Reserving verdict on Clinton - Gore

Published: Monday 30 November 1992

THE NEW US administration of Bill Clinton and Al Gore promises to be environment-friendly. Gore, derided as the "ozone man" by outgoing president George Bush has sound environmental credentials. His book, Earth in the Balance, has been called visionary by some. Others liken it to Hitler's Mein Kampf and they rate him an environmental extremist. But on the whole, the new Democratic administration is good news for environmentalists though it may be too early to say so. Given the recession and the ailing US economy, the Clinton-Gore administration will focus mainly on domestic affairs and environmental issues probably will have to take a back seat as they did during the election campaigns. As a token of their support to green causes, the new leadership may sign the biodiversity treaty, which Bush had adamantly opposed.

It is not clear yet how the Clinton administration will try and resolve the difficult, domestic environment and development conflicts: the spotted owl versus loggers, the beaches and wilderness areas sought by oil explorers and forest areas from miners. Clinton is committed to an interventionist administration, unlike the hands-off government of Bush. But several times during the campaign, Gore beat a hasty retreat when attacked as an environmental extremist. These signs of "pragmatism" may indicate that when the Clinton-Gore team actually begins to govern, they may prefer to err on the side of the economy rather than environment.

What are the implications of this on international environmental issues? Both good and bad, depending on which side of the fence you happen to be. When Bush was tied down on domestic environmental issues by serious economic and political pressures, he played the game of pushing those green issues that largely concerned the developing world. His most famous effort in this genre was to reject time-bound cuts on carbon dioxide emissions while simultaneously espousing the need for a tropical forest convention. This enabled him to transform the global warming problem from an issue dealing with US energy policy to one of the South's forest and land-use policies. Clinton and Gore, too, could easily succumb to this temptation and, given their environmental credentials, push the South even more than Bush on environmental issues.

Will the Clinton-Gore administration make an effort to understand why the South feels reluctant to go along with the North's environment agenda? If Clinton's answer to the highly respected US journal Science is any indication, he has a long way to go to appreciate the concerns of the South. His answer shows he is preoccupied with the same concern as Bush was: how to protect the intellectual property rights of US companies. Clinton's only criticism of Bush was that given USA's pre-eminent position as "the country with the largest store of national wealth in patented technology", Bush should have taken the lead to shape "international law for the protection of patents, copyrights, and technological advances". With USA mired in an economic crisis, it is unlikely Clinton will allow such outstanding issues as development finance, debt and declining terms of trade come to the fore in North-South negotiations.

Take the issue of cutting emissions to control global warming, which Bush opposed, spitting fire against environmentalists "who want to shut down America." Bush refused to agree to any timetable to limit carbon dioxide emissions. In is into this scenario, that the Clinton-Gore team comes, promising green salvation. They favour limiting carbon dioxide emissions by 2000 to 1990 levels. But what does this mean? Clearly the world cannot support the consumption level of the average American. Will developing countries be "allowed" to reach these stabilised levels or is their quota of the atmosphere finished? The US scheme of things freezes the current inequity, when what is needed are deep cuts that would give the South the ecological space it needs to meet its growing energy demands.

Are we then expecting too much of a US president? Probably we are. A US president who wants to manage the world as "one ecological entity" (one globe) for the benefit of all humankind, will have to recognise that global restructuring has to begin at home. Alan Durning of the Worldwatch Institute points out in his recent book How Much is Enough? that US citizens are amongst the heaviest consumers in the world (see Statistics/Classroom pages in this issue).

When developing countries overspend their dollar account, they are told by the International Monetary Fund to restructure their economies. It is the industrialised world and USA in particular that is overspending its ecological account. Hence, economic restructuring to live within the ecological constraints must begin first with USA and other industrialised countries. This may be a painful process, but in the long run, this could be good for USA and for the whole world. There are no indicators as yet that Clinton and Gore would be that sort of green leaders, but it would be only fair to reserve judgement for the time being on their performance.

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