody except this very, very tiny band became embarrassed to parrot that line anymore. I think that the weight of evidence here is in the same category.
THE PRESIDENT: We've got to wrap up the first panel and get on to the next one, but I'd like to ask -- I think I'd like to ask, John, you to respond to this. If anyone else wishes to, you're welcome to. I think there is a more sophisticated question to be asked, although the Vice President is right, there still are some people who claim that this scientific case that I have been completely persuaded by has not been made. I think the more difficult argument, John, goes something like this: Look, you put all this stuff in the atmosphere and it stays there for 100 years at least, and maybe longer, and so what's the hurry?
In a democracy, it's very hard to artificially impose things on people they can't tangibly feel, and so why shouldn't we just keep on rocking along with the kind of technological progress we're making now until there really is both better scientific information and completely painless technological fixes that are apparent to all? Why shouldn't we just wait until all doubt has been resolved and hopefully we have even better technology? Because, after all, the full impact of whatever we do if we start tomorrow won't be felt for a decade and maybe even for a century.
Number one, if that's true, how quickly could we lower the temperature of the planet below what it otherwise would be; and, number two, what about the argument on the merits?
DR. HOLDREN: Mr. President, let me take a try at addressing that. It's clear that the task that you and other policymakers face in this situation is a tough one. Business as usual is what most people are comfortable with. The difficulty is that our health and our economic well-being are more dependent on climate than most people think.
Human disruption of climate by greenhouse gas emissions is almost certainly further along than most people think, and directly addressing the point you were just making, reducing greenhouse gas emissions enough to avert much larger disruption than experienced so far is going to be more difficult than most people think. And the longer we wait, the more we coast up that business-as-usual trajectory, the more old-style technologies are going to be in place in this country and around the world and the harder it is going to be to get off of that track.
The goal of the framework convention on climate change to which the United States is a party was ratified by the United States Senate in 1992 is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that prevents dangerous human interference in the climate system.
Now, there is no formal agreement yet about what constitutes dangerous interference, but I know of very few analysts who have looked seriously at the impact side of this question who think that going beyond twice the preindustrial carbon dioxide concentration is anything other than very dangerous. That would be about 550 parts per million, compared to 365 parts per million today, 280 parts per million preindustrial, and you saw earlier a simulation of the considerable temperature changes that that would entail.
Now, the problem is that stopping even at that 550 part per million level, twice preindustrial, is not going to be easy. The curves that are on the screen now show future world emissions of carbon dioxide under business as usual, which is the reddish line at the top, and then under three trajectories that would stabilize the concentration at levels ranging from 350 parts per million on the bottom -- a little less than today's -- to 750 parts per million on the highest of the lines that bend over; another orange one.
The green one in the middle is the 550 parts per million trajectory, the trajectory that stabilizes at twice preindustrial CO2. Now, that lowest trajectory might be the most desirable from the standpoint of giving us the greatest assurance of avoiding climatic changes that we really won't like, but it's virtually not practical to get to that, and we're already past the point where we can get to that trajectory. In fact, if you could see the scale more clearly, you would see that that one requires the emissions to go negative early in the next century, which is particularly difficult to manage.
Now, the green trajectory that stabilizes at a doubling of preindustrial carbon dioxide concentrations requires that global emissions -- global emissions, not U.S., but worldwide including the developing countries, start to decline already in about the year 2030, and they do that from a peak in which average per capita emissions worldwide would be only one-fifth of U.S. per capita emissions today. That's going to be very hard to do and if we're going to do it we need to start working on it today.
The problem basically is that the world energy economic system is a lot like a supertanker under full power; it's got huge momentum in the direction it's heading, it's very hard to steer, it's got very bad brakes.
The science that has been summarized here this morning is telling us that the supertanker is headed for a reef. We can tell the water is getting shallower under the hull; even if we can't say exactly how far we can go before the reef rips the bottom out of that tanker. Now, in that situation, full speed ahead is clearly the wrong course. We need to start slowing and steering away from the reef of unmanageable degrees of climate change now. And since we're all in the same supertanker, industrialized and less developed countries together, we had better find ways to slow and to steer cooperatively rather than bickering over who is holding the wheel.
We've got a lot of tools available to help us with that steering effort. There are advanced technologies already on the shelf that can help us dramatically increase the efficiency of energy and use and can reduce sharply the emissions of carbon dioxide from energy supply. We need only some sensible attention to reducing the barriers to the more rapid and widespread diffusion of those advanced technologies already on the shelf and there are new technologies that can be brought to the point of applicability with expanded research and development that would make increased energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions even more cost-effective.
But now I'm basically getting into parts of the story that other panels are going to deal with later today and I'll leave that to them.
THE PRESIDENT: But I do want to make the following points. Number one, we can't get to the green line unless there is a global agreement that involves both the developing and the developed countries. Number two, however, that's not an excuse for us to do nothing because if we do something it will be better than it would have been otherwise because we're still the biggest contributor and will be until sometime well into the next century.
And, number three, based on everything we know, it will be easier in some ways, particularly if they get the financial help they need, for developing countries to choose a different energy future in the first place than it will be for the developed countries to make the adjustments, which is not to say we don't have to make the adjustments, but to say that I have read a lot of the press coverage and people saying, oh, well, we're just using this for an excuse or we're not being fair to them or we don't want them to have a chance to grow. That is not true.
The United States cannot maintain and enhance its own standard of living unless the developing nations grow and grow rapidly. We support that. But they can choose a different energy future, and that has to be a part of this, but it's not an excuse for us to do nothing, because whatever we do we're going to make it better for ourselves and for the rest of the world than it otherwise would have been.
But I think it's important to point out what John showed us there on the green line. The green line -- it requires -- to reach the green line, we have to have a worldwide action plan.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me just say before we go on to the transportation sector, these presentations have been quite important. I remember 20 years ago, more or less -- maybe a little less now, I can't remember exactly when -- the Congress voted, or the federal government at least required -- it might have been a regulatory action -- that the new power plants not use natural gas anymore and that we phase out of them because we grossly underestimated how much natural gas we had and we thought we could go to clean coal because we didn't want to build nuclear plants for all the reasons that were clear.
And one of the biggest problems we face now in trying to make a reasoned judgment about how quickly we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and by how much, is the need not to be unfair to electric utilities that have billions of dollars invested in government-approved power plants that they have not yet fully amortized.
Therefore, insofar -- and this applies both to buildings and to the utilities themselves about which these two speakers have spoken. You can either conserve more in the production of electricity or you can have the people who consume it conserve more or you can change the basis on which the plants work, which is the most expensive way to do it. Therefore, insofar as we can do more in terms of how much electricity people use or how much waste heat you recover, either one of those things is a far preferable -- far preferable alternative than to change the basis on which plants that have already been built are being amortized, and will generate huge amounts of saving at lower costs if we can do it.
At the end of this session, we'll get around to sort of the skeptical economist's take on the technological fix. We'll get around to that later. But I just think it's important that we focus on this specific issue, because if our goal is to minimize economic dislocation, then having conservation by the end users, the people who have the buildings, for example, whether their manufacturers or residential buildings or otherwise business buildings, and having recovery of waste heat are clear, I think, the preferable alternatives and clearly the less expensive alternatives.
I'd like to call on Mary Good now, who was the Under Secretary of Commerce for Technology in our administration for four years and now is the managing member of Venture Capital Investors. I want her to talk a little bit about the potential for technological advances to reduce emissions in the transportation sector and to focus particularly on the partnership for new generation vehicles that we've been working on with the auto companies and the UAW since this administration took office, and Mary had a lot to do with it.
There is also a huge debate here about how much we can do how quickly, and we have to make the best judgment about this in determining what to say about where we are in Kyoto, because transportation, as Secretary Pena said, occupies such a large part of this whole equation.
So, Mary, have at it. Tell me what I should say in Japan on my visit.
THE PRESIDENT: I just wanted to make two brief points. The leaders of the Big Three auto companies and the UAW came in to see us last week, and they said they're going to meet their Partnership for the Next Generation Vehicle goal. The real problem is, once they develop a prototype, how quickly can it be mass-produced and how will people buy it, and will they buy it at present fuel prices. We'll come back to that at the end.
But one related question to that is, given Americans buying habits and consumer preferences, don't we have to include these light trucks and even heavy trucks in this Partnership for the Next Generation Vehicle; don't we have to achieve significant fuel efficiencies there as well if we have any hope of succeeding here.
The only point I want to make, Mary, is, you know, I'm big on all kinds of fast rail research, but I hope tomorrow's headline isn't "Clinton Advocates More Research on Levitation." (Laughter.) I don't need that.
MS. GOOD: We'll have to explain it to them better.
THE PRESIDENT: I'd like to call on Michael Bonsignore now to talk about the energy savings available through the use of more high-efficiency products and systems, and also the potential for environmental technology exports. What he has to say and how applicable and expandable you believe it is has a lot to do with whether this transition we're going through will be an economic plus, a drag, or a wash. I personally have always believed it would be a plus if we did it right. But I'd like to ask Michael to talk about that.
THE PRESIDENT: We need to wrap up; we're running a little bit late. But I wanted to just give everyone an opportunity to comment on this. Mason was the only person, I think, who explicitly said that in order to make this transition we need to raise the price of carbon-based products. One of the difficulties we're having within the administration in reaching a proper judgment about what position to stake out in Kyoto relates to how various people are responding, frankly, to the recommendations and the findings of the people coming out of the energy labs, because they say, hey, look, what we know already shows you that we have readily available technologies and courses of action which would take a huge hunk out of -- right now, with no great increased cost -- a huge hunk out of any attempt to, let's say, flatten our greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels.
We just heard about it today. Look what you could do with power plants. You can recapture the waste heat, two-thirds of that. You can make buildings and manufacturing facilities and residences much more energy efficient. You can make transportation much more energy efficient. Besides that, we've got all these alternative sources of fuel for electricity and transportation. I mean, it's all out there; this is what we know now.
And then sooner or later, we're going to have the Partnership for the Next Generation Vehicle. So the question is always, though, who will buy this stuff. Right now, you can buy light bulbs -- every one of us could have every light bulb in our home, right now, every single one of them -- we'd have to pay 60 percent more for the light bulb, but it would have three times the useful life. Therefore, you just work it out, we'd pay more up front, we'd save more money in the long run, and we'd use a whole lot less carbon. And why don't we do it? Why do we have any other kind of light bulbs in our homes?
And that is the simplest example of the nature of the debate we are now having. That is, in terms of get from here to where we want to go, do we have to either raise the price of the product -- there are only three or four things you can do -- you can raise the price of the product to the consumers; you can lower the price of the alternative thing you wish to be bought by the consumers; you can create some new business opportunity through some market permit trading, other market option or otherwise change the business environment the way we do electric deregulation, for example; or you can somehow increase the awareness of consumers of what their options are and the consequences of that, and hope that they will behave in a different way. I think those are the four categories of possibilities.
And if you choose an ambitious target, then, if the requirement is more -- to reach the target is almost exclusively on the front end -- that is, you have to raise the price to the consumer or the business involved -- the businesses may be a consumer -- if it happens too quickly, you're going to do economic damage on the one hand, on the other hand there is no way in the world this Senate will ratify our participation in Kyoto. So we'll be out there -- it will be a grand gesture, but it won't happen.
Therefore, we have got to know how much we can do through a combination of price -- you might be able to get some price changes, particularly going back to what Mike says on the real price of energy -- particularly if it was not a net tax increase, you wouldn't have to have a net -- there are a lot of other ways to do this. But we have to be able to get something out of either lowering the cost of the alternative, creating new business markets, or increasing consumer awareness of what is right there for them now and what the consequences are. We can't do it all on the front end and expect realistically -- if all we do on the Consumer Price Index, raising the price of coal, raising the price of oil to the real consumer, and that's all we do, we are not going to get what we want to do in the time allotted to get it because it either won't pass the Senate or it won't pass muster with the American people.
So we have to be able to access what the Energy Department tells us is there for all to see in other ways. And I don't know if any of you want to comment on that, but this is not a question of whether you're brave or not or all that, it's really a question of what we can get done and what realistically is going to happen in America.
But I'm plagued by the example of the light bulb I have in my living room of the White House that I read under at night, and I ask myself, why isn't every light bulb in the White House like this. I use this when -- I get so tickled -- I go in and turn it on and I measure how much longer it takes to really light up, but I know it's going to be there long -- you know? (Laughter.) And I say, why am I so irresponsible that I have not put this in every light bulb? Why are we not all doing this?
So when you get right down to it, now, this is where the rubber meets the road. We have to make a decision, a commitment; it has to be meaningful. I'm convinced that the Energy Department lab people are absolutely right, but the skeptics on my economic team said, there will not be perfect substitution, they're not going to do it.
So if you want to say anything about that, you can, but when you get right down to it, that's where -- all the decisions are going to be made based on our best judgment about what kind of markets we can create for the private sector, what kind of substitution there is, and whether we can -- how quickly we can move to alternative energy sources that people will actually access.
THE PRESIDENT: I strongly agree with that, pushing that. And, again, I say that does not let us off the hook to do things here at home, it just makes good sense. It's easier for -- we should give these other countries a chance to choose an alternative path.
I never will forget a couple of years ago -- I know we've got to wrap up -- but I had a fascinating conversation with the President of China a couple of years ago, and we were discussing what our future would be and weather we wished to contain China. And I said, I don't wish to contain China, I said, the biggest security threat China presents the United States is that you will insist on getting rich the same way we did. And he looked at me, and I could tell he had never thought of that. And I said, you have to choose a different future, and we have to help. We have to support you. And that does not in any way let us off the hook. But it just means that we have to do this together.
Well, this has been fascinating. You guys have been great, and I thank you a lot. (Applause.)