The `greening' of Congress

TWO US senators recently introduced bills to help slow global climate warming. The bills could put the United States in the forefront of international efforts to combat the so-called greenhouse effect. Norway appears to be the only country to have officially committed itself to reducing carbon dioxide emissions - a key culprit in warming the climate. Norwegians plan to cut such pollution by 20 percent by the year 2000. If enacted, the Senate measures could form the basis for a more comprehensive strategy than one focused only on carbon dioxide.

A bill introduced by Vermont Republican Sen. Robert Stafford would ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) for all but medical uses by 1999. CFCs help destroy the atmosphere's protective ozone layer and play a major role in trapping heat in the atmosphere. Senator Stafford's bill would also require the US to cut CO2 emissions by half by the year 2000. It would also impose tight limits on nitrogen oxides and other gases that contribute to ozone smog at ground level.

A second bill, introduced by Colorado Democrat Timothy Wirth, asks for smaller reductions in CO2 emissions - 20 percent by 2000. But it also calls for a comprehensive US energy policy based on greater energy efficiency, more research into alternative energy sources, research into safer nuclear reactor designs, and broader use of natural gas to fuel power plants and vehicles. It would allot more money for basic atmospheric research. It would also steer US international aid efforts toward encouraging global population control, preserving rain forests, and supporting reforestation projects.

It might seem odd to introduce such major legislation this late in the session: Just after the bills were put into the hopper, Congress began its Labor Day recess. Lawmakers will be taking more breaks than usual this year because of elections, reducing the amount of time they can deal with the bills before the session ends.

But with the measures now on the table, hearings can begin on their specific proposals. That will help focus greater attention on the issue, especially, it is hoped, from presidential contenders Michael Dukakis and George Bush.

Clearly these bills will undergo changes. Even staunch environmentalists say a 20 percent cut in US CO2 emissions is unrealistic. Those emissions are expected to grow 20 percent during the '90s; it would be a heroic feat just to freeze them at 1988 levels. Wirth's recognition that the energy mix needs to include nuclear power plants has already drawn thunder from some environmentalists.

But Mr. Stafford, Mr. Wirth, and their co-sponsors deserve credit for showing that there is broad political support in Congress to slow global warming, that the support is bipartisan, and that Congress is open-minded enough to examine all the realistic alternatives to burning fossil fuels. The big challenge now will be to sustain congressional interest in a problem that extends far beyond the next election.

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