U.S. senators will soon cast their first votes on whether to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Most observers expect the measure will fail. But supporters say it will at least put the Senate on the record on global warming. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood, and coming up – giving native bees their due down on the farm. But first:
The U.S. Senate will soon have its first vote on whether to mandate reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases. Connecticut Democrat and presidential candidate Joe Lieberman and Arizona Republican John McCain are co-sponsoring the Climate Stewardship Act which calls for modest cuts in carbon dioxide and other gases that scientists say contribute to global warming.
Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins us to talk about the bill. Jeff, Senators McCain and Lieberman changed their bill earlier this month. Why’d they do that and what does the bill now call for?
YOUNG: It originally called for reductions in greenhouse gases in two phases with two target dates. They had modest cuts by the year 2010 and stiffer cuts in the following six years. The senators removed the second, more ambitious phase reductions. So, what the senate will vote on is basically a decrease of about one and a half percent from today’s emissions. That’s far milder than the cuts in the Kyoto protocol. They simplified the bill because they want a simple vote. It’s now pretty much a yes or no question on climate change: should we do something about this or not?
CURWOOD: Jeff, almost no one expects this bill to pass the Senate, much less to win approval by the more conservative House. So why is it important?
YOUNG: The senators and their supporters say it’s a long journey, it has to start with a first step, and this is it. Here’s Senator McCain explaining what he expects from the vote:
MCCAIN: We hope to get a substantial number. We’ve had more and more people sign on. but it’s an uphill battle. All special interests will be arrayed against it. But we’ll keep fighting. Took seven years to do campaign finance reform but we’ll win on this one over time.
YOUNG: And that’s a reference to McCain’s battle to reform campaign finance, another bipartisan effort that seemed hopeless at the outset. And he says the first step is getting senators on the record on the issue.
CURWOOD: Now Jeff, tell me now how this bill would work. What’s the mechanism for reducing emissions?
YOUNG: It’s what’s called a cap and trade approach. The government mandates a total limit on, say CO2, and then allots permits to major industries for each ton of that emission. The companies can buy and sell those permits, just so long as they have enough permits to cover their emissions. If that sounds familiar it’s probably because this is the same system that was used very successfully and economically to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. The bill would also allow companies to bank their leftover pollution credits and get credit for capturing carbon dioxide, something called carbon sequestration. And automakers could earn credits by exceeding the federal mileage standards on cars they make. This approach won support from scientists, from business groups, and local governments, and about 200 conservation groups. Here’s Daniel Lashoff. He’s science director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate program.
LASHOFF: It does not solve the global warming problem. No one is under an illusion that it will. But it crosses a fundamental political threshold between a series of voluntary initiatives that we’ve been undertaking for the last decade that have not been successful in reducing global warming emissions and a mandatory program that can really start the process.
CURWOOD: Jeff, tell me about the cost here. That’s the issue that really seemed to do in the Kyoto protocol with the Bush administration, concerns about the effects on the U.S. economy.
YOUNG: Economists at MIT analyzed this "stripped down" version of the bill. And they found that the higher energy costs that would result would cost about 10 to 20 dollars per American household. And the effects on employment were too small to measure. But critics say it’s a slippery slope that would lead to higher energy costs and trouble for the economy. This is Myron Ebell with the free market think tank called the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
EBELL: It’s only not expensive if you think that the down payment on a product is the only part of the total price. There’s no point in starting this system of having limits on carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, oil, and natural gas unless you’re going to go further. Because at this level it has no purpose, it doesn’t do anything.
YOUNG: Supporters, of course, argue it does have a purpose but they would agree with him that more emissions reductions would be needed.
CURWOOD: Jeff, what do you think the final count on this vote will be?
YOUNG: I couldn’t find anyone who would even guess, really. There are 12 bipartisan co-sponsors on the bill, and about the only thing for sure is that any votes for it will be a net gain from the last time the Senate vote on a global warming issue. That was a non-binding resolution six years ago when the Senate voted unanimously against any Kyoto-style treaty on global warming.
CURWOOD: Well, we’ll all be watching. Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thank you.
YOUNG: You’re welcome.
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