U.S. Congress Warming to Climate Debate
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, January 30, 2007 (ENS) - Climate change took center stage at two Congressional hearings today, with a Senate committee providing a forum for senators to outline their positions on how the nation should tackle global warming and a House panel examining new allegations the Bush administration has censored climate scientists.
The hearings are part of a strong push by Democrats to capitalize on growing momentum for global warming legislation and to pressure the White House to change its climate change policy. The Bush administration has refused to consider mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and at times has downplayed the scientific consensus that humans are largely responsible for global warming.
"We are at a historic moment and I believe the tide is turning," said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "A real consensus is coming together around this issue in a way that has never happened before. Scientists, the public, and even the Bush administration agree - global warming is real, and humans are making a serious contribution."
States and local governments are aggressively moving to combat climate change, Boxer said, and the federal government should follow suit.
"We need to act soon, before we reach a tipping point when irreversible changes to the world we know may occur," Boxer said.
Boxer has declared climate change a priority for her committee and said she will hold a series of hearings on the issue in the coming weeks. Tuesday's hearing was an unprecedented open microphone event, where any senator was permitted to speak about global warming.
Three senators with presidential aspirations said time for action on global warming is long overdue.
Global warming is "an issue whose time has come," said Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat. "We need to get beyond the usual rhetoric and find some common ground."
"If we look at where we are … we are not making progress," Clinton added. "Emissions are still going up – that is another of those inconvenient facts that need to be addressed."
Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat and presidential hopeful, called U.S. abdication of leadership on the issue "inexcusable."
Both Clinton and Obama have signed onto global warming legislation authored by Senators Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is expected to run for president.
"Climate change is real and we must move quickly to address the problem in a meaningful and sustainable manner," McCain told the committee.
On the other side of the Capitol, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform examined new allegations that the Bush administration, which opposes mandatory cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, has interfered with climate science in an effort to downplay the threat.
A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, UCS, and the Government Accountability Project, GAP, found that nearly half the 279 climate scientists who responded to a survey reported being pressured to delete references to "global warming" or "climate change" from scientific papers or reports and many said they were prevented from talking to the media or had their work edited.
"The new evidence shows that political interference in climate science is no longer a series of isolated incidents but a system-wide epidemic," said Dr. Francesca Grifo, director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program.
The UCS/GAP report adds to other allegations the Bush administration has repeatedly interfered with federal government scientists who have tried to publish research or speak to the media about the reality and impacts of global warming.
Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and chair of the House Oversight Committee, said the White House continues to ignore his panel's bipartisan requests for documents on climate policy.
"The committee isn't trying to obtain state secrets or documents that could affect our immediate national security," Waxman said. "We are simply seeking answers to whether the White House's political staff is inappropriately censoring impartial government scientists."
Waxman said he would continue to press the White House for documents that contain evidence of administration attempts to mislead the public about the science of global warming.
"All of us have a right to our own views about the seriousness of global warming," Waxman said. "But we don't have a right to our own science."
At the Senate hearing, Boxer told colleagues that she favors global warming legislation that would cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
The bill, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders and cosponsored by Boxer, is the most aggressive piece of global warming legislation to date.
"Some would say this bill goes too far, I disagree," Sanders, a Vermont Independent, told the committee. "If we are not strong, if we are not bold, if we are not aggressive, the planet we are going to leave to our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren will be a very different planet than we enjoy and their quality of life will be greatly, greatly diminished."
Boxer called the bill "the gold standard" but said her goal is to "get as close to that as possible."
But Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, voiced concern that the Sanders/Boxer bill is too much, too fast.
Carper, who called global warming "one of the gravest threats and greatest opportunities our nation faces," suggests first targeting electric utilities, which produce some 40 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.
Carper said he and Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, plan to reintroduce legislation that would cap on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants at 2001 levels by 2015. The bill would also sharply reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions from power plants.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, is also supportive of a sector-by-sector approach and has introduced legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector 25 percent below projected levels by 2020.
"I believe we have to tailor cap and trade for each industry," she said. "There is no silver bullet."
Cap and trade programs rest at the heart of two other pieces of global warming legislation under consideration in the Senate. The McCain/Lieberman bill aims to use such a plan to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions two percent annually from power plants, industry and oil refineries.
The bill intends to reduce emissions to 2004 levels by 2012 and to further cut emissions 60 percent from 2004 levels by 2050.
A draft plan authored by Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, would employ a cap and trade program to stop the growth of carbon emissions by 2030.
But some Republicans appear less than keen about caps on greenhouse gas emissions and there remain pockets of resistance to aggressive action on climate change.
Carbon caps will raise energy prices and "hit hardest those with the least ability to pay," said Senator Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican.
"Cap proponents have not done their homework," Bond added. "We need to know how these proposals will impact states and we don't have those answers yet."
Technology is the answer to the climate question, according to Senator Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, who rejected the notion that Congress has failed to act.
Craig pointed to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, passed by a Republican-controlled Congress. He said the law has sparked new investment in clean energy technologies, highlighting new funding for nuclear power, coal gasification and biofuels.
"To suggest we've done nothing is a false statement playing to the politics of today's emotion," Craig said. "This Congress moved in a substantial way in 2005 … we are leading the world toward cleaner technologies and we are the only country with the capability to do that."
"A rush to climate change at this moment … is about an '08 election," Craig added. "I am not at all frightened about our future and I'm not going to wring my hands and play politics with this issue. I'll vote for the right kinds of technologies, I'll not vote to penalize the consumers."
Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who has famously called global warming "a hoax," reminded colleagues why the Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that limits the emission of greenhouse gases by industrialized countries.
In 1997 the Senate unanimously approved a resolution that said lawmakers should not accept Kyoto or a similar agreement unless developing countries are affected and the economic impacts on the United States are minimal.
"There are five bills out there and none of them complies with that mandate," said Inhofe, Boxer's predecessor as chair of the Senate committee.
Inhofe has threatened to block legislation that requires greenhouse gas emission cuts. He argues the United States should not act until others agree to do the same.
China is on pace to overtake the United States as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases by 2009 and is building "more than one coal plant every three days," Inhofe said. "India and Brazil are not far behind. If they are not part of any effort, then efforts to curb emissions are doomed to failure."
But China, India and Brazil have all ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Although they have no legal obligation to cut greenhouse emissions a targeted amount during the current commitment period, all three countries have adopted measures to address climate change.
Other lawmakers argue the United States has a moral obligation to lead.
The concern about China and India "doesn't relieve us of our responsibility," Lieberman said.
"We need a global solution but if the United States doesn't act, there won't be a solution," added Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Kerry said he is preparing global warming legislation - using a cap on emissions - and warned colleagues that some scientists argue time is running out.
"I know the science is accepted, but the urgency is not accepted here," Kerry said. "The urgency is just not accepted."
"There are businesses that are showing greater urgency than the Congress," said Kerry, referring to a letter sent to Congress and the President earlier this month by the CEOs of 10 large corporations, urging national legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Global warming is already causing noticeable changes to the American landscape, said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat.
"December in Minnesota felt more like October," Klobuchar said. "Our ice fishing seasons are shorter and our skiers and snowmobilers haven't seen much snow."
Klobuchar said the "stakes as are high as they get" and called on her colleagues to recognize their responsibility to tackle the issue.
"Every day Congress makes decisions that have a great impact on the American people and the people throughout the world," Klobuchar added. "Our decisions on global warming may well be the ones that have the most profound impacts on future generations and on the very fate of our Earth."
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