U-Turn On Global Warming - Washington Insider
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U-Turn On Global Warming


Article Date: 04-02-2007
Copyright(C) 2008 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

It's hard to imagine Congress won't do something on the issue this year.

A lot has changed in Washington since the Democrats took over Congress in January. New ethics rules aimed at limiting the influence of lobbyists have made grassroots more important. Unions are reasserting themselves with a vengeance. And the Democrats' commitment to "pay as you go" rules means that any new tax cuts will have to be offset by tax increases or spending cuts. But the most dramatic shift has probably been in the debate over climate change, a.k.a. global warming. Just a few months ago, many lawmakers openly questioned whether global warming is happening at all and, if it is, whether humans are to blame. But now the public apparently perceives that the answer to both questions is a resounding "yes." In politics, perception is reality. Thus, as far as most business lobbyists are concerned, the debate on "whether" is over and the focus has shifted to managing the policy response.

A number of factors have caused the dramatic U-turn, including Al Gore's Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, which has renewed attention on global warming and served as a rallying tool for activists.

The Democratic takeover of Congress has elevated the visibility of people like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), a long-time advocate of government action to reduce greenhouses gases. Boxer is now the chairman of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee. Since the 110th Congress began, more than half of the committee's hearings have focused on global warming.

In February, the United Nations' Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, co-chaired by a U.S. government representative, released a high-profile report that said it's "unequivocal" that the earth is warming and suggested a 90-percent likelihood that the warming is being caused by human activity.

Finally, recent erratic weather, including Hurricane Katrina, may have helped stoke public fears.

To see how much the tone of the debate has changed, you need look no further than the White House. The Bush administration, which has long questioned the evidence for global warming, recently announced policy initiatives designed to "confront the serious challenge of global climate change."

Further evidence of the shift is the fact that several business coalitions have recently sprung up to push for government action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Chief among these is the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (US-CAP), which counts as its members BP America, Duke Energy, General Electric, Dupont, and Caterpillar.

There's little doubt that genuine concerns about global warming are motivating these groups, but other factors are likely at work as well. Public relations and the desire not be on the unpopular side of a major issue is probably part of the equation. (Recent polls suggest that about two-thirds of Americans think global warming is happening and that the government should do something.)

There are also probably more practical political reasons. In recent months, several states announced plans to fight global warming. US-CAP and the other coalitions are likely betting that it would be better to have a single, national plan imposed by Congress (and tempered by the Bush administration) than a patchwork of inconsistent state laws. US-CAP members no doubt also see the importance of having a seat at the table as legislation moves forward. Finally, concerns about who will be occupying the White House after the next presidential election may also be fueling the drive for fast action.

US-CAP is urging lawmakers "to enact a policy framework for mandatory reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from major emitting sectors, including large stationary sources and transportation, and energy use in commercial and residential buildings. The cornerstone of this approach would be a cap-and-trade program."

Cap-and-trade programs take a free market approach to pollution control. The government would establish overall limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Companies that emit would be given credits or allowances to emit a certain amount. Companies that emit less than their permissible amount would be able to sell credits to those who emit more than their quota.

In Washington's ever-changing political climate, global warming is high on the radar screen. Regardless of whether the solution is cap-and-trade or something else, with bipartisan consensus growing, it's hard to imagine Congress won't do something on the issue this year.

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Article Categories:  Public Policy