Climate Change Legislation: Coming Soon? (11/08)

The following column by AGI/AIPG Geoscience & Public Policy Intern Laura Bochner is reprinted from the November/December 2008 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

In June, 2008, twenty years after he first testified before Congress on the need to take action against climate change, Dr. James Hansen, of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, again appeared before Congress to talk about the climate. This time, he was there to explain why he is almost certain the long-term safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is 350 parts per million. Hansen’s policy prescription for achieving this target: a carbon tax, with a 100% dividend returned equally to the American people on a per capita basis.

While carbon tax legislation has been proposed in the 110th Congress, a carbon tax is largely politically unpalatable. What has garnered more support is a market-based cap and trade system, whereby the federal government would set yearly caps on the total number of tons of carbon dioxide that can be emitted and then distribute allowances—tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent—among the major emitting sources that sum to the cap total. The system would allow for the trading of allowances and would establish a price for carbon, encouraging companies to invest in emissions reduction technologies.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been increasing at an unprecedented rate, but unprecedented, too, is the amount of attention Congress has been giving climate change over the past two years. At the start of the 110th Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi inaugurated the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming to devote additional resources to the twin issues. There have been countless hearings held on topics related to climate change and about fourteen bills have been introduced with the purpose of mitigating climate change. Only a couple of bills would enact a carbon tax; the majority would enact cap and trade systems.

Including resolutions and amendments, lawmakers in this Congress have introduced around 200 measures related to climate change, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Comparatively, there were 106 bills, resolutions, and amendments introduced in the 109th Congress, about 100 pieces in the 108th Congress, 70 pieces in the 107th, and about 30 in the 106th.

Of all the bills introduced this Congress, America’s Climate Security Act (better known as the Lieberman-Warner bill after its two principal sponsors, Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and John Warner (R-VA)) has advanced the furthest in the legislative process. It moved quickly through subcommittee and full committee late in 2007 and was debated on the Senate floor in early June of 2008. While the debate was criticized as being insufficient and unproductive—for example, TIMES reporter Eric Pooley called it “nasty, brutish, and short”—it was a milestone for climate change policy. The bill did not make it beyond the Senate floor debate, and it is unlikely to be revived and reconsidered in the waning months of the 110th Congress.

Nonetheless, the impetus for Congress to again take up climate change legislation comes from multiple fronts.

Eighteen states—Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington—have set greenhouse gas emissions targets, and others are working to set their own. Moreover, coalitions of states are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and have created their own carbon credit trading markets. Seven northeastern and mid-Atlantic states are parties to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI); seven states and four Canadian provinces are partners in the Western Climate Initiative; and ten states have signed onto the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord. The RGGI and Western Climate Initiative have cap and trade programs for centerpieces.

While an increasing number of states are cobbling together a collage of climate change action plans, industrial leaders are growing nervous. A patchwork of regulations and standards is less friendly to business than national, comprehensive policy.

To demonstrate their preference for a universal standard rather than multiple ones, industrial leaders have testified before Congress in support of federal climate change legislation. Speaking on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute (API)—which represents over 400 corporate members of the oil and gas industry—before the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, John Felmy reported “API believes it is important to address global climate change and manage greenhouse gas emissions. We are committed to working with members of Congress on policies that are environmentally effective, economically sustainable and fair.” Speaking on behalf of American Electric Power (AEP)—an electricity generator with over five million customers in eleven states—Michael Morris testified that “AEP supports the adoption of an economy-wide cap-and-trade type GHG reduction program that is well thought-out, achievable, and reasonable.”

Furthermore, as industry representatives testify, constituents are calling congressional offices to state their support for climate change legislation. For example, in a June House hearing on legislative proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Darlene Hooley (D-OR) reported her constituents are urging her to take action now, saying that they want Congress to do something about climate change. An ABC News/Planet Green/Stanford University poll conducted in late June 2008 found that 61% of adults polled believed the federal government should do more to try to reduce global warming.

Now, however, there is less public support for government action on climate change than there was a few years ago: in 2006, 68% of those polled said the government should do more to try to reduce global warming, and in 2007, 70% expressed that opinion. Voters are fickle, and any directives they have for Congress are now being influenced by the harder-hitting issues of high energy prices and an economy in a downturn. Despite believing the federal government should move on climate legislation, the public is largely unwilling to pay more for energy. Anticipating high gas prices, a majority (54%) of respondents in a May 2008 Gallup poll said they were in favor of suspending the relatively small federal gas tax for the summer. When gas did, indeed, soar above $4 per gallon, constituents contacted their legislators and demanded relief.

Any climate change legislation, though, would raise energy prices via a price on carbon. Some people are of the belief that “when it comes to climate change, it’s either pay some now or pay a lot later,” and some are willing to pay more for clean energy. But perhaps the greatest hurdle for climate change legislation, if it’s debated again next Congress, will be the hurdle of energy price increases.

The 110th Congress spent a significant amount of time and energy on climate change legislation even though major action is unlikely to be completed before this Congress adjourns. Besides a closely divided Congress and debate about the best approach to mitigating climate change, the rise in gasoline prices has added an additional bottleneck to resolution.

Even so, the next Congress is expected to act on climate change. Both presumptive presidential nominees favor some action on climate change (both Obama and McCain support cap and trade) and will work with Congress to get legislation passed. Likewise, the American public and stakeholders in the public and private sector favor some action by their legislators. There is still a lot of speculation, however, as to when climate change legislation will be enacted and what the constituent parts of the final bill will be. Undoubtedly, for any climate change legislation to pass, there will be compromises on both sides of the aisle and from all sides of the issue, and compromise is not always easy to forecast.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted February 9, 2009

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