[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1997, Book II)]
[October 6, 1997]
[Pages 1296-1301]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

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

[The first panel discussion on the science of global warming and climate 
change is joined in progress.]

    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 climates?

[At this point, Diana Liverman, chair, National Academy of Sciences 
Committee on Human Dimensions of Climate Change, confirmed increases in 
malaria in developing countries and in the United States due to climate 
change and population mobility.]

    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 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 three 100-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 cited surveys on perceptions of climate change which 
correlated with observed temperature changes.]

    The President. Dr. Karl, do you want to say anything?

[Thomas Karl, senior scientist, National Climatic Data Center, National 
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, mentioned statistics showing 
record precipitation in six States in 1996. The Vice President commented 
on budget increases related to flooding and other disasters, and then 
asked about the predicted heat index for Washington, DC, in the next 

    Dr. Karl. I think it's up to 105 or 110. I don't know the exact 
numbers, but----

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    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 5 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.

[Donald Wilhite, director, National Drought Mitigation Center, 
University of Nebraska, discussed the impact of drought on U.S. 
agricultural production.]

    The President. I want to ask a question and try to make sure that we 
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 explained that increased intense precipitation resulted in 
very high runoff, and increased temperatures resulted in increased 
evaporation and soil drying.]

    The President. So I think that's important. When the temperatures 
warm, they dry the soil and create the conditions for the floods 
    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 discussion continued.]

    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.

[Robert Watson, Director for Environment, World Bank, and Chair, 
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, explained the effects of the 
El Nino phenomena on temperature and precipitation patterns throughout 
the world. The Vice President then noted the similarity between 
attitudes toward global warming and past skepticism concerning the 
detrimental effects of tobacco.]

    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? And 
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

[[Page 1298]]

all doubt has been resolved and hopefully we have even better 
technology--and because, after all, the full impact of whatever we do if 
we start tomorrow won't be felt for decades and maybe even for a 
    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?

[John Holdren, member, President's Council of Advisors on Science and 
Technology, and professor, Harvard University, used graphs to 
demonstrate the need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in 
the atmosphere as soon as possible in order to avoid unmanageable 
degrees of climate change in the future.]

    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 
    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.

[Following conclusion of the first panel discussion, the second panel 
discussion on the role of technology in reducing greenhouse gas 
emissions is joined in progress.]

    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 
powerplants 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 
powerplants 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 they're manufacturers or residential 
buildings or otherwise business buildings, and having recovery of waste 
heat are clearly, I think, the preferable

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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 4 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 discussion continued.]

    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 other 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 discussion continued.]

    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 powerplants. 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 3 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 
    And that is the simplest example of the nature of the debate we are 
now having. That is, in order to get from here to where we want to go, 
do we have to either raise the price of

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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 to 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. And 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--Mike said this, too, 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 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 at 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 discussion continued.]

    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 
whether 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.

[[Page 1301]]

Note: The President spoke at approximately 11 a.m. in Gaston Hall. In 
his remarks, he referred to Michael Bonsignore, chairman and chief 
executive officer, Honeywell, Inc.; Mason Willrich, chairman of the 
board, EnergyWorks, L.L.C.; and President Jiang Zemin of China.