PRESIDENT Clinton's plan to reduce global warming has generated a mostly lukewarm response.
Business interests are relieved that it relies largely on volunteer efforts, but they are wary of hints about stiffer government regulations if those efforts fail. Environmentalists are grateful for what they see as a step in the right direction, but they are worried that the administration may lack the will to follow through.
The ``Climate Change Action Plan,'' announced this week, aims to reduce emission of so-called greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2000. It includes government-business ``partnership programs'' to promote residential and commercial energy efficiency, measures to stimulate $60 billion in private investment in environmental technologies, and encouragement to utilities pushing energy-conservation programs.
These and other efforts are expected to cost nearly $2 billion by century's end. But the program is meant to result in a net reduction in the federal deficit of some $800 million by counting employer-provided parking spaces as taxable income and by increasing private investment in federal hydroelectric plants.
If anything, the president's plan is seen more favorably by business interests. ``Partnerships and voluntary initiatives are the right approach to the climate issue,'' says John Shlaes, executive director of the industry-oriented Global Climate Coalition.
But environmentalists generally showed disappointment with the plan, especially its failure to clamp down on gas-guzzling vehicles. ``Transportation emissions account for a large and growing source of emissions in the US, but this plan contains few concrete incentives to address either fuel efficiency or vehicle use,'' says Bill Roberts, attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Clinton supported a hike in Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards to 45 miles per gallon for cars from the 27.5 m.p.g. standard. But as president, he has backed off, promising only that a White House task force will produce a strategy to ``significantly reduce emissions from personal vehicles.''
He tried to push a ``carbon tax'' to raise funds and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas thought to cause global warming. But that failed in Congress, largely due to concern about economic impact. This week, Clinton stressed expanded markets for American goods and services, job creation, and deficit reduction as potential plan benefits.
Part of the global warming debate is whether it is a serious problem. Scientists differ over how much Earth temperatures have risen in the past century and whether projections about future warming trends are accurate.
Clinton sided this week with those more concerned. He called global warming ``a growing, long-term threat with profound consequences.'' In its plan outline, the White House noted that greenhouse gases ``threaten to change the global climate system, raise sea levels and inundate coastal areas, destabilize agriculture production, and inflict irreversible damage to ecosystems.''
Given this concern, and especially Vice President Al Gore Jr.'s more dire warnings about global warming, environmentalists don't understand the administration's emphasis on voluntary efforts. And they worry about Clinton's commitment to the issue, even though Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary at a press conference this week said: ``If this doesn't get it, we'll go back and find out how to get it through mandates.''
For example, says Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Clinton does not propose to cap carbon emissions at 1990 levels. Without such a cap, he says, government scientists estimate that carbon levels will rise another 100 million tons by 2010. ``It's obvious that if anything, it's an incomplete plan. Additional tougher measures are required,'' he says.
Meanwhile, international discussions about global warming continue. Last year's Earth Summit produced a pact on climate change, but at the Bush administration's insistence it set no timetable for reducing carbon emissions. Two groups - the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee and the scientific Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - will meet in preparation for a major conference on global warming to be held in Berlin, Germany, in 1995.
Meyer says, ``The question is: Will the United States really take a leadership position among industrial countries?''