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

Political Climate Change

Air Date: Week of

Big business teams up with environmental activists to take action on climate change. From left to right: Jeffrey Immelt (Chairman and C.E.O., General Electric), Jonathan Lash (President, World Resources Institute). (Photo: Reggie Lipscomb, NPS Photography)

President Bush mentioned climate change in his State of the Union address for the first time. But Congressional leaders and many corporate CEO's are way ahead of him. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports on the warming political climate in Washington for those who want action on global warming.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts this is Living on Earth I’m Steve Curwood.

Evidence is mounting that the climate is changing, and I’m not just talking about rising temperatures and melting ice. The heat is also on in American politics, with growing support for action to curb global warming gases. From corporate boardrooms to Capitol Hill there’s now a flurry of activity on global warming. Even President Bush, a long time skeptic of the dangers of climate change, this year mentioned it in his State of the Union address.

BUSH: America’s on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.

The President called for a 20 percent reduction in the country’s consumption of gasoline within ten years by using more alternative fuels and boosting the efficiency of cars. Some of Congress’s new Democratic leaders say that’s a good idea, but it doesn’t go far enough for them to address the problem. Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young explains for us. Jeff?

President Bush delivers the State of the Union Address. (Courtesy of The White House)

YOUNG: Steve, White House aides had hyped this State of the Union Address as having energy proposals that were gonna "knock your socks off." But when lawmakers filed out of the House of Representatives after the speech no one I spoke with seemed to be missing any footwear after the president’s brief mention of climate change.


MCCAIN: I wish it had been less brief and more detailed but I was glad to hear him talk about it.

YOUNG: Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, a likely presidential candidate in 08, has twice brought a bill to the floor to cap carbon dioxide emissions. He recently reintroduced the bill with a new co-sponsor, Illinois Democrat Barak Obama—another presidential contender. The President has rejected the kind of mandatory emissions limits their bill seeks, but McCain still sees progress in Bush’s speech.

MCCAIN: At least it’s the first time in 6 years he’s mentioned it, so that’s a step forward.

YOUNG: Others were less charitable. One typical comment from environmental groups compared Bush’s idea to fighting a forest fire with a garden hose. California Democrat Barbara Boxer took control of the Senate’s Environment Committee when Democrats took control of Congress. She has a climate bill that calls for aggressive carbon cuts. She shook her head in disbelief while leaving the president’s speech.

BOXER: He puts out absolutely no goals, objectives, timetables, or, ah, any kind of caps. It’s such a disappointment.

YOUNG: For months Washington had been abuzz that Bush was working on a major announcement on climate change, perhaps even returning to his forgotten campaign pledge from 2000 to cap emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal global warming gas.
But that didn’t happen, leading the chair of the Senate Energy committee, Jeff Bingaman, to call Bush’s speech “a missed opportunity.” The New Mexico Democrat also has a climate bill, one of four major Senate proposals already pending in these early weeks of the new congress. And in the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has created a new special committee on climate change.

PELOSI: I promise to do everything in my power to achieve energy independence and to do so within ten years and to stop global warming. It’s a very important issue. I’m very excited about it. It says to the American people that we are about the future, about addressing how we create jobs, how we care for our children, how we grow our economy, and how we preserve our planet.

YOUNG: That special committee is a signal of both Pelosi’s commitment to the issue and her willingness to confront powerful members of her own party who might not want action as swift or strong as she does. Pelosi won control of the speaker’s gavel in part by hammering Bush and congressional republicans on climate and energy. But she and Bush share one thing here—they both link climate change to the concept of energy independence.

PELOSI: For that reason I have asked the chairs of relevant committees to hold hearings, to pass legislation so that by the Fourth of July we can have a package of legislation to truly declare our energy independence.

YOUNG: The term is loosely defined but generally means greatly reducing energy imports and boosting homegrown sources like ethanol. It’s a winning theme with broad support, from farmers worried about crop prices to defense-minded hawks concerned about oil from volatile regions. And Bush’s ideas for energy independence got a better reception.

FRIEDMAN: I think this could be a breakthrough.

YOUNG: That’s David Friedman. He researches vehicles and fuels for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a conservation group. The current fuel standard is about 28 miles per gallon for cars and 21 for trucks. The president avoided a specific number. Instead he offered goals for reducing gas consumption. Friedman calculates that meeting the president’s goals would be the equivalent of a fuel economy standard of 34 mpg for all vehicles in ten years.

FRIEDMAN: That’s the same basic level that members of congress are targeting as well. So, at a minimum the breakthrough is members of congress and president agree now on how far we need to go but it will only be a breakthrough if it actually becomes law.

YOUNG: Friedman says the devil is in the details, which are not yet clear. The same is true of the president’s call to increase production of renewable fuels to 35 billion gallons a year, in a decade. That’s nearly five times the current standard, which is met almost completely with ethanol from corn. Democratic Senator Tom Harkin is from Iowa, where they love corn. But Harkin says meeting that goal will mean promoting an emerging technology that gets ethanol from the cellulose in plants.

HARKIN: Well the only way we’re going to meet that is through cellulose conversion. We can’t meet that just with corn alone and so we’ve got to have a major thrust for the research and development of cellulosic materials we’ve got to have the loans in there to get the plants built and we have to have incentives to farmers to grow the energy crops that are needed.

YOUNG: So walking the walk, if he talks the talk.

HARKIN: That’s right, the rhetoric is nice but will the budget allow us to do that in the farm bill that we’re gonna pass this year? Well, that remains to be seen.

YOUNG: Harkin’s agriculture committee will take up a farm bill soon, and its call for biofuels will be a big part of any plan for energy independence. But energy independence does not necessarily address climate change. And major business leaders recently added their voices to those calling for a global warming policy that places a mandatory cap on carbon emissions. CEO’s from ten companies including GE, DuPont, Duke Energy, Alcoa Aluminum, and the Caterpillar equipment company made their announcement the day before Bush’s state of the union address. Jim Rogers leads Duke Energy.

Big business teams up with environmental activists to take action on climate change. From left to right: Jeffrey Immelt (Chairman and C.E.O., General Electric), Jonathan Lash (President, World Resources Institute). (Photo: Reggie Lipscomb, NPS Photography)

ROGERS: It is our hope that by joining together our diverse group sends a clear signal that it is time for the nation’s political leaders to come together and to act.

YOUNG: And talk about strange bedfellows—the group includes environmental groups which have at times sued some of the companies. Jonathan Lash of World Resources Institute says they’ve put aside such differences because the need for action is so great.

LASH: The tide has turned, the time is now. There is building momentum for action. The question is no longer whether to take action but what kind of action to take.

YOUNG: Many in Washington think that bold stand by business leaders says a lot more about the state of our union on climate change than the President did.

CURWOOD: Jeff Young reporting from Capitol Hill. Jeff please stick around I’ve got a couple of questions for you.

YOUNG: Mmm hmm.

CURWOOD: Now we’ve seen business asking for caps on carbon dioxide, more and more businesses. Um, and now we see even businesses like utilities that burn a lot of coal asking for this. Why the change?

YOUNG: Well companies like Duke Energy their CEO says the science compels them to act. And they also say they think they can still prosper in this environment even if they’re cutting carbon emissions. And another thing: you know they look around at all these states taking action, California the New England states moving ahead on this. The companies would rather deal with one federal law instead of a bunch of state laws.

CURWOOD: So, what kind of emissions cuts would they like to see?

YOUNG: Well, this particular group is calling for very meaningful reductions; something in the neighborhood of 80 percent below today's emissions within 50 years. And they want it to come from all across the economy: autos, manufacturers, power plants, the whole ball of wax. That’s big and that’s in keeping with what most scientists will tell you is needed if we want to avoid major climate disruption from green house gasses and it’s on par with what some of the more aggressive bills in Congress are calling for

CURWOOD: So in Washington there’s a thing known as conventional wisdom, which the way the wind is blowing. Is that what’s happening with climate change? Is there a tipping point now?

YOUNG: You know, I think we have reached a kind of tipping point at least in general public opinion. There are so many things in recent years that have thrust this into public consciousness and public poling will tell you most people on the street do think we should act on climate change. And ah, you know, here in Washington just in the past couple of weeks we had those business leaders buddying up with environmentalists. We had Evangelical Christians hand in hand with scientists, they’re normally at each other’s throats. And here they were joining together saying we need to do something about climate change. That tells me there’s something going on here. We’ve reached some kind of a shift in public opinion.

CURWOOD: Now explain to me why the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has created a special committee on climate change. What does that mean?

YOUNG: Well, this is very interesting for the politics on the House side of the capitol here. John Dingell is the Congressman from Michigan. He’s the very powerful chair of the energy committee in the house. And ah, Congressman Dingell represents the Detroit area, the auto-makers. And he’s been good on a lot of environmental stuff but he’s not quite so sure that we need to race ahead with this climate change business. And Speaker Pelosi clearly, although she wouldn’t say it this way, is doing a sort of end run around Congressman Dingell and his energy committee by setting up this special committee that won’t be able to write bills but it sure as heck will be able to keep focus on this issue.

CURWOOD: Now, you mention that there are a number of climate change bills in the hopper now. What’s the chance of any of them passing?

YOUNG: There’s a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of new bills, but it’s still an uphill climb to get any one of those, even the weakest passed in this Congress. You know, in the Senate you have to have 60 votes to pass anything. I think an honest count at this point still favors those who would block a bill rather than pass it. Even if it did pass no one at the White House seems inclined to want to sign a bill like that. So, I’d say you’re going to hear a lot about climate change. I don’t expect anything to pass unless something changes. But you know the Democratic leadership they look at this and they say, “even if we loose we win because if we force a filibuster or if we force a veto by the Republican leadership we become the global warming party and we’re on the side of the public.”

CURWOOD: Thanks Jeff

YOUNG: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent.



Business partnership for climate action

Details of President Bush's energy proposal

President Bush Delivers State of the Union Address


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