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

Climate Change and the New Congress

Air Date: Week of

Despite the faltering economy, with a new administration and Democrat majority in Congress, the outlook for climate action is hopeful in Washington. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.


CURWOOD: This New Year brings a new president and new congress to Washington,
and perhaps a new federal approach to global warming. President-elect Barack Obama made climate change a high priority in his campaign. Many of his fellow Democrats in Congress want to act as well, and other nations are waiting for the U.S. to lead the way to an international climate agreement this year. But even though there’s a new lineup in Washington, there are still plenty of nay-sayers on climate change. From Capitol Hill, Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: The depth of a recession is no time to raise energy prices. That’s the argument against a climate change bill, and one we’re sure to hear a lot this year. But don’t tell that to California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer.

BOXER: The people who say 'oh my God we can’t do anything about global warming because the economy is bad,' they miss the whole point. Because I believe, and I want to reiterate this, combating global warming not just good for economy it’s great. It produces jobs - it makes us stronger. And this is a strong belief I have.

YOUNG: Boxer chairs the Senate’s environment committee and was a lead sponsor of last year’s major climate bill. That bill sought to establish a cap and trade system to harness market forces to control greenhouse gases. But it landed with a thud on the Senate floor amid criticism that it was too expensive and too complicated. Boxer says she learned a lesson from that.

BOXER: The bill got pretty cumbersome at the end of the day. So I think, a simpler bill; it’s going to be greatly streamlined. It is going to be very clear and much simpler than the last bill.

YOUNG: Boxer promises a bill this month that will amend the clean air act to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to set up a cap and trade program for carbon dioxide emissions. She’ll have a strong ally on the other side of Capitol Hill. California Democratic Representative Henry Waxman, a strong proponent of climate action, will take control of the powerful House Energy Committee. Waxman is likely to introduce his own legislation. He favors a cap and trade bill that auctions off all permits, rather than giving them away to major emitters. And Waxman thinks it’s important to set aggressive near term goals to cut greenhouse gases quickly.

WAXMAN: Scientists tell us we have only a short period of time in which to start taking action and reduce these carbon emissions. Otherwise they say that the damage will be irretrievable. It will take on a life of its own and it will not be reversible. We need to act now.

YOUNG: But even with expanded democratic majorities in both houses a climate bill will still face tough opposition based on geography, not party. Both Democrats and Republicans from states with coal, oil and heavy manufacturing are cool to anything that puts their favored fuels at a disadvantage. Senate Energy Committee Chair, New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman, warns against rushing into another ambitious climate change bill right away.

BINGAMAN: Fortunately we don’t have to try to do everything that is worth doing on the subject of global climate change in one gigantic bill.

YOUNG: Bingaman would like to see an energy bill first. He argues that passing a bill with strong investment in renewable energy and technology like carbon capture and storage would make legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions more palatable. Any energy bill will also have to address some unfinished business from the last Congress -offshore oil drilling. The nearly 40-year moratorium on expanding offshore drilling ended last year amid anxiety over record high gas prices. President-elect Obama says he’s not against an expansion of drilling if it is part of a larger, comprehensive energy strategy.

OBAMA: I’m not thrilled with it simply lapsing as a consequence of inaction without broader thought to how are we gonna achieve energy independence and reduce our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels.

YOUNG: The first item on the agenda for the new president and Congress, however, is a massive economic recovery program that could pump 600 billion dollars or more into infrastructure spending. The size and contents are works in progress but many Democrats promise a green approach to economic stimulus. Here’s how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi describes it:

PELOSI: We rebuild our infrastructure to make it green and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, to preserve the planet by stopping global warming. This is what we will have: it will be a forward-looking, an economic recovery package for the future. This is not a 1930's public works project; this is a broadband, modernization of the grid, initiative for the future.

YOUNG: Although Pelosi supports acting on climate change she has not yet made a climate bill a priority for action early in the new Congress. But Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change sees hopeful signs.

CLAUSSEN: I think you have to look at energy security, climate change and economic revitalization as one. If we move forward on these issues we will be creating new jobs, we will be rebuilding our economy in a different kind of way. I think that is the way it is being viewed. And that’s why I’m optimistic we will get climate legislation even if times are difficult.

YOUNG: Claussen’s group advocates for an international agreement to fight global warming. She says that won’t happen until the U.S. knows what it’s willing to
do at home.

For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



Senate Environment Committee Chair Barbara Boxer's plans on global warming:

House energy Committee Chair Henry Waxman's principles for climate change legislation:

Obama transition team's energy and environment plans


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