He wasn’t known as the eco-warrior president. Nor was he a visionary on energy independence. But Bill Clinton is now using his legendary charisma and silver tongue to help mobilize the shift away from fossil fuels.

Bill gets heated up over climate.

Photo: Clinton Presidential Foundation.

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“[T]he decisions we make or fail to make in this area may have a bigger impact on America and the world than virtually all the things that were debated” in the recent presidential campaign, Clinton told a crowd of 900 students and business execs gathered at New York University last week at an energy and global-warming conference. The event was convened by the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, an organization established by the former president to help people worldwide deal with the challenges of global interdependence. Clinton said he was “personally disappointed” that “there was almost no serious discussion of energy and the environment” leading up to last month’s election.

Later he added, “Tomorrow is here. It’s time to stop worrying when, if ever, the current administration will change its mind about climate change. We should still continue to lobby for it. It’s time to let Sen. Lieberman and Sen. McCain do the very best they can do to pass [their Climate Stewardship Act], and if you have any influence with anybody in Congress, Republican or Democrat, for God’s sake use it.”

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But beneath the cheering and clapping at the NYU auditorium, there was a certain befuddlement among some enviros in the audience who were wondering: So where was Clinton on these issues when he was president?

Why, for instance, didn’t Clinton deliver on auto fuel economy over the eight years he was in office? There wasn’t even incremental progress in this area during his administration. And where was Clinton on greenhouse-gas caps? The environmental community tried to move them along, but their efforts didn’t go far.

While it’s true that Clinton had to spend much of his time and political capital dueling a belligerent Republican-controlled Congress, he nonetheless failed to show great leadership or leave behind a remarkable legacy on the environment. But people close to him insist that the issues of energy independence and global warming have since grown truly close to his heart, and may be areas where we see him increasingly active in the years to come.

“It basically took him until his second term to get serious about these issues,” a former Clinton staffer told Muckraker. “I think it was a combination of four years of lunches with Al Gore, who schooled him hard, and pressure from the international community to make some moves on climate change that brought him around.”

Dan Lashof, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council‘s air and energy program and a former EPA staffer, said, “[M]y guess is that if he’d had a third term, he would have made huge progress on these issues. We were moving in the right direction.”

Not surprisingly, what intrigued Clinton most weren’t the domestic policy angles, but the grander-scale challenge of finding global solutions to climate change. It is, after all, an intrinsically Clintonian challenge — a sprawling, complex, international problem with many moving parts, including foreign policy, economics, and health care.

“It fits his intellect, it’s like three-dimensional chess,” said Jon Coifman, director of media relations for NRDC. “It’s seemingly unsolvable, which is exactly the kind of challenge Clinton likes to tackle — like the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Coifman added that “everything I’ve heard from people in this circle is that climate change isn’t just a fleeting interest for him — it’s the real deal. When he’s thinking about legacy issues and the big picture, it’s a factor. Whether this becomes his Habitat for Humanity isn’t clear, but I think we’ll hear a lot more from him on this.”

Warming Up to Global Warming

Clinton’s ties to the climate-change issue are stronger than he often gets credit for, some supporters argue. During his second term, he was pushing both domestically and internationally for a global climate-change agreement, said David Sandalow, former assistant secretary of state under Clinton. “And he realized that in order for the issue to have resonance, it had to be discussed optimistically in terms of clean-energy opportunities: We need to develop new technologies in this area to stay competitive in global markets. We need to export them to the developing world that’s on the cusp of tremendous growth.”

The Clinton administration took the lead on the global stage in applying the notion of cap-and-trade systems to the issue of climate change. According to Sandalow, the concept of a market-based solution to climate change “was essentially made in the U.S.A. Now it’s the foundation of the Kyoto Protocol, and the irony is that now almost the entire industrialized world is adopting it and we’re not.”

Going forward, Sandalow sees Clinton possibly becoming an “apostle for clean energy, a messenger for economic opportunities associated with clean energies and market-based solutions.”

Jim Kennedy, Clinton’s spokesperson, told Muckraker that he “cannot be specific about what other roles our foundation and President Clinton might play in this area going forward, but I can say that he sees it as a top-tier global challenge … along with HIV/AIDS.”

The former president is going to address the issue in both domestic and international forums, according to Kennedy. “He once had a bully pulpit, and now he has a bully podium,” he said. And Clinton plans to use it, particularly on the international stage: “He believes we need to take the [clean-energy] message to the developing world, and to the Middle East, encouraging oil-producing countries to invest in renewable resources, because they’ll be hit the hardest when fossil fuels are phased out.”

It’s often been said that Clinton could talk a dog off a meat wagon. If he can talk Middle Eastern dictatorships off the oil wagon, it will be a rhetorical feat for the history books. Come to think of it, the U.S. isn’t exactly going to get off lightly during the phaseout of fossil fuels either, so perhaps Bubba — who, despite everything, left office with a record-high approval rating — could spare some of his persuasive power for the home front. He certainly won’t find much competition.