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Climate Change Compromise Waits

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/warner-lieb1.jpgSens. John Warner (D-Va.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) (WDCpix)

As the Senate prepares to tackle the thorny topic of global warming, supporters of a bipartisan proposal to cut U.S. carbon emissions face a difficult sell.

In the eyes of conservatives and the business community, the bill goes too far to burden U.S. industry, while liberals and environmentalists maintain it doesn’t go far enough to address the crisis of global climate change. Toss in a White House veto threat and a contentious presidential election, and even sponsors of the bill concede it has little chance of gathering the 60 votes needed to move through the Senate chamber.

For that reason, lawmakers and stakeholders are already looking to next year as the more feasible timeline for progress. The dynamic has turned much of the debate’s focus to the major presidential candidates, all three of whom back a system of capping carbon emissions — the very provision that prompts the strongest objection from the Bush administration. For some observers, next week’s Senate debate marks a preview for what will be possible in 2009.


Illustration by:Matt Mahurin

“It’s a good exercise for flushing out where the politics stand,” said Erich Pica, director of domestic policy for Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.

Under the bill, sponsored by Sens. John Warner (R-Va.), Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), coal-fed power plants, oil refineries and many other greenhouse-gas-producing facilities would face a cap on how much of those gases they can emit each year. Between 2012 and 2050, the cap would shrink annually, forcing companies to adopt cleaner, more efficient systems of energy consumption. Facilities that adjust more quickly and emit less than their allowance could sell the difference to others that don’t. The bill, its sponsors say, would bring carbon emissions to 2005 levels by 2012, and cut an additional 30 percent below that by 2030.

Supporters of the cap-and-trade system say it creates a balanced carrot-and-stick approach to reducing the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases. But environmentalists, while supporting the concept, contend the Senate proposal sets the caps too high. Friends of the Earth, for example, favors a plan that would cut carbon emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The Senate bill, by contrast, would reduce emissions by 66 percent over that span, at best.

“In the short term or the long term, it just doesn’t get us on track to reduce our CO2 emissions,” Pica said. “Science tells us what we need to do, and this bill doesn’t get us even close.”

Across the ideological divide, conservatives have a different set of complaints. “Cap and trade is a tax imposed on business, disguising the true costs and thus making it more politically palatable,” a May 27 Wall Street Journal editorial states bluntly. “In reality, firms will merely pass on these costs to customers, and ultimately down the energy chain to all Americans.”

Anticipating that energy costs will rise as the result of reducing carbon emissions, the Senate bill creates a system under which Washington will auction a certain percentage of the right-to-pollute allowances. A portion of that revenue would go to low- and middle-income families faced with rising energy costs.

Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal policy group, told lawmakers last month that just 14 percent of the value of the tradable emissions permits would be enough to provide relief to the poorest 40 percent of the nation’s families.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates those auctions could pull in $1.2 billion in the next decade alone.

But business leaders argue that such a system would hinder the nation’s industry at a time when it is already being squeezed by rising fuel costs and global competition. And they have a great deal of support in Washington.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) has been a vocal critic of the Senate bill, arguing that the proposal would exacerbate the nation’s current economic troubles by forcing companies — and jobs — overseas. In a speech delivered at a climate change summit in Columbus earlier this month, Voinovich called the bill “a massive bureaucratic intrusion into Americans’ lives” that would have little tangible effect on global temperatures.

“This bill would implement a reckless and dangerous policy whose primary metric for success is the amount of economic pain it extracts from our country,” Voinovich said. “Beginning with higher fuel and electricity costs, the bill will send ripple effects through every sector of the nation’s economy.”

On Wednesday, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the House Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee, unveiled his own plan to address the global warming problem. Markey’s bill is far more ambitious than the Senate proposal, however, and is also being treated as a starting point for the global warming debate likely to carry into next year. For some environmentalists, the delay is strangely welcome.

“Under the Bush administration,” Pica said, “we’d never get a bill that gets the job done.”

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