The Senate needs to act now on the climate bill

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

SENS. JOHN F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) have provided Congress with an opportunity. Their climate bill, released last week, is imperfect. But it offers a start, very much in the right direction. Contrary to popular wisdom, acting on global warming is not going to get easier after this year's election. Legislators should seize this moment.

The burning of oil, natural gas and coal for industry, transportation and modern life generally gives off gases that get trapped in the atmosphere, keeping heat in and warming the Earth. The consequences of this human-induced influence on global climate are difficult to predict with precision but are likely to be disruptive, possibly catastrophically. Scientists are clear enough on this to make it obvious that people should begin to reduce their dependence on these carbon-based fuels. Every big country will have to play a role -- but many won't get started unless the United States gets serious.

The most rational action, as we've said before, would be to put a gradually rising tax on carbon emissions and let the market find the cheapest alternatives. The Kerry-Lieberman bill doesn't go that route. But it does, through a system of tradable emission permits, create a gradually rising price on carbon emissions that, if properly administered, could have a similar effect. This is crucial, because left to their own devices, legislators will merely subsidize some of the most expensive alternatives to carbon-burning: new nuclear plants (Republicans), solar plants (Democrats), carbon sequestration (coal-state legislators of both parties). If the market is allowed to work, on the other hand, cheaper and more efficient methods -- conservation, converting the dirtiest coal plants to natural gas -- will probably be used while the rising price of carbon spurs research into currently more expensive solutions, with time bringing down the price of at least some of them.

The longer Congress waits to pass a comprehensive climate bill, the less time America will have to cut its emissions -- and the more expensive the process will be. According to the International Energy Agency, every year the world fails to seriously deal with climate change raises the price tag by $500 billion -- a lot of which, no doubt, Americans will be on the hook for. And then there's the politics. The House already has passed a climate bill. President Obama has said he supports action this year. And the next Congress, possibly with a sizable caucus of newly elected climate-change skeptics, could make any sensible environmentalist nostalgic for 2010.

There's a lot we would change about Kerry-Lieberman, starting with the way it would hand out valuable emissions permits. The legislation can and should improve via amendment. But the bottom line is that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) should get the process started now.

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