Will the Senate Move Us Toward Legislation To Cap Global Warming Emissions?

This piece was written by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Ali Frick, Benjamin Armbruster, and Brad Johnson.

Today, the Senate begins an historic floor debate on legislation that calls for mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D-CA) version of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (S. 3036). This is the first time the Senate will engage in full debate on legislation to cap global warming pollution and create a multi-billion-dollar market of tradeable pollution permits.

Lieberman-Warner would limit emissions from coal-fired power plants, oil refiners, and other major carbon polluters, reducing total U.S. emissions by 18 to 25 percent below current levels by 2020, and 62 to 66 percent lower by 2050. Such legislation would mark an important first step in the transition away from a fossil-fuel economy.

Although the bill is "by no means perfect," as Daniel J. Weiss, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy, argues, "the Climate Security Act is the most comprehensive and potentially effective global warming bill ever before the U.S. Senate." Not surprisingly, this fundamental restructuring is encountering stiff opposition from industry polluters. As former British prime minister Tony Blair wrote, this week's debate represents "a hugely important signal of intent on behalf of U.S. legislators."

Key Issues

Three core principles by which to judge climate legislation are whether it is scientifically sound, whether it makes polluters pay, and whether it ensures social equity. Lieberman-Warner takes major steps in the right direction with its mandatory reductions framework, assistance for low-income households, and many provisions to spur new jobs, renewable technology, and energy efficiency. Yet it falls short in a key aspect: auctioning revenues.

A Center for American Progress report released today explains the clear benefits of auctioning 100 percent of the greenhouse gas emission permits, as reflected in a bill introduced by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) last week. In contrast, Lieberman-Warner directs hundreds of billions of dollars of "transitional assistance" to polluters and allows 30 percent of the allowance market to be "offsets" instead of direct reductions.

A new call to action signed by 1,700 top climate scientists and economists calls for significantly deeper greenhouse emissions reductions than the bill would achieve. Last year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined that industrialized nations like the United States, whose prosperity is built on a century of unlimited greenhouse pollution, need to reduce emissions by at least 36 percent from current levels by 2020 and at least 85 percent by 2050 to have an even shot at avoiding climate catastrophe.

Polluter Allegiance

Even after recent lobbyist purges, Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) campaign is still run by corporate lobbyists who represent foreign and domestic oil interests -- such as top adviser Charlie Black. McCain's corporate tax cut would save just the 20 largest energy and utility companies around $3 billion a year,in addition to the $4 billion tax break for America's five largest oil companies. His voting record shows consistent opposition to renewable technologies and support for big oil.

McCain has stated his opposition to the Climate Security Act -- authored bytwo of his closest allies, Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and John Warner (R-VA) -- because it doesn't offer enough aid to the nuclear industry. CAP Senior Fellow Joseph Romm explains in a new Center for American Progress Action Fundreport, "Since nuclear power is a mature electricity generation technology with a large market share and is the beneficiary of some $100 billion in direct and indirect subsidies since 1948, it neither requires nor deserves significant subsidies in any future climate law." In fact, "Many other technologies can deliver more low-carbon power at far less cost."

The Mantle of Leadership

All three remaining candidates for president -- Sens. McCain, Hillary Clinton (D-NY), and Barack Obama (D-IL) -- believe that climate change is an issue of primal urgency. But their role in the upcoming Senate debate is unclear. Despite arguing on the stump that he "will not shirk the mantle of leadership that the United States bears" on global warming,McCain "will miss the entire proceedings because he will be campaigning all week."

In 2003 and 2005, climate legislation sponsored by McCain was voted down by the Senate under terms that limited debate. "[I]t seems if he can't be the star, he won't bother with so much as a walk-on part," Gristmill's Kate Sheppard wrote. While McCain has criticized Lieberman-Warner for insufficient nuclear subsidies, Clinton and Obama unveiled plans months ago that call for stronger emissions reductions and a broad, society-wide approach to global warming that goes far beyond capping emissions to reform the transportation and electricity infrastructure, prioritize energy efficiency, transform the housing industry, and create millions of new high-paying jobs.

However, neither Democratic candidate has committed to participating in today's debate or votes, as the final primaries in the contested campaign take place tomorrow.

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