A confluence of factors — including new congressional leadership, a recent U.N. report on climate change and a new sense of public urgency about global warming — is contributing to a recent push for federal emissions-control legislation, according to several energy and environmental policy experts.
In the first two weeks of the new Democratic-controlled Congress, the House of Representatives, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., passed a bill that would eliminate tax breaks for oil companies and use that money to fund renewable energy initiatives.
Pelosi also created the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, a panel tasked with examining climate change issues and producing legislation by July 4.
“The speaker says the global warming is a high priority and that there is a serious need to enact big change,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters.
The Senate also has begun to consider climate change legislation. Senators have introduced four major bills since the beginning of the year, three of which would work toward significantly reducing emissions over the next decades.
The latest legislation on reducing emissions is a departure from measures introduced in the past that aimed to freeze emissions levels, such as the 2003 Lieberman-McCain Stewardship Act.
The newer version of the bill from Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, ID-Conn., would cut emissions to 66 percent of 2000 levels by 2050. It is widely considered the most mainstream bill and is cosponsored by Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who, along with McCain, are frontrunners for their respective parties’ presidential nomination in 2008.
“What you see now is that all the major bills are saying, ‘this is not a question of freezing emissions, this is about reducing emissions,'” said Manik Roy, director of Congressional Affairs for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. The shift occurred around 2005 when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his state was going to get to 80 percent of 2005 emission levels by 2050 and that basic framework was adopted by Congress, he said.
In fact, California’s Sen. Diane Feinstein, D, has introduced legislation that borrows from the outline of a California law passed last year, which employs a “cap and trade” program that sets mandatory limits on emissions for all companies, but allows those that pollute less to sell their emission allotments to higher-polluting corporations.
“If you look at the 50-year history of environmental law in the U.S., every major law has a precedent at the state or local level,” said Roy. “The state laws play an important precursor to all this.”
Perhaps the most ambitious Senate bill was introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. They have proposed a flat tax on carbon emissions, a mandatory regulation that would require an 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050.
All of these bills, however, remain subject to a possible presidential veto even if they are approved by Congress.
“It remains to be seen if President Bush will veto legislation or not,” said John Holdren, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “But I do think the push in Congress is powerful enough that there will be cap and trade legislation passed by this Congress. The question is how strong the legislation will be in its details.”
President Bush has long opposed setting mandatory emissions caps, favoring instead voluntary measures to reduce emissions over time. But despite the president’s recent reiteration of his aversion to mandatory caps, experts say there is a chance he may decline to veto legislation.
In his 2007 State of the Union speech, President Bush acknowledged the need to address the growing problem of climate change, proposed his own solution to increase vehicle fuel economy, and called for a reduction in “our dependence on foreign oil.”
“As the Congress progresses, if the challenges Bush faces in other areas seem as high as they do, if the sense of public urgency continues to build, if the business community goes in the direction we’re seeing, I would not be surprised to see the president take steps into the rhetoric that he was hinting at in the State of the Union as opposed to the proposal in the speech,” said the Pew Center’s Roy.
A growing coalition of businesses that are encouraging federal legislation on curbing carbon emissions might also help influence the president and Congress to accelerate the United States’ response to global warming.
In late January, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which includes leading industrial companies such as General Electric, Alcoa and DuPont, called for federal legislation to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent to 40 percent of current levels by 2050.
AAAS President Holdren said that industry is pushing for a federal mandate to avoid the complications of dealing with 50 different state policies.
“States and cities are important for the pressure they’re putting on the federal government to have a policy,” he said. “More and more people in business understand that this is a policy that will be dealt with one way or another, and they would prefer to do it with an across the board, predictable fashion.”
The public sense of urgency, stoked by the recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the issue’s prominence in the 2008 presidential race, is also contributing to the pressure to enact policy.
The IPCC report, which was released on Feb. 2, said that there is a greater than 90 percent chance that human industrial activity is causing global warming.
“Public perception is changing because of the drumbeat of the science,” said Holdren. “It’s all adding up to people reaching the conclusion that it’s time to do something about this. So I think the public is going to be there and the question is what our political leaders organize themselves to do.”
Still, some lawmakers are skeptical legislation will pass quickly.
“Quite frankly, [my bill] is not a bill that’s going to pass in six months, or even two years,” Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif, told the Washington Post of his proposal that would mandate an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050.
The Pew Center’s Roy was slightly more encouraging.
“The solid betting is that we’ll probably get a law by 2010, but a lot of people are saying don’t bet the farm on getting a law by 2010,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be smart to bet against a law by 2008.”
Some legislators, such as Waxman, want to wait to pass more stringent measures until 2009, when they hope that a president more supportive of mandatory emissions caps will be in office, reported the Washington Post in January.
But AAAS’ Holdren said the time to act is now.
“The most important thing is to get machinery in place so that we are able to revisit it and change the numbers over time,” he said. “Whether one gets the numbers right the first time, it’s less important than getting a framework in place that you can adjust later.”