COMMENTARY: Changing Course

President Clinton Addresses the Waterkeeper Alliance

"I came by my interest in clean water honestly," former President Bill Clinton said at the Waterkeeper Alliance’s 10th anniversary conference in New York City on June 26. "I grew up in this national park, where we had the government protecting our precious water." Clinton delivered the keynote speech for the conference. He was joined on stage by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the chairman and founder of the organization, who added his own personal—and political—stories to emphasize the message of community service. Kennedy recounted hearing about how his aunt, Jackie Kennedy, asked her husband what the most important quality in a president was. "Curiosity," John F. Kennedy answered: "We need a president who is curious, one who wants to solve problems.”

President Clinton said environmental policies bring economic benefits, and needed jobs, too.© Julie Karceski

"I"m glad we’ve got a curious president again," Clinton added. "It’s a good thing to have." Clinton went on to talk about the three lakes near his hometown in Hope, Arkansas, and how the water of one was "clear as day." The others, however, had pollution problems, and when he was elected governor of Arkansas, he worked to clean up the contaminated lakes. The former president’s speech went from addressing global warming skeptics to commending the current president for his actions to urging greater advocacy. He told the audience that he reads the books of scientists who argue that climate change is a myth— if only, he said, to understand how they think. Ninety-five percent of experts agree that global warming is happening and man made, he pointed out. "Do you want to take a chance on that 5%?" the former president asked. "It’s better economics to do the right thing."

Clinton spoke about the loss of fresh water and increase of salt water due to climate change, citing the fact that one billion people on earth already do not have access to clean water. He said salt water has a conscience, trying to absorb as much greenhouse gas as possible. The oceans are important to us, Clinton said, because we depend on the chain of life. Those connections between water, aquatic life and human activity are going to be compromised with climate change. "If we just did the sensible things we need to do, we could reverse the problem," he said.

The bursting of the tech bubble in 2001, he went on, provided an opportunity to invest in green technology and create jobs. He took the opportunity to criticize the bygone Bush administration for their poor handling of environmental issues. "The government should have been looking for a source of new jobs," he said. "We would have said our source of new jobs is clean energy."

Clinton called the possible creation of a green job market a great boon to the economy, perhaps the greatest since World War II. He said the U.S. needs a new source of jobs every five to eight years, and green jobs, like building upgrading and wind turbine manufacturing, will provide Americans with work for another ten years. Furthermore, he argued, investing $1 billion dollars in wind or solar energy creates more jobs than the using the same money to build a coal plant. He explained how making user-friendly financing methods for green home improvements would increase the number of people building greener homes.

He commended the Waterkeepers in attendance, numbering 189 from 19 countries, for their service. "The thing I love about what you do is that you do," he said to laughter and applause. "You don’t just talk about it. Your mission is important."Clinton encouraged greater advocacy and advised the Waterkeepers to return to their communities and take steps to prove environmentalism is good economics. The trick, Clinton said, was not just proposing laws but facilitating action. He noted that if all Americans and lawmakers believed what he said, "You’d have the best climate change bill."

But, he added, "If you have a law and you don’t enforce it, you don’t have a law." R.F.K., Jr. likened the environmental movement to the Biblical struggle between David and the giant Goliath. "The problem," he said, "is that agencies become captive of industry. Laws don’t get enforced."Clinton echoed the same message. The challenge, he said, is "how to make the environmental laws mean something. How to take good intentions and change something."

CONTACT: Waterkeeper Alliance

JULIE KARCESKI is an editorial intern at E.