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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Senate Takes On Climate Change

Air Date: Week of

In a series of votes this past week, the U.S. Senate rejected a proposal by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman which would have capped greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, in what some see as a major turnaround, they passed a non-binding resolution saying that global warming is real, harmful, and largely caused by human activity. Host Steve Curwood talks with Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat from New Mexico who wrote the resolution. The Senate also approved a set of voluntary climate change programs proposed by Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel. Hagel’s amendment does not cap emissions but, instead, focuses on tax breaks and other incentives to industry to come up with low emission forms of energy technology. Host Steve Curwood talks with Senator Hagel about his bill. Also, Washington correspondent Jeff Young gives us the highlights of debate on a massive energy bill making its way through Congress and some insight into changing attitudes about climate change.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. For the first time, the United States Senate has voted in favor of placing mandatory limits on the emission of global warming gases.
The 53 to 44 vote came as a compromise bipartisan resolution sponsored by New Mexican Democrat Jeff Bingaman and New Mexican Republican and Energy Committee chair Pete Domenici and others amid debate over the massive energy bill.

Senator Bingaman wrote the non-binding resolution when it became clear he didn’t have the votes for an amendment which would have immediately imposed compulsory caps.
He's the ranking minority member on the Senate’s Energy Committee and he joins me now.
Senator, this resolution to move forward with mandatory caps on climate change gases, how important is this?

BINGAMAN: Well, I think it’s important, particularly in light of the previous actions by the Senate, I think that this would be a statement, is a statement, that the majority of senators now recognize that greenhouse gas emissions are a serious problem, that human activity is contributing to those, that we need to put a mandatory system in place to deal with this. So I hope very much, this is a signal, I believe, of a very significant change in attitude within the U.S. Senate.

CURWOOD: Now, you and your staff spend a lot of time crafting a climate change proposal for the energy bill that would have put a modest cap on greenhouse gases. What happened to that?

BINGAMAN: Well, we have done all the due diligence that is possible about seeing where the votes are on that kind of a proposal and, at this point, I wasn’t confident that we could prevail with it. So, what we’ve agreed to is Senator Domenici, who’s chairman of the Energy Committee, has agreed to have hearings on the proposal and to bring in experts and try to resolve some questions that members, himself, and others have had about this proposal. We hope that that can happen in the next month or so and that we will be in a position to bring that bill back to the floor later in this session of the Congress.

CURWOOD: Now, what role did the White House play in your decision to pull your amendment from the present energy bill package? To what extent was there a sense that adding climate change to the energy bill would just simply not go over well with the president, that is any kind of mandatory limit?

BINGAMAN: Well, I think they’ve been very outspoken, the White House has, in opposition to adding anything to this bill that would deal with climate change issues. They’ve repeatedly opposed that and as to the particular proposal that I was trying to get support for, I think that they lobbied against Republican members of Congress supporting that.

CURWOOD: Now, why do you think it’s important that the energy bill address climate change?

BINGAMAN: Well, I think the impact that energy production and use has on the environment is sort of the flip side of the coin and I really think an energy bill that does not try to address the environmental impacts of energy production and use is inadequate in that regard

CURWOOD: Jeff Bingaman is a Democratic senator from New Mexico. Thank you for taking this time with me today.

BINGAMAN: My pleasure.

CURWOOD: The Senate also approved a set of voluntary climate change programs
proposed by Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel. The Hagel amendment focuses on tax breaks and loan guarantees to industry to come up with new, low emission forms of energy technology. The U.S. would then share that technology with developing countries, especially China and India, which have vast reserves of coal and have already become major greenhouse gas sources as their economies grow.

Senator Hagel joins me now from his office at the Capitol. Senator, why do you think your voluntary approach to climate change is what we need to do right now?

HAGEL: I think we all recognize climate change has been with the world since we all got here. However you interpret the big bang or whatever you want to believe is the origin of the world and that’s not new, we’ve always had climate change. We’re involved now in trying to sort out some of these environmental issues. We do know that human behavior has contributed to severe pollution, not only in our country, but around the world, but now we are looking at carbon emissions, manmade greenhouse gas emissions as a possible source of climate change dynamic that could, in fact, affect the future of our environment. I think it’s wise to pursue that and base our actions on sound science and the response that I came up with, really I think for the first time, intersects not only environmental interests, but energy interests and economic interests, as well.

CURWOOD: It sounds to me like you’re not entirely convinced that people are affecting the climate, but you think that we should be hedging our bets.

HAGEL: Well, people do have an effect on the environment, how much of an effect on climate change, we don’t know, we’re working off computer models. Computer models don’t tell you a lot. We know that we’re just coming out of just recently the small ice age. We know that other centuries have been warmer than this century. We do know those things, but what I’m saying is to pay attention to this which we should, we also have to pay attention to the economic consequences and the energy consequences.

We have six and a half billion people on the face of the earth, they need to develop, they need jobs, they need a potential for a better world. So you can’t deal with environmental issues in a vacuum and what I’ve said, all the advances that we’ve made in the world have come as a result of technology. The market base of that technology will drive it.

CURWOOD: Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican from Nebraska. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

HAGEL: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Now, neither the Hagel amendment nor the resolution from Senator Bingaman call for any reductions in greenhouse gases. The only proposal that would have done that came from Arizona Republican John McCain and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, and the Senate turned it down. Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young has been tracking the climate debate and joins us now. Hi there, Jeff.

YOUNG: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: So Jeff, what happened to the McCain-Lieberman proposal? Last time it came up, it seemed to be building real momentum.

YOUNG: Yeah, two years ago that seemed the best bet for action on climate change. It proposed a modest cap on carbon emissions and coupled that with an emissions credit trading system to make it more market friendly.

Since that last vote two things happened: one, the 2004 election which changed the makeup of the Senate and, two, the senators added some fairly controversial new items to their bill.

CURWOOD: Ah, yes, those nuclear power provisions you reported on a few weeks ago.

YOUNG: Yeah, the proposal now includes money for some carbon-free energy technology including nuclear power. And that cost them support from the environmental groups and, by my count, it also cost them four votes. Four Democratic senators who voted for McCain-Lieberman in ‘03 voted against it this time. But McCain is still committed to this as a long-term effort and he’s still optimistic.

MCCAIN: We’re gonna win on this issue. And the reason why we’re gonna win is because every single month there is another manifestation of the terrible effects of what climate change is doing to our earth. The problem is how late will it be when we win?

YOUNG: And you know, Steve, part of what was interesting about this is how you could see in this debate that attitudes are slowly shifting in the Senate.

CURWOOD: Yeah, Jeff, what did you notice?

YOUNG: We still hear some Senators questioning the science. Most notably Senator Jim Inhofe the Republican from Oklahoma. He calls climate change a hoax. But he is increasingly isolated as more of the moderates and even some of the right-leaning Republicans come into agreement with the scientific consensus on this. I think the most dramatic example that we saw was Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico.

CURWOOD: Yeah, he’s a pretty important guy in these energy matters, as he’s in charge the Energy Committee, so that kind of makes it a big deal, huh?

YOUNG: Indeed, and you know at one point in this debate, Senator McCain, he tends to get kind of worked up, he lashed out at Domenici for opposing his climate amendment and here’s how Domenici responded:

DOMENICI: I don’t mind him getting red in the face and pointing at me and talking like I don’t know what I’m talking about. But he wasn’t listening. I didn’t say global warming isn’t a problem. Instead of saying what he said, he should have said, “glad Senator Domenici’s finally recognizing there is a problem.” To recognize there’s a problem doesn’t mean that his way of solving it’s the only problem. In fact, I’m telling the Senate what he’s suggesting won’t work!

CURWOOD: And so, what did Senator Domenici end up doing?

YOUNG: Senator Domenici is a very practical man, and he was very close to supporting Senator Bingaman’s binding cap on carbon emissions, but he was bothered by some of the details in there, just didn’t see how it could work out. So, instead, he has committed to using his position, powerful position, as chair of the Energy Committee to find something that he thinks will work that will be in agreement with the consensus of science on climate change and also work politically. In the meantime, of course, he cosponsored with Bingaman that non-binding resolution on climate change.

CURWOOD: And what’s the reaction to that resolution, since it doesn’t actually do anything right now to reduce emissions, how meaningful is it?

YOUNG: Yeah, I guess the cynical view is that it’s just political cover on this issue, right?, but it does put a majority of the Senate on record as saying yes climate change is real and yes, mandatory action is needed. And the second part of that about the mandatory action, that’s in direct opposition to the White House line here, which is that voluntary measures are enough. So the advocacy groups that are working this issue, they look at this, they think it’s pretty important. It could pave the way for more domestic action and, who knows, maybe some action on a treaty somewhere.

CURWOOD: Now Jeff, there’s a lot more to this energy bill other than climate change. So, can you give us some of the highlights?

YOUNG: Well, it’s a big ol’ bill, so there’s a lot in there. If the Senate has its way, we’re probably going to be using a lot more ethanol, from corn. We’ll probably use more renewable energies because it has this renewable portfolio standard that says electric utilities have to get 10 percent of their power from renewables like wind and solar. There’s also a lot in there for new nuclear power plants, new clean coal technology, what they call, and the big hole here that a lot of critics see though is it that it does almost nothing to improve fuel efficiency on the road.

Probably the most hotly disputed thing in here though is about offshore drilling. The Senate has this inventory of gas and oil on the outer continental shelf and most coastal states do not like this at all, especially Florida lawmakers like Democrat Senator Bill Nelson.

NELSON: What it is, it’s the first step to drilling. It’s the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.

YOUNG: Now, Nelson has already threatened a filibuster over drilling issues so this could spell trouble for the final bill.

CURWOOD: Now, that’s the Senate’s version. What about the House?

YOUNG: The House version is very different. It has very few of those renewable energy incentives. It does not include offshore drilling language, but it does call for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and over all has a lot more emphasis on traditional fossil fuels so it’s going to be interesting to see how they work out those differences.

CURWOOD: Jeff, let’s take a break here but stay with us because there’s more I want to hear about, especially what Congress will do about the growing demand for natural gas.

[MUSIC: “Violin Bumper” Artist Unknown]

CURWOOD: Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: “All Full up” Michael Shatz “Banjo” (Rounder 2001)]



Sense of the Senate – on Climate Change

Senator Bingaman’s website

Senator Hagel’s website

National Commission on Energy Policy

McCain-Lieberman Climate Change Act


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