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New U.S. Congress Takes Climate Change Seriously


In his annual State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday (January 23), President Bush is NOT expected to announce any major shift in climate policy. The President remains firmly opposed to mandatory curbs on carbon dioxide emissions and legislative moves to cap and trade them in the marketplace. But, the newly constituted U.S.Congress appears to be heading aggressively in the other direction.

With its election victories in November, the Democratic Party now sets the political agenda on Capitol Hill, and environmental policy is high on their list of legislative priorities. In the first days of the new session, lawmakers introduced several bills that set the stage for serious debate over climate change.

Steve Cochran is director of the National Climate Campaign for Environmental Defense, one of the nation's largest environmental advocacy groups. He says the laws proposed by Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain and Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer are a good first step toward reducing climate-changing industrial emissions. "They both cap emissions. They both work to reduce emissions immediately. They both put emissions at 1990 levels by 2020." He adds that both bills should also send a very strong signal to the marketplace and to the world that "America is moving forward."

Cochran says the bills reflect a growing public awareness of the climate-change issue, and a trend among state governments and local jurisdictions to adopt their own climate-action plans. He says the proposed federal laws make sense for the national economy and for big business. "You're beginning to see those market signals that suggest that companies are seeing opportunity here, and are not just concerned about regulations."

But groups opposed to heavy government regulation of private enterprise are not pleased by the latest congressional initiatives. Kenneth Green, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, dismisses emissions cap-and-trade bills as "wishful thinking," and says they are not meaningful public policy." He believes the policy would raise the price and reduce supplies of energy. "Energy is one of the major inputs to our economy. It is one of the major inputs to people's quality of life, therefore it is a large negative act to restrict such a thing, and I don't believe that it will actually stand."

Green believes that if Congress considers greenhouse gas emissions to be such an environmental negative, lawmakers should impose a tax to offset any harm. "Lawmakers are trying to hide this in cap-and-trade schemes where the prices will be essentially invisible to people because it will simply be manifest in increased electricity rates or gas rates or power rates and so forth."

Green says congressional efforts should instead be focused on measures to keep excess carbon out of the atmosphere and means to promoting investment in, and adoption of energy-efficient technologies.

While Steve Cochran with Environmental Defense welcomes such debate, he says science is driving another agenda more closely aligned to the climate change bills now before Congress. "What the science says is that if we don't take a significant step now to reduce emissions, we will have failed and our sense is that we have to move and we have to move aggressively."

Steve Cochran believes the U.S. took a step backward when the Bush Administration chose to reject the Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty on climate change. It argued that Kyoto was flawed because its mandatory emission curbs would hurt the U.S. economy and that developing nations like India and China were not included. Kyoto emissions targets are set to expire in 2012. Many environmentalists believe that more progressive policies to address climate change concerns could help put the United States back at the negotiating table when talks resume.