Worried White House Sacks Wirth

Published December 1, 1997

On the eve of the UN-sponsored global warming conference in Kyoto, Japan, the Clinton White House parted company with its controversial lead negotiator on the global warming issue.

Criticized at home and abroad for the way he has handled the administration’s global warming agenda, Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth announced on November 19 that he will be leaving the administration by the end of the year. Wirth is largely seen as having worn out his welcome within the administration, where his tactless dealings with Congress and U.S. negotiating partners had made him a lightning rod for criticism. His departure, announced less than two weeks before the Kyoto conference got underway, was widely interpreted as an acknowledgment on the part of the administration that its global warming policies are in trouble on Capitol Hill.

In Congressional hearings on global warming, Wirth seemed at times oblivious to the costs the proposed treaty would impose on American industry and households. The former Democratic senator from Colorado was not well received among his erstwhile colleagues of both parties, who made little secret of their dislike for the way Wirth kept them in the dark on the probable economic consequences of the proposed Kyoto treaty. With the administration facing an uphill battle for ratification of a treaty imposing legally binding restrictions on emissions of man-made greenhouse gases, Wirth was the last man the White House wanted to take the lead in selling the agreement to the Senate. His departure is not thought to be voluntary.

Enter Stuart Eizenstat

His replacement is likely to be Commerce Undersecretary Stuart Eizenstat, President Clinton’s chief advisor on trade issues. Eizenstat, who served in the Carter White House, is considered much more attuned to the economic consequences of the administration’s position than was the ardent environmentalist Wirth.

As for Wirth, he will be leaving the State Department and going to work for Ted Turner, where he will head a foundation established to oversee the media mogul’s $1 billion donation to the United Nations.

With Wirth out of the way, the administration can concern itself with mending fences on Capitol Hill and in the regulated community. One of the problems Eizenstat will face is convincing opponents and skeptics of the administration’s global warming agenda that the proposed agreement will not spell disaster for U.S. industry.

In this regard, a troublesome issue has surfaced that will require the White House’s immediate attention. Which domestic agency will oversee the international emissions-trading scheme favored by the administration? Under the administration’s plan, U.S. emitters of man-made greenhouse gases will have to purchase emissions permits from some Federal entity. The only two Federal agencies equipped to do this are the Department of Energy (DOE) and EPA. DOE is not a regulatory agency, and Congress is not likely to make it such. That leaves EPA.

Industry fears that putting EPA in charge of selling emissions permits–aside from being a not-so-hidden energy tax–would put Carol Browner’s agency in charge of determining energy use in the United States, a prospect that has utilities, manufacturers, and other affected industries shaking in their boots.

New Head of UNEP

In a related matter, it has become official that former German environment minister Klaus Topfer will succeed the embattled Elizabeth Dowdeswell as director of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). Dowdeswell had drawn fire in recent years for her alleged mismanagement of UNEP. Topfer, who has recently overseen the relocation of Germany’s capitol from Bonn to Berlin, has expressed the hope that UNEP’s reputation can be restored.

UNEP would like to play a role in implementing whatever agreement is reached in Kyoto to limit emissions of man-made greenhouse gases. But the organization has been badly discredited in recent years, fueling American criticism of waste and corruption at the UN.