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Former President Bill Clinton spoke to a group of reporters at his Clinton Global Initiative gathering in New York this week. With the backdrop of the United Nations General Assembly and the G20 summit around the corner, Clinton was voluble, direct and full of expertise on issues ranging from health care reform (“We should fight like crazy to make the bill as good as we can”) to Afghanistan (“This is an away game, right?”) to the rights of women and girls worldwide (“You’ve got a Secretary of State that thinks it’s the most important thing going.”)

Framing the motivations behind the CGI (now in its fifth year), Clinton said:

Most of the time we were in politics we only debated two questions: What are you going to do and how much money are you going to spend on it? … Nobody ever asked the third question: How do you propose to spend whatever you have to maximize your good intentions in concrete results? …We strive for a min of speeches a maximum of conversation about what to do.

The private conversation with Clinton began and ended on the future of energy--also the subject of President Barack Obama’s address to today’s United Nations summit on climate change. Clinton, hoping to lead the conversation on the global green future, stressed over and over that the politics of environmental action is not a matter of tree-hugging but of dollars and cents:

We’re trying to disprove this myth that still has a grip on Congress, especially Democrats from traditional industrial states: that this is a net negative for the economy. … It is a huge myth that still as a stranglehold. I am convinced it’s the greatest economic opportunity we have.

Clinton is right. For every 900 jobs created from nuclear energy, and every 800 from coal production, 2,000 jobs are created in solar generation and 6,000 jobs in weatherization and retrofitting. Lower-income and immigrant workers “can be trained quickly and mobilized quickly, and there is no limit to what you can do,” he added. The former president also repeatedly brought up Denmark, Sweden, Great Britain and Germany—the industrialized nations who were comparative economic successes in the 2000s, with new jobs, rising median incomes and reduced inequality. What do they have in common? “They’re going to beat their Kyoto targets,” he said.

Needless to say, the U.S. didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol under Clinton in 1997, and China—along with the U.S., the largest emitter in the world—is at the United Nations to seek some kind of absolution before the thorny December climate change negotiations in Denmark. It’s clear, said Sen. John Kerry at a Climate Week event on U.S. / China dialogue, that “there isn’t going to be an agreement” without both nations.

But while Chinese President Hu Jintao, addressing the UN for the first time, will have a bit of cover—China has leaped ahead of the U.S. in the development of solar and other renewable energy—Obama is tied down by domestic indifference toward climate action. Indeed, in his speech to the UN today, Obama garnered applause for affirming that “we have put climate at the top of our diplomatic agenda when it comes to our relationships with countries from China to Brazil; India to Mexico; Africa to Europe.” Still, he had to admit that

As we head toward Copenhagen, there should be no illusions that the hardest part of our journey is in front of us. We seek sweeping but necessary change in the midst of a global recession, where every nation’s most immediate priority is reviving their economy and putting their people back to work. And so all of us will face doubts and difficulties in our own capitals as we try to reach a lasting solution to the climate challenge.

Yesterday, Clinton also acknowledged the slim odds of victory on a cap and trade bill, currently languishing in a Senate committee—precisely because of the political energy being spent on health care reform. (Kerry also said as much). He encouraged doing bits and pieces of the change America needs, such as mandating efficiency for 15 everyday electronics. And Clinton was visibly disappointed about the green opportunities in the stimulus bill that passed Congress in February: “I wish [Obama] had gotten at least another $100 billion and put 100 percent of it into clean energy production,” he said wistfully.

America doesn’t want to lose its standing in the world … We’ll look long in the tooth as a country and look like yesterday’s country. We need to be tomorrow’s country. We need to give the president a tailwind going into Copenhagen.

—DAYO OLOPADE

Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.