It's Snow At Last in NYC...and a Change of Climate in Congress

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If, like me, you've been unnerved by the warmth of the recent weather, you were probably equally relieved to wake up this morning to find this winter's first dusting of snow, as well as signs that Congress seems to be heating up an agenda to legislate action on climate disruption.

We can look at the record of the weather and find evidence that this year's springlike winter is within the bounds of past experience. But it's not all that reassuring, since we also know that 2005 was the warmest year in a century, 2006 the sixth-warmest on record, and that overall the globe's average atmospheric temperature is reaching highs not seen in thousands of years.

In the US, it feels like thousands of years since we could expect a serious environmental problem to advance in Congress. But with cherry trees blooming in the dead of winter, polar bears falling through the arctic ice, Al Gore's voice still ringing a warning from screens large and small across the land, business executives increasingly eager to have some means of predicting their future costs, and U.S. troops fighting and dying in a major oil-producing nation for nearly four years -- and, oh yes, with the turnover of Congress to a Democratic majority -- bills to regulate emissions and deal with climate disruption (backed by members of both parties) are popping up all over the Senate.

Here's a scorecard of the action so far:

  • Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) have introduced a bill hat would cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 10 percent from 2006 levels by 2020 by means of a national cap-and-trade program.
  • Feinstein has said that she will introduce companion measures that will target emissions from industries besides electric utilities, raise standards for energy-efficiency, raise fuel efficiency standards for cars by 10 miles per gallon over the next 10 years, and promote biodiesel and other cleaner-burning fuels.
  • Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have also authored a cap-and-trade program, but with sharper targets: slashing emissions about one-third from 2000 levels by 2050. Sen. Barak Obama (D-Ill.) has signed on as a co-sponsor.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has authored a measure that calls for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. This measure has the support of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chair of the powerful Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and a raft of enviro-advocacy groups. Sanders advocates approaching the carbon-reduction effort with the zeal the nation brought to winning World War II, or sending an astronaut to the moon. "I think any sane human human being has got to be concerned about climate change," Sanders told National Public Radio. Why all the action now? "You know what? It's increasingly becoming good politics. And a lot of people here in Congress may not have been so concerned about the issue, are catching on that people back home want action, and I think they're going to be prepared to vote for strong legislation."
  • Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of another powerful committee, Energy and Natural Resources, is said to be floating another carbon dioxide emissions option: freezing them by 2020 at projected 2014 levels. However, this bill has a "safety valve" provision to let certain industries off the emissions hook in certain circumstances -- a provision that would undermine the market forces that make cap-and-trade work, say some eco-advocates.
  • And in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yesterday announced a new special committee on climate, and wants to see a House vote on the issue by July 4. "We have seen how important energy independence is to the American people," she said at a press conference, "and the great concern that global warming is to them as well."

    Fortunately, the emissions of elected officials don't contribute to global warming, so we have some time to see how well this new momentum is sustained or magnified. Some pundits predict that the U.S. could see regulation of greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2007. But so far the White House is rejecting any notion that it will sign such a move into law.