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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Tim Wirth Exits

Air Date: Week of November 28, 1997

As the final round of the current climate change negotiations get underway in Kyoto, signals from the Administration indicate that President Bill Clinton will not be attending, and that it remains unclear if Vice President Al Gore will be making the trip. At this point, the White House is being represented by Katie McGinty, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. Recently the man who's been the chief negotiator on the climate change treaty, Undersecretary of State Timothy Wirth, said he is resigning from the Administration to head up the billion dollar United Nations Foundation just endowed by Ted Turner. Steve Curwood asked Secretary Wirth how his departure might affect the negotiations.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
As the final round of the current climate change negotiations get underway in Kyoto, signals from the Administration indicate that President Bill Clinton will not be attending, and that it remains unclear if Vice President Al Gore will be making the trip. At this point the White House is being represented by Katie McGinty, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. Recently, the man who has been the chief negotiator on the climate change treaty, Undersecretary of State Timothy Wirth, said he is resigning from the Administration to head up the billion- dollar United Nations Foundation just endowed by Ted Turner. I asked Secretary Wirth how his departure might affect the negotiations.

WIRTH: I'm going to be with the Administration through the of the year, and so that shouldn't affect the negotiations in Kyoto in any way, shape, or form. Stuart Eisenstadt, our very talented Undersecretary for Economic Affairs, has been my close partner. We've co-chaired the effort for the State Department and he will co-chair the delegation in Kyoto. And so the US will be very, very well-led in the Kyoto discussions.

CURWOOD: Some folks, though, might interpret your departure as a sign of dissatisfaction with what the White House has decided to put on the negotiating table for Kyoto. Is that fair to say?

WIRTH: No, it's not. It doesn't -- the timing, you know, it's just a matter of it coming out publicly that I was negotiating with Ted Turner, that has to be done under the law. I'm an unabashed supporter of the President's program. I think it's a very ambitious and good program for Kyoto, and I will do everything I can to help that become a reality.

CURWOOD: Will you attend the talks in Kyoto?

WIRTH: Well, I expect to, absolutely.

CURWOOD: The Vice President and the President are both taking a lot of heat on the US's climate change negotiating position. For example, in the Boston Globe recently, an editorial appeared really castigating Gore for his position. The editorial says that Mr. Gore should re-read his own book, which compared the fight to save the global environment to World War II and blasted equivocators as the Neville Chamberlains of the 90s. And quoting from Gore's book, the Globe editorial says, "Minor shifts in policy, marginal adjustments in ongoing policy, moderate improvements in laws and regulations, these are all forms of appeasement," wrote Gore. And yet the Clinton-Gore proposal right now is less, less than what they supported for the Rio summit in 1992 and below the European and Japanese goals. Do you think that the United States is going backwards here on the climate change issue?

WIRTH: I think there are a number of -- the answer is no. I think that there are a number of things that have to be, you know, related to your good question, Steve. First, nobody's ever attempted to do anything like this before. This is an enormously complex undertaking relating not only the most important environmental issue in the world, which is climate change, with energy policy, essentially climate change as a function of the amount of so-called greenhouse-forcing gases, mostly carbon dioxide, which comes from the burning of fossil fuels. We're putting that up into the atmosphere. So you have an environmental policy very closely tied to an energy policy. Third, this whole issue is surrounded by very, very intense industry politics in the United States. And there's a tremendous amount of pressure to do nothing from affected industries, who don't want to see something happen or feel threatened by it or whatever.

CURWOOD: This is the concern of appeasement that the Boston Globe raises. That under all this industrial pressure the White House is simply buckling and not going forward --

WIRTH: Well, I don't think that that -- first of all, I mean one has to understand how incredibly complicated and difficult this is. It's not been done before. This is not something you sort of snap your fingers and make changes in this huge and complex US economy.

CURWOOD: You served in the Congress for 12 years and then went on to the Senate for another 6. You've been on Capitol Hill a long time. Do you think that the ratification of almost any treaty the Administration brings back from Kyoto will be able to get through?

WIRTH: I think it's going to be -- it's a very much of an uphill pull. I think that there are some members of the Senate who are just in total denial about the greenhouse-forcing gases and the climate issue and don't want to see anything happen. There are individuals like Senator Byrd from West Virginia, a very experienced and very powerful member of the United States Senate, who is viewing this issue, in my opinion, in a very, very constructive way. He says, you know, I've been on this Earth for almost 80 years and I've seen it change. Something's wrong, and we are -- we have to change our institutions and change the way we're doing business. But he says we can't do this alone, every country in the world has to participate in this effort, and it's very important that while, that everybody's in the same boat together, we only have one Earth. The US has to start with a much bigger oar, but China has to have an oar and India has to have an oar, and eventually we'll all be pulling together in this effort. Well, I think that's about right. The test of Kyoto will be if it meets the criteria that I think Senator Byrd very firmly set out.

CURWOOD: Shortly, you'll take over the United Nations Foundation, the $1 billion fund from Ted Turner, to assist UN programs on the environment, population, sustainable development, and so forth. In what ways can you use your new position and the Fund to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

WIRTH: I think there are some great opportunities to help tell the story, the urgency of this issue, to focus on some of the new research and technology areas. This problem's not going to be solved unless we have a major new technological commitment over the next 40 to 50 years, and this is going to demand new and exciting partnerships between the public and the private sector. And I think the Turner Foundation gift and working with the United Nations gives us new opportunities to forge some of these new relationships that are going to be absolutely imperative if we're going to solve the greenhouse problem.

CURWOOD: Thanks for taking this time with us. Timothy Wirth is Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs and soon to be President of the United Nations Foundation. Thank you, sir.

WIRTH: Thank you.

 

 

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