[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1997, Book II)]
[October 6, 1997]
[Pages 1293-1296]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Opening Remarks at the White House Conference on Climate Change
October 6, 1997

    Thank you very much. Thank you, Mr. Vice President, for your remarks 
and your remarkable leadership to help us keep our Earth in the balance. 
Thank you, Father O'Donovan, for letting me come home to Georgetown one 
more time to discuss a matter of immense importance to America and its 
future. I thank the Members of Congress and the members of the Cabinet 
and the administration who are here, all those who have agreed to serve 
on the panels, and all you who have come to be part of this important 
    Six years ago last Friday--I can hardly believe it, but it was 6 
years ago last Friday that I announced my intention to run for 
President, challenging America to embrace and to vigorously pursue a 
vision of our country for the 21st century: to make the American dream 
alive for every person responsible to work for it, to keep our country 
the world's strongest force for peace and freedom and prosperity, to 
bring our people together across all the lines that divide us into one 
    Shortly afterward I came here to Georgetown to this great hall to 
outline specific strategies and new policies to achieve that vision, 
rooted in our values of opportunity and responsibility, faith and family 
and community, designed to help Americans seize the opportunities and 
solve the problems of this new age. It was clear to me that our new 
direction had to be rooted in some basic guideposts, that we had to be 
oriented toward the future, not the past; toward change, not the status 
quo; toward partnership, not division; toward giving all a chance, not 
just the few; and finally toward making sure America leads, not follows.

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    We tried to develop a new approach to Government, where we didn't 
claim to do everything and we wouldn't tolerate doing nothing but 
instead we focused on giving people the tools to make the most of their 
own lives and creating the conditions that would allow them to succeed.
    And we had new policies, the economic policies and trade policies, 
education policy, crime and welfare, policies toward the working poor, 
policies to bolster families and help them balance work and 
childrearing, policies in health care and foreign policy, and yes, 
policies in the environment.
    In the last 4 years and 8 months, I think it's fair to say that, 
together, we have made real progress toward that vision for the 21st 
century. We stand at the threshold of that century stronger than most 
people thought was possible back in 1991, with our economy thriving, our 
social fabric mending, our leadership in the world strong. We have a 
solid foundation of achievement on which to stand as we take on the 
remaining challenges to build that bridge to the 21st century.
    We are back here at Georgetown today because global climate change 
clearly is one of the most important of those challenges and also one of 
the most complex, crossing the disciplines of environmental science, 
economics, technology, business, politics, international development, 
and global diplomacy, affecting how we and all others on this planet 
will live, support our families, grow our food, produce our energy, and 
realize our dreams in the new century.
    That's why we've put together this White House Conference on Climate 
Change, bringing together experts and leaders with a wide range of 
knowledge and a wide range of views. People of good will bring to this 
conference many honest disagreements about the nature of the threat we 
face and how we should respond. That is healthy in a democracy like 
ours. My hope is that we will take advantage of this forum to actually 
talk with each other rather than past each other. For it is our 
responsibility to work together to achieve two vital and compatible 
goals, ensuring the continued vitality of our planet and expanding 
economic growth and opportunity for our people.
    Despite the complexities of these challenges, we have good reason to 
be optimistic, beginning with our 220-year record of making all manner 
of difficult problems solvable and, importantly, a very good record in 
the last generation of environmental progress. For in the last 
generation alone, we came together to heed Rachel Carson's warnings and 
banned DDT and other poisons. We cleaned up rivers so filthy they were 
catching on fire, phased out lead in gasoline and chemicals that were 
eating a hole in the ozone layer. We worked with citizens to conserve 
the headwaters forest of Northern California, restore the Florida 
Everglades, protect Yellowstone National Park from the assaults of 
mining, in each case proving that environmental stewardship does not 
have to hamstring economic growth.
    Indeed, in tackling the difficult task of cutting sulfur dioxide 
emissions with an innovative system of permit trading, the United States 
is well ahead of the schedule we set for ourselves and well below the 
projected cost in cleaning the environment. I believe we find that same 
common ground as we address the challenge of climate change.
    Before we begin our discussion today, I think it's important for me 
to explain the four principles that will guide my approach to this 
issue. First, I'm convinced that the science of climate change is real. 
We'll hear more about this today from our first panel. But for me the 
bottom line is that, although we do not know everything, what we do know 
is more than enough to warrant responsible action.
    The great majority of the world's climate scientists have concluded, 
if we don't cut our emission of greenhouse gases, temperatures will rise 
and will disrupt the global climate. In fact, most scientists say this 
process has already begun. I might add that I had nothing to do with 
scheduling this conference on the day which is predicted to be the 
hottest October 6th that we have ever had in Washington, DC. [Laughter]
    I know not everyone agrees on how to interpret the scientific 
conclusions. I know not everyone shares my assessment of the risks. But 
I think we all have to agree that the potential for serious climate 
disruption is real. It would clearly be a grave mistake to bury our 
heads in the sand and pretend the issue will go away.
    The second principle is that when the nations of the world meet in 
December in Kyoto, Japan, we must be prepared to commit to realistic and 
binding goals on our emissions of greenhouse gases. With 4 percent of 
the world's population, we enjoy more than 20 percent of the world's 
wealth, which helps to explain why we also produce more than 20 percent 
of the world's

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greenhouse gases. If we expect other nations to act on the problem, we 
must show leadership.
    The third principle is that we must embrace solutions that will 
allow us to continue to grow our economy as we honor our global 
responsibilities and our responsibilities to our children. We've worked 
far too hard to revitalize the American dream to jeopardize our progress 
now. Therefore, we must emphasize flexible market-based approaches. We 
must work with business and industry to find the right ways to reduce 
greenhouse gas emissions. We must promote technologies that make energy 
production and consumption more efficient.
    There are many people here today from companies that are addressing 
the climate change in innovative ways, taking steps that will save money 
for American families even as we reduce the threat of global warming. 
For example, a number of leading electric utilities, including AEP, 
Southern Company, Niagara Mohawk, and Northern States Power, are working 
with homeowners to promote a new technology called geo-exchange, using 
geothermal pumps to heat and cool homes far more cheaply than 
traditional systems while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 
percent or more. Ballard Power and United Technologies are leading 
pioneers in developing fuel cells that are so clean, their only exhaust 
is distilled water. Right now, Ballard is working with Chrysler, 
Mercedes Benz, and Toyota to introduce fuel cells into new cars. Both of 
these technologies represent the kind of creative solutions that will 
make our job easier.
    The fourth principle is that we must expect all nations, both 
industrialized and developing, to participate in this process in a way 
that is fair to all. It is encouraging that so many nations in so many 
parts of the world are developing so rapidly. That is good news for 
their people, and it is good for America's economic future. But as we've 
seen right here at home, rising energy demands that accompany economic 
development traditionally have meant large increases in greenhouses gas 
emissions. In fact, if current trends continue, emissions from the 
developing world will likely eclipse those from the developed world in 
the next few decades.
    But they have an opportunity to pursue a different future without 
sacrificing economic growth. The industrialized world alone cannot 
assume responsibility for reducing emissions. Otherwise, we'll wind up 
with no reduction in emissions within a matter of a few decades. In 
Kyoto, therefore, we will ask for meaningful but equitable commitments 
from all nations. Second, we must explore new ways for American 
businesses to help these rapidly growing countries to meet their 
developmental needs with cleaner and more efficient energy technologies.
    Today I hope we can take a step forward in putting all four of these 
principles into effect. We have studied this issue long enough to know 
that there are sensible options for action. It is our job now to pull 
them together into a coherent plan.
    Nearly three decades ago when the Apollo astronauts first went to 
the Moon, we gained an entirely new perspective on the global challenge 
we face today. For looking down on Earth from the vantage point that 
revealed no political boundaries or divisions, the astronauts had the 
same chilling sensation. They were simply awestruck by how tiny and 
fragile our planet is, protected from the harsh void of space by an 
atmosphere that looked as thin and delicate as the skin of an onion. 
Every astronaut since has experienced the same insight, and they've even 
given it a name, the Overview Effect. It has instilled in each new 
astronaut a passion to convince people we must work together on Earth's 
behalf. Rusty Schweickart has said, ``You realize that on that little 
blue-and-white thing, there is everything that means anything to you, 
all history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, 
all of it on that little spot out there you can cover with your thumb.''
    To the best of my knowledge, only one person here has actually 
experienced the Overview Effect firsthand, Dr. Mae Jemison, a former 
shuttle astronaut and current international development expert who will 
participate in our third panel discussion this afternoon. Nonetheless, I 
challenge everyone in this room to rise to a vantage point high enough 
to experience the Overview Effect. It will enable us to reach common 
    Let me say when the Vice President was talking and Father O'Donovan 
was talking, I was looking around this old hall that I have loved for so 
long, and I found it utterly amazing that I first came here 33 years 
ago. I was reading this morning up at Camp David the list of people who 
were going to be here today, and I found it utterly amazing that a few 
of you I first talked to as long as 20 years ago about the need to build 
an alternative energy future

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for America. And I find it completely amazing that five-eighths of my 
Presidency is behind me.
    I make these points for this reason: If you think about the 
benchmarks in your own life, it doesn't take long to live your life. And 
what seems at the beginning of your life a very long time, seems to have 
passed in the flash of an eye once you have experienced it. These great 
developments, such as the one we're here to talk about today, occur over 
many life spans. And popular democracies are far more well-organized to 
take advantage of opportunities or deal with immediate crises than they 
are to do the responsible thing, which is to take a moderate but 
disciplined approach far enough in advance of a train coming down the 
track to avoid leaving our children and our grandchildren with a 
    So I ask you to think about that. We do not want the young people 
who sat on these steps today, for whom 33 years will also pass in the 
flash of an eye, to have to be burdened or to burden their children with 
our failure to act.
    Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:30 a.m. in Gaston Hall at Georgetown 
University. In his remarks, he referred to Father Leo J. O'Donovan, 
president, Georgetown University; and Apollo astronaut Russell L.