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Bill Clinton's Seattle Climate Speech
Alex Steffen, 5 Nov 07
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Climate change is an opportunity. That was the message Bill Clinton brought to an amazing speech at last week's U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting here in Seattle.

Now, I don't often recommend speeches by politicians, of any party. It is in the nature of a political speech to be milquetoast. They lack substance. They lack a willingness to confront the massive challenges we face today. They lack a sense of the possible.

But Clinton's speech is different. It is, quite simply, the best speech on climate given by an American politician (other than Al Gore) I've ever heard -- it's the sort of speech I wish a sitting president would stand up and deliver before Congress and the nation. I've been thinking about writing the speech I wish a politician would deliver about climate change -- as I did before on the tsunami -- but this time about the climate crisis. Now, I don't need to. This is it.

Key points:

  • Persistent inequality is sapping our strength at home and in the world.
  • Identity differences are overshadowing our common humanity, and dragging down everyone involved, with their most vicious manifestations in fundamentalist terrorism and conflicts over immigration.
  • The problem of a lack of sustainability is even worse than captured in "An Inconvenient Truth" because of two related issues: the diminishing availability of natural resources (including the erosion of ecosystem services and biodiversity worldwide, peak oil, fisheries collapse, water shortages, etc.) and population growth (with nine billion people expected to share the Earth by 2060, with most of that increase coming in the developing world).

But here's the good news: tackling climate change, if we do it right, will help us overcome inequality and divisiveness. As Clinton articulated it,

It is a godsend. It is not castor oil that we have to drink. It is in my view, for the United States, the greatest economic opportunity that we've had since we mobilized for World War II. And if we do it right, it will produce job gains and income gains substantially greater than those produced in the 1990s when I had the privilege to be president.

Clinton emphasized cities as enormous opportunities, from better buildings to better transportation, water infrastructure to solid waste, renewable energy and above all, efficiency. If the United States, India, China and Russia were simply to achieve the existing energy efficiency standards of Japan, he noted, we'd reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.

Clinton used the occasion of the speech to announce the creation of a purchasing consortium for all 11,000 cities in the U.S. Conference of Mayors, designed to drive down costs of energy-efficient goods and services.

The Seattle P-I has a good write-up of the speech here.

Image credit: The United States Conference of Mayors

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President Clinton is pretty remarkable on this issue these days, although he also acknowledges now that he wasn't as effective when he was in office.

I realized climate and energy were not just a talking point for him around two years ago, when I asked him what he'd do if ex-presidents could only champion one cause. He paused, chewed his lip a bit, then said: "Energy."

He explained in depth why (because an energy quest would address a heap of global problems, including poverty and climate.

I brought this up with him again earlier this year (video at, right side). He said he wishes now that he would have pushed more on improving energy efficiency, and less on the harder task of creating an energy tax.

There may be lessons in this still for both domestic and international policy.

Posted by: Andy Revkin on 6 Nov 07

That's a really great frame of the situation by President Clinton and links into the other frontpage post you have about games and how guilt-tripping doesn't work.

At the moment all of these issues - climate change and peak oil in particular - are framed as 'change or it's bad'. By rearranging the debate towards opportunity and what new technology, greater efficiency and local products can bring to our everyday lives, we can can move from scary to exciting.

On Futurismic I've been trying to emphasise the positives to changing our lifestyles just as you guys do so well here. A less energy-intensive lifestyle doesn't have to mean a bad lifestyle. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Tomas L. Martin on 6 Nov 07

I listened to Bill Clinton's speech. Alex is right about his points at the beginning, but his solution, efficiency, and his championing of Walmart show that he still doesn't get it. Efficiency has never resulted in reduced energy consumption. It has simply recycled the savings into greater consumption. (I strongly recommend Tom Princen's "The Logic of Sufficiency" for a comprehensive critique of the efficiency argument.) With the classic example of light bulbs, the fluorescent and sodium lamp innovations were marketed such that the perceived light levels needed in artificial illumination increased tenfold, and energy use continued to climb. The substitution of compact fluorescent for standard incandescent may follow the same trajectory, guaranteeing that Walmart's income doesn't falter from selling these bulbs. Additionally, since all of them are made in China or similarly distant places, instead of the US, which is a key to Walmart's business model, the pollution and energy consumption in shipping them to the US must be factored in to any discussion.
There is no real metric, nor does anyone seem to be looking for one, that justifies these kinds of shifts as really impacting GHG emissions. We also have to contend with the mercury and other poisons in these bulbs when they are disposed of, since no where that I know of has a plan for residential recycling of CFL bulbs, which, unlike incandescents are toxic waste.
There is no way around recognizing the the lifestyle created by cheap fossil fuel must change dramatically, it cannot be preserved by Walmart efficiency schemes.

The focus on rehabbing city buildings and facilities to be more efficient in HVAC is useful, provided that it is accompanied with mandatory thermostat settings.
AC should be available only when it is needed to prevent life threatening heat exposure, not simply for the convenience of drinking hot coffee in the summer without breaking a sweat.

Posted by: Jerry Silberman on 6 Nov 07

As soon as I read the words, "It is in my view, for the United States, the greatest economic opportunity that we've had since we mobilized for World War II. And if we do it right, it will produce job gains and income gains substantially greater than those produced in the 1990s", it was clear that this was a long way from a great speech. Economic growth is one of the problems that this world has become more unsustainable over the last 20 years, as reported by the UN's GEO-4 report. Until we recognize that economic growth has to stop, there can be no peaceful (though still painful) transition to what come after.

It's time to shake ourselves out of the delusion that solving the world's ecological crises can go hand in hand with increased consumption (AKA economic growth).

Posted by: Tony Weddle on 7 Nov 07

I suppose that Clinton can finally tell the truth now that he's no longer in office. But where was he on all these issues when he was doling out the corporate lassiez faire all those years he was in office???

Too little, too late I'm afraid.

Clinton is a hypocrite.

Posted by: Gryphon on 7 Nov 07



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