Warm-up for a global-warming law

Congress to begin work on a bill the next president would be willing to sign.

Andy Nelson - staff/file
During high tides, sea water often partially covers the road on Smith Island in Maryland, due to a combination of rising sea levels and sinking land. As Congress begins work on a new global warming bill, the National Science and Technology Council and the US Climate Change Science program release and assessment that concluded there is already evidence of sea-levl rise.

Call this week’s global-warming debate in the Senate a marker in the sea change in public opinion on the issue – and a window on what the next Congress may do to curb carbon emissions.

The top presidential nominees in both parties back a cap-and-trade system to limit US emissions of greenhouse gases. President Bush opposes it, and the White House is expected to detail objections to the 494-page Senate bill on Monday.

While the debate that begins Monday on the Senate floor is unlikely to yield a bill Mr. Bush will sign, it is already realigning prospects for legislating in a new administration.

For Republicans, who face dim prospects in November congressional elections, the bill offers an opportunity to get behind their probable presidential nominee. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona was an early and outspoken voice for mandatory emission-reduction targets and timetables. Other Republican lawmakers remain adamantly opposed to a big federal role.

For Democrats, it’s a high-profile occasion to target Republican lawmakers who vote against an issue that has been gaining favor with the public and with a widening coalition of business, labor union, and public-interest groups.

“The political landscape on global warming has dramatically changed,” says Jeremy Symons, a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). “We’ve never had union support in the past or this depth of support from business and faith groups,” he adds, citing a letter last week endorsing the bill signed by Alcoa, General Electric, and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, as well as the NWF, Trout Unlimited, and the Interfaith Power and Light Campaign.

The Senate bill would mandate that US emissions of greenhouse gases be cut to 19 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and up to 71 percent by 2050. The bill also proposes a $800 billion “tax relief fund” over the next four decades to help Americans pay energy bills.

“Senators have come together across party lines to write a law that will not only enable us to avoid the ravages of unchecked global warming, but will create millions of new jobs and put us on the path to energy independence,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, in the Democratic response to Bush’s weekly radio address on Saturday.

Senator Boxer, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, is presenting an amended version of a bill first sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut and John Warner (R) of Virginia.

The bill proposes establishing a trading system for carbon-emission credits that supporters say will give companies a market incentive to reduce greenhouse gases. Critics say it creates a vast new federal bureaucracy at a high cost to the US economy and taxpayers.

In the House, Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, chair of a Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, is introducing a “cap and invest” bill this week that also aims to cap emissions and use some $8 trillion in revenues expected to be collected from polluters to invest in clean technologies.

“The chorus for change is deafening,” he said at a press conference at the Center for American Progress last Wednesday. “Today we must start the clean energy age.”

Many Senate Democrats were wary of introducing a bill identified with Senator Lieberman, who switched his party affiliation to Independent after losing his 2006 primary race and is endorsing McCain for president.

At the same time, Republicans are expected to fall out over the size of the federal role in curbing the problem. Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, who is leading opposition to the bill in the Senate, says the bill will increase household costs for an Oklahoma family of four by $3,298 a year and raise taxes on Americans by $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

White House objections pertain, among other things, to the bill’s timetable for achieving reduction targets.

“The goals that it sets for carbon-emissions reductions would require a technological leap to achieve those reductions, but does not have at all a realistic time frame for allowing technological advances to emerge,” says White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto. The president also opposes “burdensome new requirements” and “extremely high costs.”

In an April 16 address on global warming, Bush announced a new national goal: to stop the growth of US greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025, by accelerating the development of new technologies.

Meanwhile, critics of the bill aim to discourage Republicans from breaking with the White House on the issue. “The economic consequences are devastating,” says former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, now president of the conservative Club for Growth, which launched a TV and radio ad campaign against Democratic senators in Montana and West Virginia and Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, who are seen as likely to back a cap-and-trade system.

Democrats don’t expect to pass this bill,” says Mr. Toomey. “They want to demonstrate to their core constituents that this is what they want to do and Republicans won’t let them. It will be a useful political ploy for them.”

Last week, the National Science and Technology Council and the US Climate Change Science program released a long-awaited assessment of the effects of climate change on the United States. The report concluded that there is already evidence of sea-level rise and an increase in hurricanes, forest fires, insect outbreaks, and heat waves.

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