You are here

Vice President Gore Remarks At The U.S. China Environmental Forum, 1997

Vice President Albert Gore talked in Beijing about the link between environmental protection and economic development of U.S. and China.
March 25, 1997

MARCH 25, 1997

Mr. Premier, I am very pleased that we are devoting a large part of our meeting today to an issue of critical importance to both of our nations -- the link between environmental protection and economic development. I listened with great interest to your comments; I agreed with much of what you said about environmental protection. And I appreciate the opportunity to hear yourcomments.

I wish to thank our colleagues on both sides of this table forthe extensive work that has been done over the past several yearsto prepare the success of our forum. Speaking for our Americancolleagues, I would like to especially express gratitude to theChinese side for the expertise that has brought to thediscussions, for the commitment that has been shown to seriouslyaddressing the topics of mutual concern to our two nations, andfor the positive atmosphere in which these discussions have movedforward. We look forward to continuing this productive dialoguewithin the Forum on Environment and Development.

China and the United States are each great nations. Each of ournations began its path to greatness with abundant naturalresources. In our case, this is a relative recent history datingback less than 500 years. The settlers who first came to ourshores in the 16th and 17th centuries, sent back reports ofwildlife and farmland so rich and plentiful that many of theirrelatives in Europe simply did not believe them. From this baseof natural abundance the American nation grew.

Your history is much longer than ours, of course. Indeed,Chinese civilization was one of the original human civilizations. History teaches us that in the aftermath of the last ice age,when humankind moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture,civilization first developed in four fertile river valleys: the Nile, the Euphrates and Tigris, the Indus, and here in the valley of the Yellow River. In these places, human beings first developed technologies that allowed learning and culture to grow, first developed systems of organization to distribute agricultural surpluses, to irrigate the rich valleys on eitherside of these rivers, and to begin the development of humancivilization.

Here in China, civilization was preeminent in the world for muchof the period preceding the industrial revolution, and duringthat period of human history none of the other civilizationsmatched yours in terms of its great achievements and technicalproficiency. Mr. Premier, we are both great nations built longago on a base of natural abundance, but perhaps we share anothersimilarity. Perhaps in different ways, we have each come to take our natural resources for granted, assuming that we can use andsometimes abuse what nature offers freely and forever: I knowthat in our case this is so. For example, in the United States,we kept killing the buffalo, a magnificent animal that roved in the tens of millions across our continent, until it was almostextinct. We kept polluting our air and water even as our peopleexperienced more and more illnesses directly related topollution. Our workers became less productive, our crop yieldswere suppressed, our medical costs climbed. In the United States, air pollution still causes billions of dollars of lossesin our agricultural sector each year.

I would not presume to speak about your country with authority. I am only a visitor, but I understand from reading and fromtalking to many experts who have a deep knowledge of China beforeI came here, that many of your citizens share a concern about polluted air and water. I understand that there are significantconcerns about the impact that polluted air may have on your agriculture. In the United States, our prime crop growing areasare far distant from our industrial and populated areas, and theyare up-wind from our industrial areas. Here in China, your greatest agricultural areas are co-located with the greatpopulation centers and industrial centers in eastern andnorth-eastern China. Therefore, the potential for air pollutionto suppress crop yields is, because of geography and climate,much greater in China than in the United States. Also Iunderstand that, in what surely is an irony given the birth of Chinese civilization along the Yellow River, with the first continuing settlement some 10,000 years ago and the firstdeveloped civilization some 5,000 years ago, it is an irony thatnow for the first time in all that recorded history, for someportions of the year, the Yellow River lacks water and runs dry. When a river that has given life to so many for so long no longerhas water, it is a sign that change is worthy of attention.

Mr. Premier, I understand and appreciate that China has takenmany steps in the past few years to protect the environment while promoting economic development. I'm told that many of thesesteps are reflected in the Ninth Five-year Plan, the priority projects of China's Agenda 21, and the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA)'s Green Plan. I applaud these measures. I am especially impressed by China's commitment to eliminate leadin gasoline by the year 2000. In the United States, PresidentClinton and I have pledged a new focus on children's health. There are few steps that promise a more cost-effective improvement in children's health than the elimination of lead ingasoline. In our country, the scientists told us some years agothat there was a frightening correlation between the amount oflead put into the atmosphere, the amount of lead that shows up inthe bloodstreams of children, and the depressive effect on thedevelopment of intelligence in children. In response to thesetroubling scientific studies, we instituted, not too many yearsago, a program to eliminate lead from gasoline, and we are impressed at China's determination to do the same thing.

One issue of immense importance for our children and theirchildren, is the issue of climate change. The United States andChina are the world's largest energy consumers. And, of course,when we burn fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, we releasecarbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The steady build-up ofcarbon dioxide and lesser greenhouse gases from around the worldis warming our planet by thickening the atmospheric layer thattraps some of the sun's rays that normally return to space in theform of long infrared waves, but are trapped inside by the protective atmospheric layer. When it is thickened by thesegreenhouse gases, more of the heat is contained, and the planet's atmosphere slowly warms, as it has been doing.

Please allow me to present to you a summary of the most salientfacts that are persuasive to me in describing why this is soimportant. (Chart brought forward). This is... Can you see this? (Pointing to chart.) This is less complicated that thegraph makes it appear. It is based upon findings ofinternational scientists in Antarctica, where the ice is twomiles thick. The scientists drill a hole down through the iceand analyze the bubbles of air that are trapped in the snow eachyear when the snow falls. You are familiar, no doubt, with the way foresters can read tree rings, and tell us which years in thepast suffered droughts and which years were good for the growthof trees. In precisely the same way, these scientists read theinformation from each annual layer of ice going back 160,000years into the past. And they are able to measure two variables: the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air, and the temperatureof the air, which they derive from the ratio of oxygen isotopes. In any event, this is the current -- the middle red line istemperature. The blue line is carbon dioxide. This is ourcurrent temperature, and this is the last Ice Age, which ended 10to 12,000 years ago. This is the next-to-last Ice Age, 150,000to 160,000 years ago. And this is the period of great warming inbetween the last two Ice Ages, a time when the Antarctica iceshell broke up and sea level rose 23 feet.

In the United States these differences in temperature had dramatic effects. We did not exist at that time -- not evenChinese civilization existed at that time. But for purposes ofcomparison, in New York City, what is now New York City, thistemperature represents a pleasant day. This temperaturerepresents two miles of ice over Manhattan, so this amount of difference is associated with a dramatic change in the climateconditions of the earth.

Two final points on this: Number one -- it appears obvious evento my own untrained eye that the correlation between temperatureand carbon dioxide is quite close. The actual relationship iscomplex, but the overall correlation is beyond dispute.

The second point, the final point, is that because of the vastincrease in the size of our population and the power of ourtechnology, and especially the burning of fossils fuel inunprecedented quantities, we are increasing the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to a pointwhere, in the lifetime of people who are present in this great hall, we will push the level of greenhouse gases to this pointhere.

In my opinion, it is unethical for those of us who are living inthis generation to hand down to future generations a legacy thatis almost certainly associated with a reckless disregard for theconsequences of the earth's climate balance.

It is for that reason, of course, that the world is nowattempting to come to grips with this issue. The emissions ofcarbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are so intimatelyinterwoven with the fabric of our civilization that it is very difficult to imagine how we can successfully address this issue. But because of our ethical obligation to the future, I am convinced in my heart that we must find a way to do this. I amequally convinced that future historians will write, if we aresuccessful in doing so, that the solution was found by twocountries working together -- the United States and China. Ibelieve that we have the opportunity to work together and theunderstanding how to do this.

May I also say that China, in particular, should care a greatdeal about climate change, because of the predicted impacts onChina. China is particularly vulnerable to global warming, inpart because of the dense population on your sea coast. Risingsea levels accompanied by more frequent storms and more severe storms that are associated with a warming of the top layers ofthe ocean are predicted to be enormously damaging. The percentage of annual precipitation, both rainfall and snowfall,which comes in one-time large storm events, is predicated tocontinue to increase. This is associated, ironically, with bothincreased flooding and increased drought, because when more ofthe annual participation falls in large storm events, it does not recharge the underground aquifers but instead runs quickly offwith destructive effects and leaves the soil more vulnerable to drought with the increased rate of evaporation. In the pastseveral years, we have seen an unusual amount of extreme weatheraround the world. In my country we have had unusual floods thatare supposed to occur only once every 100 years, but seemingly occur every few years, causing our people to say, "I thought thatlast one was a 'hundred year flood'. Why are we having anotherone so soon? This summer, here in ... the last summer here inChina, you suffered from devastating floods following heavyrains.

In general, developing world economies are especially vulnerableto climate change. Experts estimate that climate change willcause GDP losses several times higher in the developing world than in the developed world. But there is some good news -- tofight climate change, the easiest thing to do is to improve theefficiency of our energy use. Both of our countries have madegreat strides in this regard in recent years, but we both have along way to go.

In the United States, there is a tremendous potential to improveenergy efficiency in many sectors and, as I understand it, theChinese Energy Research Institute has concluded that China couldactually reduce its energy needs by 40 to 50 percent if it raisedthe level of industrial energy efficiency to the currentinternational level of energy efficiency. I hope that in ourforum, we can find ways to work together to facilitate progressin this area. In addition, there are new technologies on thehorizon, such as wind and solar power, that can help us meet theneeds of our people without greenhouse gas emissions or other airpollutants. I hope we can work together on these technologies aswell.

In addressing the challenge of climate change, we are working ona mechanism that could add enormously to the resources availablefor China's economic development. It's called jointimplementation and the idea is simple -- if a U.S. company needsto reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, we'd like to let them dothat by investing money and transferring technology to China. This could cost less than doing it in the United States, andeveryone would win. Our companies could reduce their costs;China would get new money and new technology.

In our discussions under the climate convention, I hope we canwork together to make joint implementation a reality.

Mr. Premier, the United States recognizes its responsibilities anclimate change. We will do our part. We will provide our shareof leadership. But to solve this problem, we must each do ourpart. As the world's second largest emitter of greenhouse gases,soon to become the first, China, in our view, hasresponsibilities to the future as well. We must all worktogether for our children and grandchildren. And though thechallenges before us are great, the tools available are powerful. Chief among these are science and commerce.

Sound scientific research underpins our understanding of theenergy and environment challenges ahead. Our nations have a longhistory of cooperation on science, technology, energy, and theenvironment. For many years, for example, our scientists havecooperated in the fields of agriculture and natural resources forthe mutual benefit of both our countries.

The World Food Summit, convened in Rome last year, highlightedthe importance of food security for the world. With continued investment in research and the sharing of information, we canwork to meet this challenge in the years ahead. We should alsocooperate in areas such as the monitoring and mitigation ofnatural disasters.

One of the most important keys to realizing both environmentaland developmental goals is taking advantage of the innovative capacity and experience of the commercial sector. The United States has made tremendous progress over the past 25 years inprotecting the environment, with the commercial sector serving asone of the most important engines of this progress.

I believe that our private sector can help address many of ourenvironment and development priorities through investment, technology transfer, innovation, and trade. We must connect thepolicy discussions on energy, environment, and science tocommercial realities.

Like China, the United States has more work to do in applyingnew, clean production techniques and in promoting clean and efficient energy supplies. These efforts hold tremendouspotential for mitigating environmental hazards, and at the sametime, for saving money by improving industrial efficiency andreducing waste disposal and clean up costs. We have come to learn in our country that the least efficient commercialenterprises -- that waste the most money and produce the least profits -- also turn out to be the most heavily polluting enterprises. They consume large amounts of raw material for the purposes of turning them not into products, but into pollution.

In the United States, we used to believe that growing our economymeant that we could not protect our environment. Now we hav elearned, in our context, that the opposite is true. Protecting our environment helps us to grow our economy.

Mr. Premier, in closing, we have before us the co-chairs of fourgroups, representing areas where cooperation can make a profound difference for our futures. These four groups are energy,environment, science, and commerce.

Our teams will meet today to strengthen our partnership andexplore ways for cooperation. I ask each of these groups to move forward our cooperative efforts and identify how we can work together better. Our cooperation in the past has led us here today. Our efforts today will strengthen our partnership and laythe foundation for efforts by both our great nations, working together, to protect the environment and to promote economicgrowth.

For original copy, please visit