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A Global Challenge For The New Century

5 minute read
Bill Clinton

From the time I was a boy, I had dreamed of seeing elephants, giraffes and lions in the wild. But as I gazed across the lush African plain, what amazed me even more were all the creatures I’d never known existed–the lechwe, the kudu, the lilac-breasted roller. I watched them in wonder.

That morning two years ago in Botswana’s stunning Chobe reserve, I wished every child in the world could share these magnificent sights. And I worried that in a few generations’ time, they could be lost even to the children of Africa.

As we enter the 21st century, a new global economy draws nations ever closer. But our growing interdependence hinges on much more than technology and trade. For we are linked intrinsically by the physical and biological webs that sustain life on our planet–and, increasingly, by the threat of their unraveling. Indeed, unless we reach across borders and face this threat together, the next century may dawn on an Earth in ecological crisis, with half of all species gone, and our grandchildren enduring deadly floods, drought and disease brought on by global warming.

When millions across America celebrated the first Earth Day 30 years ago, our focus understandably was our own backyard. Our rivers were catching on fire, and our skylines were disappearing behind a veil of smog. America’s remarkable environmental progress in the years since is powerful testament to our national will, our technological prowess and our faith in a better future. Protecting the environment is today a bedrock American value, as important to us as safe neighborhoods and good schools. What’s more, three decades of experience have proved the naysayers wrong. Tending to the environment has not weakened our economy. In fact, our air and water are the cleanest they have been in a generation, even as we enjoy the longest economic expansion in our nation’s history.

America’s responsibility now, as we mark the first Earth Day of a new millennium, is to bring these lessons to bear against new, more profound environmental challenges. We must look well beyond our own cities and countryside, make environment a core foreign policy objective and provide the leadership needed to put all nations on a cleaner, more sustainable path to prosperity.

In Africa, the environmental leaders I met with described how desperate shortages of human and financial capital impoverish both their peoples–and their land. The resulting loss of biodiversity, they noted, carries a price for us all. For instance, the rosy periwinkle, a plant native to Madagascar, has proved potent against childhood leukemia. Yet other rare species on this small island nation, most found nowhere else on Earth, are disappearing faster than scientists can catalogue them. The U.S. is working to help developing nations build their economies by preserving, rather than destroying, their natural endowments. But we and other nations must do more.

And without question, we must do more to counter a threat that shows more clearly than any other how closely our nations’ fates are linked: the threat of global warming. As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. has a special responsibility to lead this effort. Despite mounting evidence, too many in Congress continue to deny the problem. Instead, we must see–and seize–the opportunities in its solution. Promising new technologies, and others just over the horizon, can power our homes, factories and cars with cleaner, more efficient energy–cutting emissions while strengthening our economy.

We must ensure also that this global challenge is met with a global solution, for the heat-trapping gases warming the earth pose the same risk whether they come from the U.S. or from China. An agreement forged in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, with critical leadership from Vice President Gore, calls for strong action by industrialized nations. But developing countries must join us.

The key, I believe, is to help these nations leapfrog into the 21st century by eschewing the outdated Industrial Era logic that more pollution means more progress. We must help them adopt clean-energy technologies that offer both prosperity and a healthy environment. On my visit last month to India, the government there took a major step in that direction: by 2012, it declared, at least 1 of every 10 new kilowatts of power will come from renewable energy.

Ultimately, our best hope may be that even where governments lag, their people understand both the stakes and the urgent need for action. When I visited China, I met with environmentalists in the scenic city of Guilin. One woman spoke passionately of growing environmental awareness at the grassroots. But this movement cannot take hold and succeed, she told me, without our help. “If Americans don’t want to give up this good opportunity,” she said, “you have to take action now.”

She is right. In the struggle against history’s most profound environmental challenges, America must lead. For the sake of our children, and our planet.

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