From Staff reports - April 23, 2000


Interview with the President by Leonardo DiCaprio


Oval Office patio

March 31, 2000, 1:15 p.m. (EST)


DiCaprio: Mr. President, I want to thank you very much for your time. As you know, Iīm neither a politician, nor a journalist, but being given the opportunity to sit down with you here and talk about an issue like global warming was an opportunity as a concerned citizen that I couldnīt pass up.

So my first question is, global warming is obviously a controversial topic among scientists and politicians. What is your understanding of what the effects of climate change on our future if preventative steps arenīt taken immediately?

Clinton: Well, let me, first of all, thank you for your interest in this because I think itīs important that we get citizens more involved in it; and secondly say, I donīt think itīsall that controversial a topic among scientists. There are a few who say that itīs not proven, but we know that the hottest years in recorded history, and certainly in the last 600 years, that nine of the hottest 11 years have occured in the last decade.

So the climate is changing and the globe is warming at an unsustainable rate. And if it is not slowed and ultimately reversed, what will happen is the polar ice caps will melt more rapidly; sea levels will rise; you will have the danger of flooding in places like the precious Florida Everglades, or the Sugarcane Fields in Lousiana; island nations could literally be buried; the whole climate of the United Staes, for example, could be changed where you would have more flooding, more heat waves, more storms, more extereme weather events generally. And then youīll have some public health consequences.

For example, weīre already seeing in Africa, for example, malaria being found at higher and higher altitudes where it used to be too cool for the mosquitoes. So there will be a lot of very bad, more dramatic weather events. There will be a shift in the patterns of agricultural production. There will be flooding that will be quite bad, and there will be more public health crises.

DiCaprio: While growing up, I always felt that environmental issues were constantly overlooked, and I watched people band together for variuos causes which seemed to come and go, and it was almost likely they were going in and out of style. So how do we take a misunderstood issue like climate change and not only raise awareness, but make its prevention an ongoing commitment?

Clinton: Well, I think we have to make climate changes a local and a personal matter in the same way other successful environmental issues are.. You know, since Iīve been here, weīve been able to strengthen the quality of our air, strengthen the quality of our water. Weīve set aside more land for protection and protected more forests than virtually any administration in history, except those of the two Roosevelts, because they were things people could understand and identify with, and they knew how to advocate for, and they understood the benefits.

So I think we have to bring this down to practical applications and convince people that they can do something about it, No. 1, and No. 2, we have to talk about the first question you asked me - what are the consequences of not doing anything.

But thereīs so much we can do. We started a project here at the White House called the Greening of the White House. Just by changing the lighting in this whole building we lowered our electric bills by $100,000 a year. Then we put in a different sort of roofing system which kept out more heat and cold. Then we put in a more energy-efficient heating system and water system. We brought more energy-efficient equipment - copiers, computers - all with the Energy Star Label, which is a totally voluntary thing the Department of Energy provides.

Now, these are things that businesses all across America could be doing. Theyīre things that homes all across America could be doing. Weīve worked with the home builders to help build lower-cost housing that will cut energy use by 50 percent. Threīs one housing development built in the Inland Empire out in Southern California, east of L.A., for lower-income working people where the average utility bills are 65 percent lower than in houses of comparable size in the rest of California - just by putting the most modern, thin solar panels on the roofs, by having sensible insulation, by having energy-efficient lighting and by taking new windows that let in more light and keep out more heat and cold.

These things are out there now, and I think when people know thereīs actually something they can do, as well as what the consequences of our not acting and not pushing Congress and other countries to act are, then I think youīll se action.

DiCaprio: Well, my other queston pertaining to that is, if there was a profit incentive there, would that make us pay more attention?

Clinton: Yes, there should be more of a profit incentive. I mean, right now, for example, if you take the most energy-efficient lighting, it costs you more now, up front, but it lasts so much longer, eventually you turn a profit. And this is true in many processes in all the energy fields.

So what I have proposed to the Congress is that we do basically two things. First of all, we give significant tax breaks to consumers to buy energy-efficient products of all kinds; and that we also give tax breaks for people to manufacture and develop them. And then, that we spend more money on research, like the project weīve had that the vice president headed for new generation vehicles, that we work with the auto companies and the auto workers union to develop more energy-efficient vehicles and to develop alternative forms of fuel, including biofuels, which could dramatically change the whole future with regard to the greenhouse gases weīve put into the atmosphere.

So thereīs a lot more we can do and we ought to provide tax incentives to the private sector to help us. But what I want to drive home is that right now it is no longer necessary in order to grow our economy to put more greenhouse gases, which cause global warming, into the atmosphere. You donīt have to burn more oil and coal to get richer now. Not in America; not anywhere else.

DiCaprio: Now, in Kyoto, in the 1997 Global Conference of Climate Change, it asked industrialized countries to drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. And when we tried to enforce such protocols in developing countries, they came right back to us and said that the U.S. is responsible for a quarter of the greenhouse gases that are going into the atmosphere. How can we not practise what we preach?

Clinton: Well, first, I think we should practice what we preach. And thatīs why I think itīs so important that the Congress pass the budget that I recommended that would dramatically increase our investment in developing the kinds of technologies and alternative fuels that would cut our greenhouse gas emissions.

But I also believe that we have a big stake in working with other countries to convince them that they, too, can grow without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, no matter how much we cut emisions in the United States, since this is a global problem, unless we also get China and India and the countries that have the big rain forests to work with us, weīre going to be in real trouble.

So, for example, when I was in Bangladesh recently I announced a debt-for-nature swap that we were going to help finance with them. I signed a bill to do the same thing with the South American rain forest last year. In India, we signed an agreement by which they commintted that as they continue to grow and need more power, that theyīll have more and more coming from natural and renewable sources in the future, so that we can work together, because it is a global problem.

But we should lead the way. And since we have already so much technology, and since, as Iīve just explained, just with these minor things we cut the power bills here at the White House by $100,00, and weīre going to do it across the federal government - if the federal government alone will do what we did at the White House, weīll save $750 million a year, and it will be the equivalent in terms of greenhouse gases and climate change of taking 1.7 million cars of the road. We should be doing that.

But we should also work with other countries. I tell other countries, the developing countries, Iīm not asking you to give up your growth; Iīm not asking you to give jobs up. Iīm asking you to pursue a different pattern of energy use, which will give you more growth, more jobs, and a healthier population over the long run. So I really think this is a win-win issue here. This is not the way it used to be 30, 40 years ago. You can grow an economy and use less energy if you do it right.

DiCaprio: Why do you think this issue is so constantly overlooked, and why do you think people donīt take it seriously enough? And for you, is it as important as something like health care or education?

Clinton: Oh, yes, over the long run, itīs one of the two or three major issues facing the world over the next 30 years. I think itīs because it takes a long time for the climate to change in a way that people feel it, and because it sems sort of abstract now. Thatīs why I think itīs important that programs like this are aired, and people like you - not politicuans or scientific experts, but cititens - express their concern.

And then itīs important that citizens know that it ought to be an issue - it ought to be a voting issue at election time. And I donīt say this in a hateful way, itīs just that people need to tell the politicians and the candidates they care about this, they want action. But our citizens need to follow the lead of a lot of our religious groups and other civic groups in actally doing things themselves.

Right now, if the American people knew all the options that are available to them and understood the economics, we would do much better. And, of course, if my plan were to pass the Congress and we were to give the tax breaks to consumers and manufacturers of these products and technologies, we could do it even faster.

DiCaprio: Now, the major polluters are obviously the big industries, such as the oil companies, who are one of the most powerful lobbies in the world. How do we convince them to change the way theyīve been doing business for the last century?

Clinton: Well, for one thing, oil is a depleting resource, and I think that oil companies and coal companies should be given incentives to become energy companies and to promote energy efficiency so that the oil they have will last longer and provide them a more steady stream of income, and so that they can develop other ways of earning money. They should become - they should think of themselves as energy companies, not oil companies.

And if you look at the record, starting with British Petroleum and its leader, some members of the oil industry are beginning to come over to support action on climate change. Some leaders of the auto industry are beginning to come over and support action on climate change. They understand that this is real and that when these gases get up in the atmosphere, it takes at least 50 years for them to dissipate. So we need to begin now a disciplined effort, which will be good for our economy - I will say again, this is good for the American economy and good for public health. We need to do this, and if we did it from today until the time youīre my age, weīd be a much wealthier country, a much healthier country, and with that kind of effort over that length of time, we could head off this crisis.

DiCaprio: How do we get power companies to replace their coal plants with cleaner technologies? And why donīt we make it so expensive for power companies to keep their old coal plants, that they have to invest in cleaner fuels?

Clinton: Well, I think you can do it in two or three ways. I think, first of all, itīs important to have very rigorous clean air standards. And I think itīs important also to provide them the tax incentives they need to move as quickly as possible to alternative energy sources.

A lot of the most enlightened utilities in America also see conservation itself as an energy source. PG&E in California, for example, but other utilities have understood that our inefficient patterns of using electricity are pressing them to use more traditional energy and emit more greenhouse gases and warm the climate.

So I think what we should do is to have a system where we finance not only the conversion to alternative energy, but also looking at conservation itself as a form of energy. When you save, you do the same amount of work with less energy, and itīs like creating more energy in a totally clean way. And I think that we should be financing those things in part with tax breaks from the American government. And Iīve pushed for that, and I will continue to do so.

DiCaprio: Now, youīve enacted tax credits for people who want to buy electric and fuel-cell vehicles. What are we doing to encourage oil companies to research alternative fuel technologies like fuel cells?

Clinton: Well, I want to give tax credits to them, too, to make it easier for them to spend money on that kind of research. And we are doing a lot of the basic research in the government. The work, for example, we did with the auto companies on developing fuel cells, on developing a dual-fuel electricity and gas engines -

DiCaprio: A hybrid vehicle.

Clinton: Hybrid vehicles - the work that weīve done to try to help them develop cars that run on electricity, but where the electricity regeneraters - the capacity regenerates so they donīt have to pull in every 80 miles and juice up the battery again, and a lot of the research weīre doing through the Agriculture Department in biofuels - all these things I think are very important. As we do more of that research, the basic research, we then make it more cost-effective for the enrgy companies and for the auto companies to take that basic research and quickly convert it into commercially viable research to develop products.

So I think our research at the national level should increase as well. I think itīs very, very important that the federal government do that. You know, to get out of the energy context, the Internet basically began as a federally funded research project. So a lot of the things we take for granted today in the private sector began with a heavy investment of basic research from the national government. And I think weīre still at a point where the national government should be doing a lot of this basic research.

Iīll just give you an example. If we could - suppose we get cars that will get 70 miles to the gallon, 80 miles to the gallon. And then suppose they can run on clean biofuels that donīt have any greenhouse gas emissions, instead of gasoline. Now, whatīs the problem today? The problem today is it takes about 7 gallons of gasoline to produce 8 gallons of ethanol or other biofuel. So the researchers today are working on a chemical breakthrough which would permit you to produce 8 gallons of biofuel with 1 gallon of gasoline. If you did that, if you improve the ratio to 8-to-1, and you had a car getting 70 miles to the gallon, it would be like getting 500 miles to the gallon of gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Then the whole future of the world would be different. I mean, this whole issue would be radically different. And then Americans, simply by buying fuel that would be cost-effective, could whip this problem. And weīre on the verge of those kinds of breakthroughs, but we need the energy companies to think of themselves as that - not oil and coal, but energy; we need the auto companies to keep supporting the work of combating global warming, not pretending it doesnīt exist, and many of them are today; and we need more action from ordinary citizens, smaller businesses and the government to promote energy conservation and alternative energy sources.

But again I say, this is not a problem that requires big taxes, big regulation and slow economic growth. It is no longer necessary - in the information company - with the dramatic scientific breakthroughs already made; we can grow economics faster by conserving energy rather than burning it up. And thatīs what people donīt yet believe. Thatīs the real big debate out there. If we can get people to really believe that we could have a great future using less energy, not more - traditional energy, I mean - then weīd have the battle half won.

And maybe that will come out of this program. Because thereīs nothing so dangerous to society than being in the grip of a big idea that isnīt true any more. And itīs just no longer true for America or India or China or Latin America or any other place to grow wealthy, they have to put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by burning up more coal and oil. Thatīs just not true anymore. And so we have to show people that thatīs not true and show them how they can make a difference, and then keep making these products and technologies available so that it becomes easier and easier to do what is not only the right thing environmentally, but the right thing for our long-term economic and public-health purposes.

DiCaprio: Many people have said in the past that the American dream was to buy a car and live in the suburbs. But it has created massive problems that have made us more reliant on our cars. Since it is so difficult for us to convince poeple to use mass transportation, how can we promote hybrid vehicles and convince people to give up their SUVs? For instance, if it only costs $575 a car to make them cleaner, why canīt you make it a law, like seatbelts?

Clinton: Well, Iīm not sure that it only costs $575 to make them cleaner in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. But let me say what I think ought to be done. I think - first of all, I think if these SUVs are going to be sustainable over the long run, they also are going to have to become much more fuel efficient and be able to run on alternative fuels. And I think the American people would pay a little more if they would do that. And the auto companies for the first time have said now that they want to bring in the SUVs and their other less-efficient vehicles into this sort of new energy future that weīre trying to build.

Secondly, I think that people will take mass transit more if it works better. Iīve worked very hard to support more investments in mass transit to make it more convenient and faster, including more high-speed rail. And I still believe that as our urban areas become more and more populated and traffic becomes more congested, quite apart from pollution in the air, if we can have clean, efficient and fast mass transit, people will begin to take it more and more and more - because they can do other things. Theyīre not wasting so much time if theyīre riding the train.

So, Iīm hopeful that you will see that. I very much hope that we will continue to develop mass transit alternatives, and I believe they will become much more popular with people, especially in the highly populated areas. But we canīt stop the development of fuel efficiency because a lot of people live in our rural areas and drive a long way to work, and thatīs not going to change anytime soon.

DiCaprio: Now, Lousiana is the second largest consumer of fossil fuels and the city most at risk for sea level rise. Canīt something be done like in Atlanta where the government withheld highway funds, making it the model city for environmental responsibility?

Clinton: Yes, we can. But under the law, we can only withhold these highway funds if the air pollution of a given metropolitan area is so high and they havenīt done anything about it, anything else about it. Then we can withhold the highway funds. They have to come up with an alternative program, which usually involves mass-transit and car-pooling, or some other means to reduce air pollution, and in this case, also to reduce greenhouse emissions.

And Iīm sorry to say I donīt know exactly the answer to your question, but it may be for other reasons, New Orleans is in full compliance with the federal laws on air pollution. Iīll just have to look and see.

But weīve tried to do that in more than one other place, to use the obligation of a city, a big metropolitan area, to have clean air to promote the development of alternative energy technologies and alternative travel patterns. And I do think that environmental standards can be used that way.

In other words, instead of telling people weīre going to shut you down, or imposing big, heavy, complicated regulations, say, hereīs the standard: If you want money, meet the standard. And then, in Atlanta, they figured out something to do that was very good for the environment and they got their money.

DiCaprio: Now, Iīm sure youīve heard so many reports from scientists and politicians and citizens. What do you think the best course for American citizens is within the next 20 years as far as helping the environment is concerned?

Clinton: Well, the biggest global problem by far on the environment is global warming. The biggest problem in many developing countries right now is safe water. We still have huge numbers of children dying from diarrhea and other related diseases and problems because they donīt have safe water. And there are local air pollution problems that are horrible in various places.

But internationally, the biggest problem is global warming. And I think the most important thing we can do is every citizen must first understand that he or she can do something about this and it wonīt bankrupt them. They should have their homes, their cars, their businesses, everything they do should be orientated toward energy efficiency and alternative energy technologies.

And then they should make this one of the issues that has to be discussed by public officials running for office at every level. This has to become not just an issue that we talk about once a year on Earth Day, but an issue that is debated along with health care and education and national security and other issues at every election.

You know, I was fortunate when I asked Vice President Gore to join me in 1992 that he had written a book on this, that he was interested in. He talked to me about it. And so we just, on our own initiative, have done a lot of these things. But we could have had a whole environment agenda and not dealt with this really very much. And then we had Kyoto, which we strongly supported, the Kyoto Protocol. But this needs to become an issue for every public official. It needs to become a matter of citizen debate.

So I think citizen action, and then citizens as voters turning it into a political issue, in the very finest sense - those are the things that I think need to be done right now and for the next several years to get America on the right track.

DiCaprio: Do you think we can eventually become a role model?

Clinton: Absolutely. We should become a role model because, just as weīve led the world in information technology with the development of the Internet and digital technology of all kinds, we have the technology here. And thereīs no excuse for nor implementing it comprehensively and quickly in every American community. And thereīs no excuse for not making available at an affordable price to every American family.

So if we take this on the way we did the Industrial revolution, the way we did the information technology revolution, there will be an energy revolution in the 21st century that will save the planet and actually increase health and wealth. That will be one - I predict to you that will be one of the great stories of the 21st century, that there was a dramatic revolution in work caused by a change in the source of energy, in the level of conservation, and in the availability of technologies that just werenīt there before.

DiCaprio: I hope so. Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.

Clinton: Thank you.

From - April 23, 2000