WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency’s Washington headquarters now carries the name of former President Clinton, who acknowledged Wednesday that the honor could have gone instead to his vice president, Al Gore, who is perhaps best known for his work on climate change.

But he and others at the naming ceremony said it was a fitting tribute, not so much to the man, but to his administration’s environmental legacy.

“I think it more than sort of fits, not for me, but for what we did,” Clinton said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, first proposed dedicating the federal building for the 42nd president. Her effort eventually passed unanimously in both the House and Senate, but only after a compromise named a Texas courthouse for presidents George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush.

Boxer noted that though most remember Clinton’s presidency for a growing economy and balanced budgets, he made an important contribution to the environmental cause by asserting that “a strong economy and a strong environment go hand-in-hand.”

PHOTOS: 2013's memorable political moments

“That’s the greatest secret,” she said. “Clean air, safe drinking water, cleaning up toxic sites, clean rivers and streams – that’s all essential for a strong economy.”

Boxer praised the Clinton administration’s work to strengthen drinking water standards, clean up more than 600 Superfund sites and preserve and protect 4 million acres of parkland. She said Clinton is continuing his work on environmental causes now “in a way that’s a win-win for everybody.”

Clinton ironically cited a failure of his – the inability to pass the Kyoto treaty to limit greenhouse gases – to show how thinking has evolved on the issue. Now, he said, greening projects have the potential to be a major driver of economic growth while addressing the threat of climate change.

“In the late ‘90s everybody believed that you could not stay rich, get richer or grow rich unless you put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Nobody who’s looked at the evidence believes that anymore,” he said.

Carol Browner, who served as the EPA administrator for the entire Clinton presidency, said he set an important precedent for aggressive implementation and enforcement of environmental laws,  particularly now when it has become difficult to pass new ones.

“This is a legacy that should not be overlooked. Leveraging executive authority in the ’90s paved the way for the actions we need to take today,” she said, noting that President Obama has directed the EPA to develop new regulations to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

The William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building, as it is now called, first opened in 1930s as the headquarters for the U.S. Post Office Department. It has been home to the EPA since 2002.

The building had been named the Ariel Rios Federal Building in 1985 to honor a former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent who was killed in the line of duty. Rios’ family supported the naming of a reflecting pool for Rios at the agency’s new location in northeast Washington.

Follow Politics Now on Twitter and Facebook

Michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli