MotherJones JF93: The green knight

Gore proposes phasing out both the bureaucracies and the toxic industries they oversee.

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Despite bill Clinton’s uneven record, his choice of Al Gore – the Senate’s most devout environmentalist – as running mate has raised hopes that the new administration will become a world leader on ecological issues instead of a spoiler.

While both industrialists and deep ecologists are fond of pitting the economy against the environment, Clinton and Gore contend that the market system isn’t incompatible with protecting the planet. Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance, is a visionary blend of environmental wisdom, political leadership, and economic pragmatism that has drawn fire from both extremes. It proposes an innovative way forward by borrowing the best from each side without accepting either’s zero-sum conclusions.

Gore acknowledges the impending disaster wrought by our addiction to overconsumption. Unlike the deep ecologists, though, he believes that profit motive and private entrepreneurship can play a role in restoring the balance between humans and nature. But without ecological guidance, Gore feels, the market is dangerously shortsighted and skewed in favor of a few entrenched, inefficient, highly toxic industries.

Although, like many Republicans, Gore wants to eliminate ineffective regulatory bureaucracies, he opposes regression to an environmentally blind economy. Instead, he proposes phasing out both the bureaucracies and the toxic industries they oversee, by moving toward an economy based on efficient, ecologically benign technologies.

Such a transformation of our technological base will meet with stiff opposition. Many of the nation’s largest industries – oil, coal, auto, chemical – are directly threatened by ecological restructuring. Toxic industries are protected by economic rules that favor privately made, short-term, profit-maximizing decisions. These rules are reinforced by a political system in which immediate concerns about campaign financing and re-election are primary; the demands of today’s constituencies are paramount; and the interests of future generations and ecosystems have no voice.

Gore, and to a much lesser extent Clinton, recognize that the future hinges on a political vision that unites environmental and economic recovery. But translating this vision into policy will require political acumen. Industrial PACs and conservative think tanks have labeled the new administration’s environmental policies “anti- business.” Defusing this opposition will depend on the new administration’s ability to isolate the most wasteful, ecologically offensive industries, by requiring that hidden environmental costs be reflected in the market prices of their products. By minimizing the use of heavy-handed government controls, the administration can encourage clean industries without alienating the business community. The other task will be to cultivate support within the private sector, the federal government, and the population at large, for an economic recovery based on clean, efficient technologies.

Within Congress, both Republicans and Democrats are vulnerable to the blandishments of coal, oil, and automobile interests. Because opposition to, and support for, Clinton’s environmental initiatives will cut across party lines, the administration must become adept at creating nonpartisan, green legislative coalitions.

The new administration must also be able to confront policy gridlock within the executive branch, from inertia in agencies like the EPA to outright hostility from those in charge of promoting economic growth (the Office of Management and Budget, the Commerce Department) and those with close ties to the economy’s most retrograde interests (the Interior and Energy departments). Finally, there is an ominous potential for high-level conflict within the White House if Clinton comes to see Gore’s environmentalism as too politically costly

The amount of latitude that Gore is given to shape environmental policy will be an early indicator of how green the new president is going to be. The environmental program described in Gore’s book has five strategic goals. Let us examine how each should apply to global warming. The new administration’s response to global warming – a problem Gore calls “the most serious threat we have ever faced” – will serve as a good measure of progress. Even if global warming isn’t as immediate a problem as Gore fears, we would be wise, for the sake of economic competitiveness alone, to catch up with the European Community and Japan in terms of energy efficiency. We would save billions of dollars.

1. Negotiate a new generation of international environmental agreements.

As the nation with the largest atmospheric research apparatus and as the source of one-quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, the United States plays a pivotal role in climate negotiations. Since 1989, this country has resisted efforts to limit annual emissions of greenhouse gases. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Bush was the only leader of any developed country to refuse to sign the climate treaty until all language requiring specific emissions reduction was purged from the text. At that time, Bill Clinton said.he would support a “climate-change agreement in which the U.S. agrees to stabilize CO2 at 1990 levels by the year 2000.”

Environmentalists want Clinton to honor this promise, and go further by encouraging the immediate negotiation of a protocol that would commit industrialized nations to a 25 percent reduction of greenhouse gases (primarily [CO.sub.2, methane, and nitrous oxide) by 2005 and a soft reduction target of 40 to 50 percent by 2030. These goals could be met with minimal cost to the U.S. economy, and might actually be harder on Japan and the European Community, where the least-expensive conservation and efficiency steps have already been taken.

2. Rapidly develop environmentally appropriate technologies to share with the rest of the world.

The Clinton plan intends to create tax incentives for the use of renewable-energy sources and to redirect some federal weapons funding to renewables and light-rail systems.

Motor-vehicle emissions in the United States (which exceed those of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America combined) could be reduced with executive support for legislation requiring rapid improvements in car mileage. Another improvement would be tax rebates for buyers of fuel-efficient cars, funded by tax hikes on gas- guzzlers.

These measures should be followed by action on Gore’s proposal for a global program, involving European, Asian, and U.S. automakers, to phase out the internal-combustion engine over the next twenty-five years. This plan is not as implausible as it may sound. Mercedes-Benz and BMW have produced hydrogen-powered vehicles for research use. General Motors has developed a prototype electric car, and Chrysler’s electric minivan should be rolling off the assembly lines this year. While Detroit manufacturers may initially resist government efforts to push them into the next century, the prospect of falling farther behind Germany and Japan may help soften this resistance.

Many developing nations will build new energy infrastructures in the next decade. Their decisions concerning which technologies to invest in will be affected by the policies of creditor nations. The Clinton administration should increase financial support for appropriate technologies, and insist that international lending institutions write strong environmental guidelines for the projects they fund.

3. Change the global economic rules used to measure the impact of environmental policies.

Gore has indicated support for a climate treaty that employs market mechanisms – emission “credits” and “rights” – to limit the amount of greenhouse gases nations can produce each year. Surplus “emission rights” held by countries with emissions below their credit limit could be sold to nations having trouble keeping emissions down. This would encourage all countries to adopt clean alternatives and create a strong demand for new energy-saving technologies.

While the notion of emission rights has found broad support, disagreements have emerged over how to allocate them. U.S. leadership should support a scheme in which the general direction of the financial exchange is from North to South; otherwise, developing nations will abandon negotiations. Balancing the size of the transfer will be delicate; it must be sizable enough to enable poor nations to adopt more efficient technologies, while not so large as to be politically unacceptable in the North.

At home, we could make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by following the lead of the European Community and reforming our tax structure to discourage the burning of fossil fuels. Like gas-guzzling vehicles, energy-wasting production and packaging processes could be heavily taxed and energy-saving products given tax breaks. These sorts of market controls would help pacify those opposed to heavy government involvement.

Ultimately, in order to make renewable-energy sources competitive with fossil fuels, the administration will have to convince consumers to pay higher prices for primary energy. Gasoline taxes are not popular, but if they are coupled with tax cuts in other areas and used to fund investment, some opposition may dissipate. Nevertheless, these moves must be made tactfully or they risk creating popular discontent, which can be exploited by opponents of the new green agenda.

4. Stabilize world population.

The sensitive issue of population highlights the tense relationship between rich and poor nations. Third World leaders resent the argument that the global environment is threatened by population growth in their countries, given that the average child in the United States will use more energy by kindergarten age than most people in the developing world will use in a lifetime. Even so, the Third World’s rapid population growth will account for the bulk of all [CO.sub.2 emissions in the coming decades.

The United States will command little respect on the subject of population unless it reverses the antiabortion policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations and increases efforts to make birth control available throughout the world. As outlined by Gore, we should also take the lead in organizing world wide campaigns to increase female literacy and to lower infant mortality, the two keys to lower birth rates.

5. Develop a cooperative plan for educating the world’s citizens about the global environment.

Gore’s final goal is to inspire a sense of ecological idealism by educating and involving people, from world leaders to children, in the common cause of protecting the planet. Teachers and students could start global exchange programs, tree-planting and energy-conservation campaigns, and satellite-coordinated efforts to monitor the earth’s vital signs.

Of greatest inspiration are lessons taught by example. Since the founding of our nation, U.S. products, ideas, and values have had a greater impact on the world than those of any other country. The world will find it hard to ignore the example of an America that has turned its back on the wasteful, toxic lifestyle that brought us all to the brink of environmental calamity.

Craig Collins is a doctoral fellow at the Institute for the Study of World Politics. His most recent article, “Climate Change Negotiations Polarize,” appeared in Ambio.


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