Commentary: Global Warming: Suddenly The Climate In Washington Is Changing

Even some Senate Republicans are calling for action, with Bush increasingly isolated

Because of the carbon dioxide-spewing creations of humans, the scientific consensus goes, the Earth is inexorably heating up. But nowhere is the climate on global warming changing faster than in Washington. The Senate -- which voted 95-0 in 1997 to condemn the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases -- is now flirting with its own limits on emissions. In its coming deliberations over the energy bill, the Senate may consider up to three different amendments tackling the issue of global warming. "It is a pretty exciting moment," says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "We've come quite a distance to now have many people at the table trying to figure out what to do, rather than arguing whether to do something."

The possibility of Senate action is another blow to President George W. Bush, who is becoming increasingly isolated on his own ice floe. On June 14, a nervous Administration fired a shot across the Senate's bow, warning in a statement that it "will oppose any climate change amendments that are inconsistent with the President's climate change strategy" -- in other words, anything with mandatory limits on greenhouse gases. Bush can count on the House GOP to block any significant climate change package for now. But the White House has already been embarrassed by recent revelations that a political appointee watered down global warming reports by government scientists. (The appointee, Philip A. Cooney, chief of staff at the Council on Environmental Quality, has resigned and is taking a job with Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM )) And Bush justifiably faces heat not only from scientists and foreign allies but also from business and members of his own party.

The Importance of Hagel

One important break in the conservative skepticism over global warming came earlier this year when Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) -- co-author of the anti-Kyoto resolution -- acknowledged the threat and introduced bills to promote cleaner technology. Now, he is expected to offer those plans as an energy bill amendment, which could easily sail through the Senate. "The question is not whether to take action, but what kind of action," says Hagel. "We can't afford to do nothing."

Another climate amendment will come from Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). In 2003, they won an unexpected 43 votes for a bill imposing caps on emissions and setting up a program to trade emissions rights. To win more support, their new bill includes incentives for nuclear power, clean coal, and other fuels.

The measure with mandatory limits that has the best chance to pass the Senate, however, is being drafted by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). Based on recommendations from the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy, it would also cap emissions and allow trading. Enviros aren't enthused because the emissions targets are far less strict than in McCain-Lieberman and because of an interesting and controversial twist: Companies that are unable to meet emissions targets could buy additional permits from the government at a low cost -- perhaps $7 per ton of carbon dioxide. That's too cheap, critics say. But this so-called safety valve cleverly punctures conservative contentions that carbon constraints would cripple the economy, and the price -- and targets -- could be ratcheted up if necessary. Bingaman has been negotiating with Republicans like Energy Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) to craft a bipartisan version. If he succeeds, it stands a good chance of winning enough votes on the floor.

Why the change in Washington? For one thing, the science is now more certain. On June 7, the national science academies of 11 countries said that the world should "take prompt action to reduce the causes of climate change."

In addition, most developed nations are already implementing curbs on greenhouse gases, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will spotlight climate change at July's Group of 8 summit meeting. At home, the U.S. Conference of Mayors approved a resolution on June 13 calling on cities to meet the 7% emissions reductions called for in the Kyoto Protocol. The Evangelical Environmental Network, a Christian group that believes people need to be better stewards of the earth, is pushing Congress to act. Republican governors like California's Arnold Schwarzenegger plan to limit emissions. And many companies, which see carbon constraints as inevitable, are eager to figure out now what targets they will be required to reach in the future. "While the world is deploying leapfrogging technology in an effort to deal with climate change, the U.S. lags sorely behind," Cinergy Corp. (CIN ) CEO James E. Rogers warned in congressional testimony on June 8. "The time is now to move positively toward reachable goals."

Crossing a Line

But the Bush Administration and allies such as Senate Environment Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) are still trying to stem the tide. That's why business has been reluctant to openly support mandatory caps. Companies fear angering the White House or key GOP leaders, says Frank E. Loy, former climate negotiator for the State Dept.: "They are concerned about crossing a line the Administration seems to have laid."

Still, a Bingaman-Domenici version of mandatory constraints could squeak by the Senate. It would be unlikely to survive when the House and Senate meet to hammer out differences on the bill. But if Senate opposition to climate change measures can melt faster than anyone anticipated, more surprises on global warming may be in the offing.

By John Carey

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