[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book II)]
[October 7, 1998]
[Pages 1755-1760]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks at the League of Conservation Voters Dinner
October 7, 1998

    Thank you very much for that wonderful welcome. Let me say, first of 
all, I want to thank Deb Callahan for her opening remarks and her 
leadership. I thank your chairman, Mike Hayden. I'd like to thank my EPA 
Administrator, Carol Browner, for being here and for the good job she 
does. I'd like to say a special word of appreciation to the three 
Members of Congress who are here tonight, without whom I could have 
accomplished very little over these last 6 years. Thank you, George 
Miller, Norm Dicks, Maurice Hinchey. Thank you for what you have done 
for our country.

[[Page 1756]]

    And I'd also like to just express my appreciation to three people 
here--who aren't here, who have been a real inspiration to me and a 
constant source of support in a lot of these fights we have taken on: 
first and foremost, the Vice President; second, the First Lady; and 
third, Secretary Babbitt. They have all, in ways none of you will ever 
know, as well as all those you're aware of, had countless, countless 
conversations with me about a lot of the issues that I will mention 
tonight, and some I will forget.
    But in an administration, the President often gets the credit when 
the inspiration, the ideas, the energy, and sometimes the constructive 
nagging comes from other people. Now, Carol Browner, for example, 
constructively nagged me--[laughter]--to make sure we stood up for clean 
    Congressman Boehlert, is that you back there? I didn't see you. 
Thank you, sir. [Applause] I'm glad to see you. Thank you very much.
    But anyway, everybody said the sky was falling, and Carol said the 
kids need to breathe. And so we wound up doing it her way. [Laughter] 
And we're still rocking along pretty well.
    And tonight I hope you'll permit me to say a very special word of 
appreciation to one of your honorees who is about to leave our 
administration, the Chair of the CEQ, Katie McGinty. Let's give her a 
hand. [Applause] Thank you.
    I just was informed I missed another Member of Congress and another 
friend of the environment, Congresswoman Connie Morella. Where are you, 
Connie? There you are. Thank you very much. [Applause] Thank you.
    We've had a lot of exceedingly complex, as well as difficult--
politically difficult but also intellectually complex decisions we've 
had to make, working out our position on climate change, on how to deal 
with the northwest forest challenge, on whether we could figure out a 
way to save Yellowstone, on figuring out the genuine equities that lay 
underneath the big decision on Grand Staircase-Escalante. And in all of 
those cases, Katie McGinty has been there, working with all the various 
people affected and concerned, trying to make sure we did the right 
thing by the environment and to make sure we did it increasingly, I 
believe, in the right way. And I am very, very much indebted to her. 
I'll miss her, and we wish her well. Thank you. [Applause] She's 
actually going to India for awhile, and I told her I expect by the time 
I get there, there will be no longer any nuclear issues between the 
United States and India. [Laughter] If she can solve all these other 
problems, deal with all this other contention, this ought to be just 
another drop in the bucket.
    Let me begin tonight where Deb Callahan left off. I agree that our 
job is not simply to convince people of the importance of environmental 
stewardship; the harder part is to convince people of the power they 
have not only to stand up for what they believe in but to change what 
they disagree with. We have seen that over and over and over again. For 
too many years, the champions of the environment have been in the clear 
majority in America but have been insufficiently organized across 
economic and regional and party lines to bring their force to bear with 
their friends in the Congress.
    Now, we still have that task in the next 30 days, because the next 
30 days will be critical to the future of the environment. Indeed, we 
have that task in the next few days, the last days of this congressional 
session before the election. And I'll have more to say about that in a 
    One of the best illustrations of citizen power to change what is 
wrong is actually here under our noses. Just before America celebrated 
its first Earth Day, a wide-eyed but fairly low-level congressional 
staffer, recently out of college, had a great democratic idea, to create 
an environmental scorecard for Members of Congress and empower voters to 
make a more informed choice. With that idea, that young woman launched 
the League of Conservation Voters and had enormous influence ever since. 
Marion Edey, thank you very much. Where are you? Stand up. Where are 
you? [Applause] Thank you.
    Over the past generation when we have faced clear common threats, 
our citizens often have joined together in common resolve. America came 
together to heed Rachel Carson's warnings by banning DDT and other 
poisons. America cleaned up rivers so filthy they were catching on fire. 
America phased out lead in gasoline and the chemicals that deplete our 
protective ozone layer. America achieved all these things in no small 
measure because of the broad bipartisan citizen power mobilized by 
groups like the LCV.
    Over the past 6 years, we have worked together to build on these 
accomplishments, to

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preserve our national treasures like Florida's Everglades, California's 
ancient redwoods, the spectacular red-rock canyons of Utah. Just last 
month, Katie McGinty was out in Yellowstone commemorating our success in 
protecting the park from the New World Mine.
    We are doing our best to lead the way on the global environment. We 
made sure the Kyoto agreement was strong and realistic, and we're 
determined that America must do its part to reverse global warming. 
We're protecting the health of our families and communities. We've 
accelerated Superfund cleanups, issued the toughest air quality 
standards ever, dramatically reduced toxic pollution, not through the 
heavy hand of regulation but by giving communities access to the 
information they deserve.
    These efforts reflect not only our--yours and mine--our common 
commitment to protecting the environment but to doing it in the right 
way: innovative, commonsense solutions that achieve the greatest 
protection at the least cost. That means rejecting the false choice that 
pits the economy against the environment.
    I want to say a little more about that in a moment. But I have to 
tell you that the largest obstacle we face in our Congress, in our 
country, and in the world in getting a united, serious approach to 
climate change is the deeply embedded, almost psychic dependence that so 
many decisionmakers in our country and all over the world have to the 
elemental notion that economic growth is still not possible without 
industrial era energy use patterns. People simply don't believe it, so 
that when I talk to people in developing countries and when I talk to 
people in the still-developing Congress--[laughter]--we have these--I 
say that in a--that's a compliment, as I will say more about it in a 
moment. [Laughter]
    We still have the people that are literally obsessed with the notion 
that seriously addressing climate change is somehow a plot to wreck 
America's economic future and political sovereignty. I asked somebody 
today how much time we had spent complying--and most of you don't think 
I did enough on climate change, right? Is that right? Let's put it out 
here on the table. [Laughter] Most of you don't think I did enough on 
climate change. I proposed a series of very, I think, effective tax 
incentives to get people to do the right things and make them 
economically efficient and a major increase in research and development. 
And there is a committee in the House of Representatives that acts like 
I'm right up there with the black helicopter crowd. [Laughter] It's 
    I asked today; we believe that we have spent 10,000 hours complying 
with subpoenas from a committee who believes we are subverting the 
future of America with these modest proposals on climate change--
hundreds of thousands of dollars in compliance costs over and above the 
salaries of the people involved. Why is that? Are these bad people who 
don't love their country? Do they really want to destroy our 
environment? Do they believe their grandchildren don't need to deal with 
this? Absolutely not. They honestly still believe that economic growth 
is not possible without industrial age energy use patterns. ``Don't show 
me those solar reflectors that go on roofs now that look just like 
ordinary shingles. Don't bother me with those windows that let in twice 
as much light and keep out twice as much heat and cold. I don't want to 
hear about the economics of insulation or the lights that will save 
themselves a ton of greenhouse emissions during the life of the lamp.''
    So I say to you, we have still a huge intellectual battle to fight, 
a way of looking at the world and the future that helps to bring us 
together instead of drive us apart. And one of the central ideas is the 
honest belief that you cannot only grow the economy and preserve the 
environment, you can actually grow the economy and improve the 
    This country has the lowest unemployment rate in 28 years, the 
fastest wage growth in 20 years, the smallest percentage of the people 
on welfare in 29 years, the first surplus in 29 years, the highest 
homeownership ever. But compared to 6 years ago, the air is cleaner; the 
water is cleaner; the food is safer; there are fewer toxic waste dumps; 
and we have done quite a lot of other things to protect the environment. 
It is simply not true that you can't grow the economy and improve the 
environment. And vast, vast technological and conservation and 
alternative energy source opportunities have been completely untapped 
compared to their economically available potential in our country today.
    So we have a lot more work to do, but I will say again, sometimes 
you have to win the battle of the big ideas, even if it's with simple, 
small examples, before you can really move our vast country in one 
direction without interruption.

[[Page 1758]]

    So I would like to make here a point I have tried to make to our 
fellow citizens in every forum I could, since it became obvious that we 
were going to have a balanced budget and a surplus. The temptation is to 
be diverted or just relaxed in a good economic time. That would be an 
error. These times are, first of all, highly dynamic. We have enormous 
challenges of which you are well aware, the global financial challenge, 
the global environmental challenge. It would be a terrible mistake for 
us to squander this moment of opportunity, when so much good is 
happening for America and we have a level of confidence about our 
ability to meet challenges that we have not had in decades, by being 
either diverted or relaxed. We need to face the challenges we have and 
think about how we can best use this prosperity to build the kind of 
future we want.
    Tonight I'll give you an example of one thing we're trying to do to 
use this time of prosperity, adding vital new protections for our 
Nation's wetlands. Earlier this year, as part of our clean water action 
plan, I set a goal of restoring 100,000 acres of wetlands a year by 
2005. Today the Army Corps of Engineers is proposing changes to ensure 
that we think twice before building in our most sensitive wetlands. 
Twenty years ago, if you'd told me I'd see this day and this initiative 
from that august body, I never would have believed it. And I 
congratulate them on it and honor them for it.
    From now on, we will require a full environmental review, with full 
public participation, of all projects in critical wetlands areas, 
particularly floodplains. In a typical year, 140 Americans die in 
floods, and $4 billion in property is destroyed. Just in this past week, 
nine people have died in floods in Missouri and Kansas. That's why FEMA 
Director James Lee Witt felt so strongly about strengthening protections 
for the floodplains. By thinking twice, we can prevent tragedy and save 
taxpayer dollars while protecting the environment.
    And as we all know, if we are going to do this, make the most of 
this moment, we have to do it together. For years and years, protecting 
the environment was a matter of bipartisan concern. And frankly, for a 
lot of people it still is. You have three good Democrats and two fine 
Republicans here tonight, unless I missed someone else that I wasn't 
given. [Laughter] But in the last Congress it seemed not to be the case. 
There was a direct frontal assault on the environment, a rollback of--or 
an attempted rollback of 30 years on hard-won gains. As the LCV ably 
documented, more than a third of the Members of the 104th Congress 
scored a zero on the environment. The group tried to force me to sign a 
budget with unconscionable cuts in environmental protections. Twice the 
Government was shut down, in no small measure because of environmental 
controversies. But because together we decided not to give in and fought 
back, it came out all right.
    Now a lot of the same folks are back with a different tactic, here 
in the waning days of the congressional session, a sneak attack. Not 
only are they refusing to fully fund environmental priorities--the clean 
water action plan to help clean up waterways too polluted for fishing 
and swimming, an extraordinary percentage of the waterways in America; 
the land and water conservation fund to protect precious lands in danger 
of development; the climate change technology initiative to take 
commonsense steps to reverse global warming--not only would they keep us 
from moving forward in these areas, but they're pushing once again in 
the opposite direction, as all of you know all too well, by loading 
appropriations bills up with a slew of antienvironmental riders.
    Really, that ``rider'' word is really well chosen because it's sort 
of an unrelated passenger riding along on a piece of legislation that 
otherwise looks pretty good. These special interest riders, among other 
things, would carve roads through the Alaskan wilderness, force 
overcutting in our national forests, cripple wildlife protections, and 
sell the taxpayers short.
    Now, the sponsors of these riders know that the proposals could not 
stand on their own. They know that, therefore, they have to resort to a 
stealth tactic to get this done. I personally believe this unrelated 
rider strategy, unless it's something that has broad bipartisan support 
necessary to preserve some immediate national need, is bad for the 
democratic process, as well as bad for the environment. So tonight let 
me say again, to you and to the Congress, I will veto any bill that will 
do unacceptable harm to our environment--[inaudible]. [Applause] Thank 
    Let me say to all of you, there is hope that we can do better. This 
afternoon--or this morning, I guess--time flies when you're having fun--
[laughter]--anyway, sometime today we had a marvelous ceremony at the 
White House,

[[Page 1759]]

with over 30 Members of Congress, signing a higher education bill that 
had enormous Republican and Democratic support, that among other things 
gave us the lowest interest rates on student loans in nearly 20 years, 
will save $11 billion to students with existing loans, about $700 a 
student, for college students.
    Perhaps even more important over the long run, this bill, with an 
idea inspired by Congressman Chaka Fattah from Philadelphia, provides 
support to set up mentoring programs for middle-school children in tough 
inner-city and other poor school districts, and enables the mentors to 
tell the kids when they're 12 or 13, ``If you stay in school and you 
keep learning, here is how much college aid you are going to be able to 
get, and I can tell you that right now.'' And it provides for 
partnerships so that universities and private donors can give more to 
the kids in those years and guarantee them. It was an extraordinary day.
    And then this afternoon the House of Representatives rejected a 
parks bill that would have done a lot more harm than good--listen to 
this--by the bipartisan, overwhelming margin of 301 to 123. Thank you. 
Thank you. That is the kind of bipartisan spirit the modern 
environmental movement started with in 1970.
    You know, I've never met anybody walking on a trail in a national 
park--never--that I knew when I saw them coming toward me what their 
party affiliation was, except on the rare occasions when I actually knew 
them. [Laughter] When you go into one of our wilderness areas, nobody 
asks you to declare your affiliation. We all assume that we drink the 
same water; we swim in the same lakes; we breathe the same air; we eat 
the same food; we love the same natural surroundings; we have the same 
common stake in preserving the same environment for our children and our 
    And I hope this vote today indicates that we have several more days, 
coming in time between now and when the Congress goes home at the end of 
the week, for this sort of spirit of coming together.
    And then, in the next 30 days, during this election season, I hope 
that ordinary citizens who care deeply about these issues will bring 
their voices to bear in the election. Just think what would happen if 
people of both parties and independents simply said, ``We're going to do 
better. We're going to change, at last and forever, the idea that we 
have to have old-fashioned, destructive energy use patterns to grow the 
economy. We will not give in to those who want to put the sacred up for 
sale. The decisions we make today on climate change, water, wetlands, 
and air will have implications for decades, if not centuries to come. 
And we want a unifying vision that embraces people who may differ on 
many other things, to embrace our common home and our common future.'' I 
think the American people, for all kinds of reasons, are open to that 
sort of message in the next 30 days.
    We are reminded by every event which occurs that we are living in a 
world in which we are ever more interdependent, not only with each other 
as Americans but with those who live beyond our borders and with the 
Earth we all share. We see it when there's a reverberation in our stock 
market because of what happens in Russia or Latin America or Asia. We 
see it when we understand some big chunk of Antarctica has broken off 
and is floating and indicates that the water level may be rising more 
rapidly because the climate is warming. We see it when we understand our 
common responsibility to try to stop people of different ethnic groups 
from killing each other in the Baltics and the Balkans and to try to get 
people of different racial and ethnic and religious groups to embrace 
what we have in common, even as we celebrate our differences at home.
    The environmental movement and its leaders are probably better 
positioned, because of your general orientation of these issues, than 
virtually any other group in America to get the American people to 
rethink these big ideas; to think about how we can be reconciled to 
ourselves, to our environment, and committed to our future; to think 
about how we can appreciate not only our independence but our 
interdependence with one another and with our fellow human beings 
throughout the world.
    On the edge of a new millennium, I really believe the development of 
that kind of approach, and whether we can do it and reconcile it, as I 
believe we can, in a very rich and wonderful way, with our own tradition 
of individual rights and individuality and autonomy--if we can do that, 
I believe that will do more to ensure that we make the right decisions 
as a people, across party and regional and income and other lines, on 
the most profound decisions of our future than anything else.

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    You--you are uniquely positioned to change our people's way of 
thinking about this. And you could hardly give a greater gift to your 
country at the end of one century and the dawn of another.
    Thank you very much, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 7:47 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the 
Mayflower Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Deb Callahan, president, 
and John Michael Hayden, chairman of the board, League of Conservation 
Voters. The President also referred to the Kyoto Protocol on Climate 
Change and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).