Former president Bill Clinton chided supporters to stop “bellyaching and whining” about the political obstacles and begin a new effort to address the intertwined problems of energy dependence and global warming.
Speaking at a day-long symposium he sponsored at New York University, the former president said he was distressed that the energy issue’s link with both national security and environmental degradation received “almost no serious discussion” among the candidates or the media in the just-ended presidential campaign, even though this “may have a bigger impact on America and the world than virtually all the things that were debated.”
Clinton has vowed to use his platform as an ex-president to promote the issue of reducing consumption of old energy sources such as petroleum and coal that produce the most “greenhouse gases.” At the same time, he has stressed the importance of reducing U.S. reliance on unstable Middle Eastern governments — a dependence he says complicates the fight against terrorism.
At yesterday’s event, he brought together a roster of former top officials in his administration, as well as prominent outsiders such as Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez, who has spoken often on energy issues, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who is sponsoring energy legislation with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Although the former president was not expressly addressing fellow Democrats, his remarks seemed to carry an implicit message to his party: that it can become more aggressive on energy issues without undue political consequences.
Clinton came into power in 1993 less attuned to environmental issues than many other Democrats, including his vice president, Al Gore. Over the course of eight years, however, he came to talk with much more frequency and more evident passion about global warming and other issues. His remarks yesterday were laced with references to that history.
His initial backing of a tax on energy known as the BTU tax, Clinton recalled, caused him to “get my head handed to me” in Congress in 1993 before he withdrew the proposal. The “measly” 4.3 cent tax on gasoline that was enacted instead may have been the biggest factor in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, he said. In 1997, his administration negotiated a global accord in Kyoto, Japan, to reduce greenhouse gases. But amid widespread complaints in Congress that the treaty would put the United States at a competitive disadvantage, Clinton never pushed to win Senate approval. President Bush soon renounced the treaty.
This history, he suggested, has left both parties in Washington in a mind-set of blame-casting. “Okay, so Kyoto was not perfect,” he acknowledged, adding that for Democrats “it’s time to stop worrying about whether the current administration will change its mind” and start looking for other ways to address energy-related problems.
Clinton said the argument that global warming does not exist is now so discredited that it is no longer acceptable “in polite society” to make that case, but that it is still “okay if you don’t do anything about it.”
Politicians, Clinton suggested, may be slow to recognize that constituencies are building for innovative proposals that will promote conservation and cleaner technologies such as solar power. “I think this is becoming a bipartisan issue in America,” he said.