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Climate Change Heats Up Washington

Things are getting hotter in Congress around climate change, but can meaningful legislation be enacted to really turn the tide?
 
 
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A new commercial from the Ad Council begins with a pastoral scene. Leaves rustling on a branch. A gentle breeze. Curving train tracks surrounded by green grass. The camera stops on a middle-aged man.

"Global warming," he says, and the camera cuts to a fast-moving locomotive. "Some say irreversible consequences are 30 years away," he continues as it suddenly becomes visible that he is standing on the tracks and the train is barreling down on him. "Thirty years? That won't affect me." Just as the train is about to reach him he steps out of the way, revealing a young girl behind him on the tracks.

The commercial directs viewers to fightglobalwarming.com and then ends with the message "There is still time." That seems to be what environment groups are hoping to get across to the public -- and their elected officials -- that it's not too late to do something about global warming. Yes, the ball is rolling, climate change is happening, but it is also a snowball, and the quicker we slow the momentum, the better.

However, there are some a big "ifs" involved. We can stop climate change if we take action and if that action is really meaningful. We are past the point of gesturing and in need of real action. That is why the 110th Congress has piqued so many environmental hopes. But will a Democratic-led legislature be able to bring about the necessary change -- and will any meaningful laws that those houses pass make it through the final hurdle at the White House?

Off to the races

"For 12 years, the leadership in the House of Representatives has stifled all discussion and debate of global warming," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the Committee on Science and Technology last week.

"That long rejection of reality is over ... scientific evidence suggests that to prevent the most severe effects of global warming, we will need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions roughly in half from today's levels by 2050."

Pelosi said she aims to have legislation passed in the House to combat global warming by July and she is co-sponsoring a bill with Henry Waxman, D-Calif., called the Safe Climate Act to do just that.

But the House has already made some progress on energy issues.

Democrats got the ball rolling in their first 100 hours when the House passed HR 6, known as the CLEAN Energy Act of 2007. With 98 percent of Democrats voting in favor of it and 82 percent of Republicans opposing it, the bill aims "to reduce our nation's dependency on foreign oil by investing in clean, renewable, and alternative energy resources, promoting new emerging energy technologies, developing greater efficiency, and creating a Strategic Energy Efficiency and Renewables Reserve to invest in alternative energy, and for other purposes."

More succinctly, the bill's primary goal is to take taxpayer money out of the pockets of the oil industry and put it towards investments in clean energy -- which may explain the clear partisan split.

As Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters said, "This legislation eliminates $14 billion in giveaways to oil companies already making record profits and starts investing in clean renewable energy and energy efficiency. The inclusion of the CLEAN Energy Act of 2007 as part of the first 100 hours' agenda sends a clear signal that the new Congress is serious about creating real changes in our nation's energy policy. By saying no to Big Oil and yes to renewable energy, our country is taking a significant first step toward a clean energy future."

While it would seem that the House got off in the right direction, four bills were also introduced in the Senate to address global warming -- all call for mandatory caps on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The front runner for environmentalists is one put forth by Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., first introduced in the last Senate by now-retired Jim Jeffords of Vermont.

The Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, as it is called, would require a gradual move toward 80 percent emission reductions from 1990 levels by 2050 and incentives for renewable energy development.

"We think of the Boxer/Sanders bill as the gold standard because that bill would really set us on a path toward slowing, stopping and reversing global warming," said Julia Bovey, senior legislative communications associate of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"That's because it has bold targets to cut GHG pollution, and it is working on a scale that we think is vital if we are really going to be able to stop this problem in time. All of them have excellent elements, and it is really time for Congress to buckle down and choose the parts of the bills that will get us where we need to go."

All the bills basically call for some sort of cap-and-trade policy that would put a limit on the amount of GHG emissions that will be allowed and then enable companies to trade "pollution credits." The idea is to create a market incentive to cut pollution.

"The main issue is that you have to give carbon a value, and once it's got a market value, then people can trade it. Those who are able to cut their pollution are able to sell what they are not using to someone who isn't cutting and that means that those who are cutting pollution will be rewarded in the market place," said Bovey. "Once something like that is in place it gives the opportunity for enormous economic growth because polluters are paying. There will be jobs for investments in clean energy and businesses can improve their bottom line by doing the right thing."

While all the bills contain cap-and-trade language, they do differ. The McCain/Lieberman bill, also co-sponsored by Barack Obama, D-Ill., requires serious GHG reductions, but for some, the bill is a no-go for other reasons.

"While the bill's environmental objectives are a strong advance, one provision remains misguided," said NRDC President Frances G. Beinecke. "Despite the provision of billions of dollars in subsidies to the nuclear industry in the 2005 Energy Policy Act and over $85 billion in historical subsidies, the bill ... contains additional nuclear subsidies that NRDC continues to oppose. Additional giveaways to an industry made up of some of the world's wealthiest firms are neither necessary nor warranted."

Bovey added: "There are problems with nuclear power that we don't have answers for -- what to do with the waste -- whether taxpayers should be subsidizing an industry that is so expensive when there are cleaner, cheaper, faster, and better sources of energy. And when we look at McCain/Lieberman, we applaud that there is a defining cap and some other terrific elements but with the subsidy for nuclear power in there it is just a nonstarter."

The other two bills have even less enthusiasm from most environmental groups. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, and Arlen Specter's bill, R-Pa., is largely considered the weakest of the bunch. "It would implement a cap-and-trade program to gradually slow the growth of greenhouse-gas intensity, or the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per dollar of gross domestic product, beginning in 2012, but it wouldn't actually start reversing the trend until 2020," wrote Amanda Griscom Little for Grist. "The proposal also offers a 'safety valve' that would limit the amount of money companies would have to spend on emission-reduction efforts or emission allowances."

While the bill may have more of a chance of garnering bipartisan support, it sets the bar too low, as does the bill by Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Tom Carper, D-Del., which is also "too little, too late," Little wrote.

The White House's brick wall

There is good movement and rhetoric surrounding the issue, but what happens if the House and Senate pass something that keeps the heart of the Waxman/Pelosi and Boxer/Sanders bills intact. Could it be a political reality?

"I believe it is absolutely feasible if you see the change in the American people's feelings about global warming in the last year or two," said Bovey. "Global warming deniers have seen some of their funding dry up, the Bush administration has been forced to admit that it is a serious problem, and the Al Gore movie has really gone a long way to help people understand what has long been considered a scientific issue. The American people have the will to slow, stop, and reverse global warming, and they sent a new cast of characters to Washington, and people are really hopeful that this new Congress will be able to do it."

Whatever bills are passed by Congress will need to be signed by the president and considering it has taken Bush his lifetime to even utter the worlds "global climate change," the chances of him signing meaningful legislation is very questionable.

His new budget shows how he prioritizes environmental concerns, especially global warming.

"This budget should have been an opportunity to start moving America beyond oil. An opportunity missed," said Heather Taylor, deputy legislative director for the NRDC.

"For instance, only 10 percent of the money for new energy development in this budget is for clean, renewable energy. The other 90 percent is for technologies from the past that pollute our world and fail to provide us economic growth. The programs funded by this budget would actually make global warming worse, not better."

According to an analysis of the budget by leading environmental and conservation groups, "the most disappointing part about this budget, however, may not be its funding cuts, but its failure to chart a new environmental course for the nation and begin wrestling with the global warming crisis that is affecting our planet, especially in light of the president's call to end our addiction to oil."

The Senate's Environmental and Public Works Committee released a statement saying, "The president also proposes to cut the EPA's science and technology budget for climate protection by about $5 million, from $18.64 million in 2006 to $13.1 million at a time when we need more global warming research, not less."

It is apparent that the Bush administration will be continuing to tune out not just scientific reality, but also political reality.

Despite all this, Bovey says that the NRDC is hopeful that cap-and-trade legislation will be passed to require significant GHG reductions over time and to spur investments in clean energy. They are also pushing for the government to renew programs for green building and other energy-saving incentives.

But others are less optimistic and more realistic. "All the buzz has, for the first time in decades, awakened greens to the possibility of fundamental change," wrote David Roberts for Tom Paine.

"But they should remember that the interests of the planet and the interests of the new congressional leadership are not entirely in alignment. Right now, the overriding political objective for Pelosi and Reid is to position the party favorably for the 2008 elections."

Things are still politics-as-usual in Washington. But the Democratic Congress has responded to the public's call for action on climate change. They are eager to show that global warming is a priority, but it is simply a question of how much can be done -- and whether it will be enough.

"A climate-change bill that can pass through today's Congress, much less avoid a Bush veto, will inevitably be feeble. Worse, it could lock the U.S. into a slow, bureaucratic response and dampen public pressure to act," Roberts said.

There are reasons to be hopeful, to be wary, but most of all, to be vigilant. The passage of meaningful legislation will take public pressure on our elected officials -- all the way up to the White House. People are already mounting a day of action, Step It Up 2007, on April 14 and nonprofits such as the NRDC and Environmental Defense can help people make a difference in other ways.

The next generation is standing on the tracks, and we can't let Congress simply step aside.

Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.

 
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