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When Will Congress Join the Race to Be 'Green'

From foreign governments to U.S. mayors to mega-retailers like Wal-Mart, everyone is going "green." When will Congress get on board?
 
 
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Elected officials far and near are doing it. The European Union is doing it. U.S. governors are doing it. Even U.S. mayors are doing it. France's Jacques Chirac calls it "revolutionary," and California's Arnold Schwarzenegger says "the time to act is now." Even Wal-Mart is getting off the dime.

The world is waking up to the crisis of global warming. But the U.S. Congress is still dozing. Given the fact that the United States produces 25 percent of all greenhouse gases, while only accounting for 5 percent of the world's population, it is not difficult to understand why Congress is so intractable on this issue.

Prodding Congress to move on this issue, the European Union's recent March summit set aggressive targets. The EU committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent (from 1990 levels) by the year 2020. And if non-EU nations like the United States respond with similar climate change legislation, the EU will raise their reduction to 30 percent. EU leaders also pledged renewable energy targets comprising 20 percent of the total energy consumption by 2020.

U.S. governors have been no less inspiring. During the National Governors Association winter meeting in February, five U.S. governors (from states like California where energy consumption is of critical concern) agreed to regional targets for reducing greenhouse gases, a market-based program such as a cap-and-trade system, and a multi-state registry to track and manage regional emissions.

But perhaps the most scrappy and savvy of these "doers" are the U.S. mayors. Over 400 mayors are striving to meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol standards for their municipalities, pledging to reduce municipal emissions through energy conservation and efficiency strategies. Success stories abound.

The Feds

So, where is the U.S. government in all this?

To be fair, there are hopeful rumblings in the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, and even the Department of Defense. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is leading the debate in the Senate, with support from McCain (R-AZ), Lugar (R-IN), Kerry (D-MA), Sanders (I-VT), and others. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) recently established a select committee on climate change in the House, with a July 4 deadline.

Undersecretaries in the Defense Department are regularly hosting an "Energy Conversation" series to discuss energy conservation and efficiency potential based in part on the Air Force's reliance on renewable energy. The U.S. Air Force is the largest purchaser of renewable energy in the nation.

Yet, despite all these positive maneuvers, no climate change legislation exists that either taxes or caps greenhouse gas emissions. Congress is not ready to offer tradable carbon credits. It isn't providing incentives to federal agencies, states, cities or businesses to reduce emissions through energy conservation and efficiency programs.

Keeping climate change legislation at bay is the fossil fuel industry, the largest recipient of federal energy-related subsidies. Congress is also concerned about potential job loss and claims that climate change legislation will ruin the U.S. economy.

However, current and projected levels of global insecurity and global warming should overwhelm all three concerns. The fossil fuel industry is quickly becoming a liability given its investments in regions where U.S. standing is failing fast and resource dependability is unpredictable.

Furthermore, concerns over job loss and a ruined economy will be quickly overshadowed by the devastation caused by intensified hurricanes, tornadoes and typhoons, severe drought, rising sea levels, and frequent heat waves.

Wal-Mart to the Rescue?

Despite these realities, economic concerns prevail. Claims of economic ruin prevented President Bush from signing Kyoto. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who believes global warming is based on "faulty science" and who was recently appointed by House Republican Leader Boehner to Speaker Pelosi's select committee on climate change, fears that emissions regulations will hurt the economy.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And proving this point is an unlikely ally: Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart sees moneymaking opportunities from renewable energy and energy conservation/efficiency initiatives. Investing $500 million annually in technologies and innovation to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2012, Wal-Mart's ultimate goal is to run entirely on renewable energy.

Wal-Mart execs claim substantial financial returns from such investments and more to come as upfront costs are quickly recovered. Wal-Mart understands that renewable energy, especially when locally produced, cuts costs and reduces reliance on fossil fuel. Consequently, the benefit to American communities is substantial, providing new jobs (from new infrastructure) and weaning the country from its dependency on insecure foreign oil sources.

The fact that companies like Wal-Mart are now "doing it" undermines the prevailing criticism facing emissions legislation. Going green is a moneymaking, job-creating endeavor, and results in a more secure America. With the corporate sector joining the ranks of the EU, the U.S. governors, and the U.S. mayors, it will now be politically safer for the U.S. Congress to get in on the act -- better late than never.

Michael Shank is the government relations officer at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

 
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