Climate Action in the Senate

Monday, June 2, 2008

THE SENATE is scheduled to vote today on a motion to proceed to debate on the Climate Security Act of 2008. Given this nation's sluggish response to global warming, that will qualify as a big step. The chances of passage this year are worse than 50-50. But the markers being laid for the next president are worth pursuing.

The world has clamored for U.S. leadership on climate change. Yet for seven years the Bush administration denied and dithered while the planet warmed. Initially, it questioned the science underpinning the warnings about climate change. Today, President Bush believes global warming is real, but he has resisted concrete actions to address it. Chief among them is putting a price on carbon, as would be required by the climate bill sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.).

The foundation of the legislation is a cap-and-trade system that would put a price on carbon by having a declining cap on greenhouse gas emissions permitted for each year between 2012 and 2050. Emission permits could be bought and sold; this would promote increasing energy efficiency with a minimum of government prescription. The bill calls for reductions in emissions of 19 percent by 2020 and 71 percent by 2050. Starting in 2012, the electric power, petroleum, natural gas and manufacturing sectors, as well as transportation fuels, would need allowances to pollute.

The bill isn't perfect. A majority of allowances would be auctioned, but initially about 40 percent would be given away, ostensibly to help industries in those sectors and others make the transition to a greener, more expensive reality. Those freebies would decline over time. Money gained from the auctions, estimated to be $3.3 trillion over the life of the bill, would be used to finance tax cuts for the poor to mitigate increases in utility bills; training and assistance for workers; deficit reduction; and advanced research on carbon capture and sequestration and other clean-energy technologies.

Opponents may very well succeed in blocking the bill -- this time. But a report from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program released last week showed why a bill like this will soon pass. The report detailed how carbon dioxide emissions are already having an impact on weather conditions, farmland and wildlife, and how the negative impacts will be felt over the next 25 to 50 years. Mr. Bush apparently intends to leave office without supporting a meaningful response. But the report and the head start provided by the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill will provide the next occupant of the Oval Office a sturdy platform to finally show leadership on climate change.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company