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Not Free as the Air

Vice President Al Gore faces a test in the current battle over clean air that is only a sample of a giant test to come.

Today's White House struggle is over the cost of further smog cleanup. It's a multibillion-dollar matter. But it's peanuts compared to the giant cost-benefit battle coming up over global growth versus global climate change.

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Here is the scenario: At the end of 1996, former Gore aide Carol Browner, now head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), proposed to sharply reduce ozone and tiny carbon particles in ground-level air. By law, EPA does not weigh cleanup costs against the value of projected health benefits. But by EPA's own estimates costs far exceed benefits.

Enter the Clinton administration's top economists. They oppose the ozone reduction plan as too costly. Gore, who has staked his political reputation (and author's credentials) on environmental purity, will advise Mr. Clinton. Politically, this is no simple matter. Many "Reagan Democrats," blue collar workers who returned to Clinton in 1996, see this as a pocketbook issue. It would hit household budgets for gas, cars, heat, and other items. Al Gore will need those votes in 2000, and likely rival Dick Gephardt is avidly wooing them.

Before then, the US will face the vastly bigger cost-benefit decision on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That pits poor nations' growth against potentially hazardous climate changes. It centers on the cost - to both rich and poor nations - of converting earth's factories, cars, farms, and homes to reduce CO2 and other "greenhouse gas" emissions.

On ozone control, Clinton and Gore will likely compromise between their cost hawks and benefit hawks. That's sensible.

But if they want to reduce the political pain they face on the CO2 issue, they would be wise to increase incentives for basic research on the least expensive ways to modernize manufacturing processes to decrease pollutants. Realistically, that is the best way to persuade a world bent on growth to accept the biggest environmental air cleanup ever.

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