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

Warming Debate Heats the House

Air Date: Week of

Congressman Edward Markey. (Courtesy of the House of Representatives)

As the world watches for signs that the U.S. will address climate change, an important signal arose from the U.S. House of Representatives: the first major global warming bill of the new Congress. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young tells us what’s in it and what big challenges lie ahead.


CURWOOD: Back here at home, Congress has been gearing up for action on climate change too – with a draft bill coming out of the powerful House Energy Committee that is fairly close to what the White House has put on the table in Bonn.

Living on Earth’s Jeff Young joins me now from Washington. Hi Jeff.

YOUNG: Hi Steve!

CURWOOD: So this bill comes out the very same week the US shows its hand at the talks leading up to Copenhagen.

YOUNG: And probably not merely coincidence, that - I caught up with Ed Markey, he’s the Massachusetts Democrat who’s one of the lead authors of this bill. Markey says he wants to make sure that congress does enough so that when the Obama administration goes to Copenhagen for those talks in December the US is seen as a leader, not the laggard, in his words.

And this draft bill Markey helped write is very ambitious. It would mandate greater energy efficiency, much more use of renewable energy sources, and deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.

MARKEY: We have opportunity to back out millions of barrels of oil we import. We have a chance to create three million new green jobs and to do so while we’re conquering global warming. So it’s too good an opportunity to miss.

YOUNG: Markey says he and Energy Committee Chairman Henry Waxman of California followed the guidance of a coalition of major business and environmental groups in setting the CO2 emissions targets. The bill would establish a cap-and-trade program to cut CO2 83 percent below 2005 levels by mid century. It also calls for a 20 percent reduction by the year 2020. That’s a slightly stronger cap than the Obama administration requested, but somewhat weaker than what some climate scientists recommend. Markey says he will also keep energy intensive industries in mind when deciding how to allocate the emissions credits

MARKEY: We are not going to auction off 100 percent of the credits. We are going to use some of them in order to insure that the steel industry, and the glass industry, the paper industry, and other trade vulnerable, energy intensive industries are not exploited by China or India or Brazil or other countries that have not yet agreed to be part of a global system of controlling greenhouse gases.

Congressman Edward Markey. (Courtesy of the House of Representatives)

YOUNG: Markey says the exact formula for doling out those valuable emissions credits will be decided in the course of hearings and markups beginning later this month. He calls this version of the bill a discussion draft. And it certainly has sparked robust discussion, especially among members of congress whose states depend on coal.

CAPITO: The direction of which this legislation seems to be taking it is to kill coal, quite frankly.

YOUNG: That’s West Virginia Republican Representative Shelley Moore Capito. House Republican leaders have tagged the bill a “light switch tax” and any Republican support seems unlikely.

The bill is also divisive among Democrats. Democrat Rick Boucher represents the coal mining part of Virginia. He’s also a key member of the House Energy Committee and managed to add to the bill significant support for carbon capture and storage technology. That’s the coal industry’s best chance to comply with carbon cuts in the long term. But that technology is unlikely to come about for at least a decade. Boucher’s very concerned about the near term targets for emissions reductions, from 2012 to 2020.

BOUCHER: And that is a critical time, because it’s the time during which we will be developing the technologies that will allow our most plentiful fuel, coal, accounting today for 51 percent of all electricity production in this country, to be continued in use.

YOUNG: The trick, of course, is to also have those targets accomplish what’s needed to avoid dangerous levels of warming.

The Obama Administration is sending clear signals that there is ample science to justify action now. As head of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, Jane Lubchenco is one of the administration’s top science advisors. Lubchenco told the national academy of sciences that the climate change situation reminds her of warnings penned 40 years ago by Martin Luther King Jr.

LUBCHENCO: We cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words ‘too late’.

YOUNG: Clearly, Lubchenco is in no mood to wait. And neither are her colleagues at the Environmental Protection Agency, who are pressing ahead with the first steps to regulate CO2 using existing authority under the clean air act.

California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment Committee, says that should send a clear signal to her colleagues in Congress.

BOXER: Action is underway to stop global warming now. The EPA is already moving to regulate greenhouses gasses under the Clean Air Act. If congress does nothing we’ll be watching EPA do our job, because they must do it under the Clean Air Act.

YOUNG: So Steve – Boxer and her allies hope that EPA’s promise to regulate will help them legislate instead.

CURWOOD: And it’s helping the Obama administration negotiate, because more than one delegate in Bonn mentioned to me that they’re well aware that the president will have the power to regulate greenhouse gases through the EPA. Just where are they in that process?

YOUNG: The new EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, she’s made this finding that carbon dioxide emissions are a potential danger to public health and welfare. That is the legal trigger that really starts the ball rolling. It’s not clear what form the regulation will take but it is underway.

CURWOOD: Jeff, help me out – the legislation, all these numbers – what does it mean for the typical American?

YOUNG: You know, it is so confusing, these targets. I spoke with Princeton Professor Robert Socolow, who has a very personal way of looking at this. He says if we want to stabilize CO2, we’ve gotta get to one ton of CO2 per person per year. Right now the U.S. averages 20 tons per person per year.

CURWOOD: That’s a pretty tall order, Jeff. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young in Washington. Thanks.

YOUNG: You’re welcome.

[MUSIC: Carlos Santana “Curacion (Sunlight On Water)” from Multi-dimensional Warrior (Legacy 2008)]

CURWOOD: Just ahead – digging out of debt – the organic way. Keep listening to Living on Earth!



Read the discussion draft of the climate change and energy bill from Representatives Waxman and Markey.

Read press release about the draft from the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Listen to Jeff Young's earlier report on the complex Senate politics for a climate bill.

And hear our interview with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Learn more about the National Academy of Sciences climate change study


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