At an event Wednesday celebrating the renaming of the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in his honor, former president Bill Clinton began his remarks by saying the accolade could easily have gone to his vice president, Al Gore.
During the eight years of his presidency, Clinton presided over some of the most sweeping environmental protections in the nation’s history, pushed by Gore and others in the administration.
Clinton’s environmental agenda included a massive cleanup of polluted Superfund sites, protections for millions of acres of wildlands and the enforcement of tougher air-quality standards under the Clean Air Act.
Some of Clinton’s actions seemed politically motivated, such as when he declared Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante a national monument shortly before the 1996 election at the suggestion of his pollster, Dick Morris. Others had bipartisan consensus, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996.
Clinton said at the event that the new William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building “fits because of what we did,” motioning to his environmental team in attendance, including Carol Browner, who was the EPA administrator during Clinton’s terms.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, had to fight for the legislation that bestowed the honor on Clinton.
The EPA headquarters already had a name — the Ariel Rios Building, honoring an undercover Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent killed in the line of duty three decades ago at age 28.
The building once housed the ATF. Now that the agency has its own building, Rios’s family supported naming a reflecting pool for him instead.
The EPA was proposed and created in 1970 by President Richard M. Nixon.
The EPA “will forever be known as the William Jefferson Clinton building,” Boxer said, praising the former president for expanding the economy and environmental protections in the 1990s, against strong political opposition.
Browner described economic growth coupled with environmental protections as her former boss’s mantra. Key to Clinton’s success, she said, was his recognition “that the EPA’s work was about protecting the most vulnerable among us, the children,” she said. “When you do that, you protect all of us.”
As Browner and Boxer lavished praise, members of Clinton’s administration looked on, including Dan Glickman, the former Agriculture Department secretary who oversaw forests.
Gore, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for his environmental activism, did not attend.
A youth choir sang “This Land Is Your Land” at Clinton’s request. He decried instability in world politics leading to terrorism and religious discord, and a population explosion that strips natural resources such as fishing stocks, saying only political unity can overcome those woes.
“The real message of this day is . . . you can have a growing economy with more jobs and rising incomes and a sustainable environment,” Clinton said.
He closed his remarks with a prediction about the world’s largest polluter, China. (The United States has the second highest level of carbon dioxide emissions.)
In Beijing, where air quality is among the poorest in the world, “there will be a massive effort to clean it up,” leading to investment and jobs, Clinton said.
Clinton held up that hopeful forecast as a model of how Democrats and Republicans should cooperate to do the same in the United States, where confronting the challenges of climate change can produce industry and jobs, he said.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.