The next five months may reveal how the US plans to spread the burden of cutting carbon emissions. Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants the House to pass a climate-change law by July 4. If her goal is to save the planet, then it can't be politics as usual in Congress.
A shared sacrifice among all Americans, from fossil-fuel producers to CO2-emitting consumers, is needed to reduce greenhouse gases. Estimates for the macroeconomic costs go from 1 percent of GDP on up. In concrete terms, any government actions such as carbon caps or a carbon tax will probably bring steeper electric rates, costlier cars, higher gasoline prices, an increase in the number of nuclear-power plants, more expensive houses and appliances, and so on.
Europe, Canada, and Japan have already started down this path under the Kyoto treaty, and the stiff resistance and political favoritism in those countries show that the task may not be so easy for the United States.
Making the tough decisions in Congress should not be done by the normal practice of mutual back-scratching, secret pork-barreling, or special-interest lobbying. Previous "energy bills" have been loaded with preferences for one industry over another, or a desire to protect consumers from the eventual necessity of reducing US reliance on fossil fuels. And government has a poor track record of picking winners in emerging or alternative energies.
The task of rolling back global warming will require cool heads that rise above the narrow interests of campaign donors, powerful voting blocs, K-Street lobbyists, or local constituencies.
Ms. Pelosi recognized such obstacles by setting up a "select committee" on global warming, chaired by Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts. Even though the new committee won't be able to push through legislation, it can make recommendations that might undercut the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.
That panel's chairman, John Dingell (D) of Michigan, has sometimes protected the interests of the US auto industry, such as when fuel-efficiency standards come up. The House speaker will probably need to do more to make sure such committees act in the broadest public interest.
And President Bush's energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, has acknowledged that the powerful ethanol lobby will need to give up the special import tariffs and tax credits that now give it an unfair commercial edge. "At some point in the future all these technologies need to stand the test of the free market," Mr. Bodman said. The science has yet to prove that smogmaking ethanol uses less energy to produce than it yields in vehicles.
To some degree, oil prices at $50-plus a barrel are already driving the US economy toward cleaner energies and greater fuel efficiencies. And a wellspring of individuals, cities, and states trying to wean themselves off carbon-based energy shows Congress the level of sacrifice Americans will accept in their wallets and lifestyles.
A number of different carbon- reducing bills are already on the table in Congress. In coming weeks, US lawmakers should think far beyond their reelection and pass a global-warming law that most Americans will accept, even if reluctantly.