By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009
A clutch of leading international climate officials and negotiators who descended on Washington this week to press the United States for action on global warming say they got a clear message from the Obama administration and key lawmakers: The question now is not whether the nation will act, but how.
With a new president who has made enacting a cap-and-trade bill one of his top domestic priorities, legislators who will help shape it have begun grappling with the complexity of putting a price on carbon, which would raise energy prices, in the midst of an economic crisis. Behind closed doors, they peppered the foreign leaders and economists, who have years of real-world experience with the issue, with questions about how to make such a system work.
"Are we going to be bold enough? It's premature to decide that," said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), one of 15 senators who breakfasted with the Europeans and U.S. energy and high-tech executives Wednesday morning. "The devil's in the details. But if we don't set goals and timelines, then I think we're fooling ourselves."
Even the Senate Republican steering committee -- the chamber's conservative wing -- held a lunch Wednesday focused on climate and energy issues, with several members debating how best they can shape global warming legislation they now see as likely to pass.
"It's gone from last year and Republicans just wanting to defeat it to 'Let's make sure what happens is something that does not damage the economy and hurt hardworking Americans,' " said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who attended the breakfast with Begich and who supports imposing a carbon tax and returning the proceeds to taxpayers.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, in town for a Capitol Hill conference titled "U.S. Climate Action: A Global Economic Perspective," said industrialized and developing countries alike have embraced the idea of curtailing emissions linked to climate change.
"In a way, we've all taken the decision to act," Blair said, but "there are really tough practical challenges that come with that."
With Americans just beginning to sort out how to proceed, the Europeans began what Denmark's climate and energy minister Connie Hedegaard described as "a concerted effort" to give U.S. officials a crash course. Along with Edward Miliband, Britain's secretary of state for energy and climate change; Yvo de Boer, the top U.N. climate official; and Janusz Reiter, Poland's ambassador-at-large for climate change, Hedegaard devoted much of the week to briefing the administration and members of Congress on how other countries have imposed carbon limits, and the difficulties they have faced in making them stick.
"This is a critical place to be because the [Obama] administration is in place, but it hasn't set yet," said de Boer, who is managing negotiations for a new climate treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which the United States rejected.
The foreign visitors paid special attention to Congress, since any climate bill passed this year will help determine the U.S. position when negotiators meet in Copenhagen in December to hammer out a new treaty. The Senate would have to ratify any pact the administration agrees to there.
As Hedegaard put it: "There is a recognition that your Congress, your elected people, will have to buy into whatever solution will be found. . . . That's why we're all here, to try to make it as ambitious as possible."
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said the Europeans provided valuable advice -- "They gave definitive evidence of what worked, what didn't and why" -- but some conservatives who attended the meetings said Europe had made critical mistakes, such as miscalculating how many carbon allowances to hand out to emitters, and had largely failed to meet its Kyoto targets. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), a member of the House energy and environment subcommittee, said, "We've got to be careful that we don't commit to anything that has unrealistic targets."
"The only thing that's been demonstrated to reduce emissions is economic collapse," said Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who also held meetings in Washington this week on climate and clean energy, said his government has rules in place to reduce global warming pollution, but it was hard to curb emissions when "our closest trading partner, that is the United States, was not proceeding with any regulations."
Some Eastern European countries that, like the United States, depend heavily on coal are wary of endorsing overly ambitious targets in the current economic crunch. Reiter, who was Poland's U.S. ambassador before returning home to work on climate issues, said he used to see "a convergence between Europe and the U.S. on pessimism. Now there's a convergence between Europe and the U.S. on optimism. Maybe what we need is a convergence on realism, because we can't ignore the realities, including the political realities."
But the most aggressive proponents of action on global warming, such as Miliband, focused on the argument that the United States cannot afford to opt out of what he called the "low-carbon race" other nations have already started. "It's very important that the U.K. and the U.S. don't get left behind in that race," he said.
The American politicians, for their part, were more focused on job creation.
"The only thing that is going to get this passed in the United States is for real people to understand what this means to them -- this is about jobs," said Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D). "They don't care so much about carbon or greenhouse gases or carbon sequestration. They want to know: Is this going to be a job for them?"