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Forecast: Heat Wave

No matter what they decide about global warming, Clinton and Gore will make lots of people mad

By J.F.O. McAllister/Washington

Time cover

(TIME, October 13) -- Leave it to Bill Clinton to find the special language of his audience. "Welcome to the White House on a cool, overcast day, about 60[degrees]," he greeted radio and TV meteorologists brought in for briefings on global warming last week. He said he was auditioning for his retirement job and thought he was qualified for theirs: "I'm used to delivering bad news." They laughed, but Clinton is worried that he's about to unleash a tornado of bad news that no one will find funny. In the next few weeks, he must decide the U.S. position on an international treaty that would lower carbon-dioxide emissions in the atmosphere to reduce the threat of global warming. The economic and environmental stakes are enormous, and every option has powerful enemies.

The politics are hard, but the basic idea is simple. When coal, oil and other carbon-based fuels are burned, they generate carbon dioxide, which is good at trapping the sun's heat. With accelerating industrial development, energy use is soaring and so is the output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Most scientists believe this will cause a 2-to-6 degree Fahrenheit rise in the next century. If the earth does heat up this fast, the consequences will be dire. Coastal areas will be inundated as the seas expand; shifting weather patterns will cause floods and droughts and disrupt agriculture; tropical diseases will migrate to previously temperate zones. These are dangers that Clinton, after plunging into the debate's ecological wonkery, can clearly envision. "I am convinced the science is solid," he said last week. "We would be irresponsible not to try to come to grips with the results of these findings."

And that's the politically explosive part. The U.S. agreed at the 1992 environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro to voluntarily cut greenhouse gases back to 1990 levels by 2000, but the booming economy Clinton rode to re-election has caused the actual trend to move in the opposite direction. Ten percent more carbon is streaming out of American smokestacks and tailpipes this year than in 1990. Last year Under Secretary of State Timothy Wirth surprised negotiators by pledging the U.S. would agree to meet future reductions by setting legally binding targets. These are supposed to be determined at a December summit in Kyoto, Japan. Now the White House is struggling to figure out what it can accept as a binding target--and sell to the Congress and industry--before a preliminary conference in Bonn later this month. Members of an interagency task force are "meeting every day," says Kathleen McGinty, head of the Council on Environmental Quality, trying to boil the sticky economics and politics down to two or three options.

The main problem for Clinton--and Gore, the staunch environmentalist who wants to be President--is that any effective option will probably reach directly into the pocketbooks of American voters. That's because the big steps it will take to slow the rate of warming require that the White House find ways either to discourage fuel use or to encourage greater use of environmentally friendly technology. The first can mean higher energy taxes; the second can mean more expensive machinery, although some experts argue that the switch doesn't have to cost a lot more. Last month the Department of Energy released a report saying a 20% cutback to 1990 emission levels would be possible by 2010 without raising energy costs, through the spread of new technologies and finely targeted incentives like tax breaks for old coal-fired power plants.

But oil companies and automakers don't want restraints on energy demand. And unions and members of Clinton's Treasury Department fear that a tax or some other mechanism for broadly raising energy prices could stifle economic growth and make motorists surly. Already an industry coalition has started a $13 million TV ad campaign predicting a 50 cent increase in gas prices, which Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has denounced as "worthy of the best efforts of the tobacco industry."

Clinton aides predict he will choose an emissions target moderate enough to attract some support from business and the G.O.P. While officials are hoping to craft a proposal acceptable to other countries for the Kyoto summit, they privately admit the negotiations could take several years. That will buy Clinton time to work on his long-term strategy: persuading the public, starting this week at a White House conference, to tolerate some pain now for the sake of a less threatening future. So, next time you turn on the Weather Channel, don't be surprised to see Clinton delivering the 100-year forecast.

--With reporting by Dick Thompson/Washington





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