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FYI Number 139: December 8, 2006

New Outlook for Climate Change on Capitol Hill

Room 406 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building will be the setting for one of the most dramatic changes that will occur on Capitol Hill when the new Congress convenes in January. This is the hearing room of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired for four years by James Inhofe (R-OK), who has characterized global warming as the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

Taking Inhofe’s place is Barbara Boxer (D-CA) whose position on global warming is exactly opposite that of the current chairman. In a recent statement, Boxer made clear her position and intentions: “Nowhere is there a greater threat to future generations than the disastrous effects of global warming. Scientists tell us we must act soon to cut production of greenhouse gases. One of my top priorities will be to spotlight this issue with the help of colleagues from both sides of the aisle with the goal of ultimately bringing legislation to the Senate floor.”

Boxer’s approach to what form this legislation might take is evident from her statement in August when California passed a bill addressing greenhouse gas emissions: “I am a lead cosponsor of the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act of 2006, legislation authored by Senator Jim Jeffords which sets a marker for a comprehensive approach to address global warming. This legislation has important similarities to California’s new bill – they both provide a variety of flexible tools to address climate change. California's bill has a goal of a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020. Senator Jeffords’ bill shares this goal, and then continues with an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”

The bill Boxer was referring to, S. 3698, was introduced by Jeffords (I-VT) on July 20. It was referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which took no action on the bill which will die at the end of this session (effectively today.) S. 3698 has twelve cosponsors, all but one of which are Democrats. The 10,500 word bill has many provisions, prominent among them the authorization of a market-based emission control system administered by the EPA. Bill language describes the legislation’s ten Purposes:

“(1) to achieve a reduction in global warming pollution emissions compatible with ensuring that – (A) the average global temperature does not increase by more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above the preindustrial average; and (B) total average global atmospheric concentrations of global warming pollutants do not exceed 450 parts per million in carbon dioxide equivalent;

(2) to reduce by calendar year 2050 the aggregate net level of global warming pollution emissions of the United States to a level that is 80 percent below the aggregate net level of global warming pollution emissions for calendar year 1990;

(3) to allow for an acceleration of reductions in global warming pollution emissions to prevent – (A) average global temperature from increasing by more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above the preindustrial average; or (B) global atmospheric concentrations of global warming pollutants from exceeding 450 parts per million;

(4) to establish a motor vehicle global warming pollution emission requirement;

(5) to require electric generation units to meet a global warming pollution emission standard;

(6) to establish rules for the safe geological sequestration of carbon dioxide;

(7) to encourage energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy by establishing a renewable portfolio standard and an energy efficiency portfolio standard;

(8) to provide for research relating to, and development of, the technologies to control global warming pollution emissions;

(9) to position the United States as the world leader in reducing the risk of the potentially devastating, wide-ranging impacts associated with global warming; and

(10) to promote, through leadership by the United States, accelerated reductions in global warming pollution from other countries with significant global warming pollution emissions.”

Boxer is poised to move the committee in a new direction. She has established six subcommittees, one of which she will chair that will be called the Subcommittee on Public Sector Solutions to Global Warming, Oversight, Children’s Health Protection and Nuclear Safety. Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) will chair the Subcommittee on Private Sector and Consumer Solutions to Global Warming and Wildlife Protection. Lieberman has authored a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade bill. Boxer intends to hold an “intensive” set of hearings on climate change beginning in mid-January, reviewing scientific evidence, and policy solutions, including those taken by state and local governments. She said that she wants to hear from “colleagues on both sides of the aisle . . . who have something to say about this subject, pro or con.” Environmentalists, faith-based organizations, the business community, and the technology sector will be heard, she said. “So that’s the plan for global warming: listen, listen, listen. Hear all the ideas. And then we’ll put some legislation together.”“There’s going to be a sea change on the committee,” Boxer said at a recent press conference.

Looking ahead, supporters of mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions will need 60 votes to block a filibuster in order to pass a bill on the Senate floor. Inhofe predicts that he will prevent that, saying “I can assure you that will not happen.” The outlook in the House is uncertain, with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, saying that he was “pessimistic” about passing legislation. This committee will be chaired by Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), a strong supporter of the automobile industry, who recently said that he would “support responsible [greenhouse gas] legislation.”

Any bill must be signed by President George Bush, who opposes mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions. In mid-November, Boxer, Lieberman, and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) wrote to Bush saying, “as incoming Chairs of three important Senate Committees on global warming, we seek your commitment to work with the new Congress to pass meaningful climate change legislation in 2007" (see http://boxer.senate.gov/news/releases/record.cfm?id=265906&&.) At a recent press conference, Boxer spoke of the Bush Administration as “reaching out to us, wanting to do something.”

The outlook on mandatory controls to reduce greenhouse gas emissions seems, at best, problematic, with many saying that the next two years will set the stage for the following ten. Boxer addressed the prospects for what she has in mind, asking, “will I make it everything I want? No, I can tell you that right now.” But then she added, “But I will know that at the end of the day, we have taken it as far as we could possibly take it with the make-up here in the Congress. And remember, everybody faces the voters. The whole House. The third of the Senate. And people are going to be mindful. Because I think people in the country are beginning to really wake up to this. They're concerned.”

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3095

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