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Signs of climate change fail to improve political environment for cap-and-trade

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 11:31 PM

The evidence for climate change grows: The first eight months of 2010 put this year on track to tie 1998 as the hottest year on record, global bleaching is devastating coral reefs and Arctic summer sea ice is reaching new lows.

But for all the visible signs of global warming, weakened political support for curbing emissions means the United States is unlikely to impose national limits on greenhouse gases before 2013, at the earliest. Several leading GOP candidates this fall are questioning whether these emissions even cause warming, while some key Democratic Senate candidates are disavowing the cap-and-trade bill the House passed in 2009.

"I don't see a comprehensive bill going anywhere in the next two years," Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told a Washington policymakers conference sponsored by Reuters on Tuesday.

This disconnect has left environmentalists and many climate scientists pessimistic. For years, activists argued that it was hard to limit greenhouse gases, because, unlike other forms of pollution, they are impossible to see, smell or touch. Climate effects are increasingly plain to see but no easier to address.

Rafe Pomerance, a senior fellow with the group Clean Air-Cool Planet, said he and other experts are stunned to see so many examples of global warming materializing at once.

"It is breathtaking to watch several indicators demonstrate simultaneously climate impacts from the poles to the equator," he said.

However, these developments, along with events such as massive wildfires in Russia and floods in China and Pakistan this summer, have done nothing to revive prospects for a climate policy that President Obama has championed since taking office. In at least eight contested House races and six competitive Senate races - all of which could represent GOP pickups - the Republican candidates reject the idea that human activities are linked to global warming.

"While I think the earth is warming, I don't think that man-made causes are the primary factor for global warming," Ken Buck, a Colorado district attorney who is challenging Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), said in a televised interview earlier this year.

Democratic opposition

Even some Democratic Senate candidates are playing down the prospect of a federal cap on carbon emissions. Bennet, during a debate with Buck this month, said he opposes the House-passed climate bill, and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal - who backed Senate climate legislation in 2009 - recently told one voter that "cap-and-trade is dead."

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who voted for the House climate bill last year, told a group of scientists at the University of California at Davis last weekend that researchers and politicians need to do more to get the American public to grasp the urgency of climate change.

"It's not enough to have the science. We need to be able to convince the people," he said. "We have to be able to convince them how serious these issues are."

When asked about the prospects for climate legislation in the next few years, Obama energy and climate-change adviser Carol Browner provided a statement emphasizing the "aggressive steps" the president had taken to improve fuel efficiency, home weatherization and electricity transmission.

"There's no doubt that there is a global race to the top to capitalize on the jobs that will be created by transitioning to a clean-energy economy, and the president recognizes the urgency and will continue to aggressively advocate for the United States to be that nation," she said.

The administration continues to back a federal cap on greenhouse gas emissions. So does Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Markey co-wrote last year's climate bill and held a hearing Thursday on the connection between this year's extreme weather and global warming, featuring Pakistan's U.S. ambassador, Husain Haqqani.

But if Republicans retake the House this fall, they'll eliminate Markey's select committee. And Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who would chair the Environment and Public Works Committee if his party gains control of the chamber, said the combination of some Democrats' unease with the Environmental Protection Agency regulating greenhouse gases and unified Republican opposition could curtail any federal limits on carbon.

"With the GOP certain to gain seats in November, the prospect of dismantling that regime is growing brighter every day," he said.

What the data show

Despite the political impasse in Washington, several recent readings suggest that climate change is accelerating. Combined ocean and land temperature readings for the first eight months of 2010 make it likely that this year will tie 1998 as the hottest year on record. For only the second time in history, a worldwide bleaching event has devastated coral reefs from the Maldives to the Caribbean. Arctic summer sea ice volume has steadily declined since the late 1980s, and the minimum extent it reached this month ranks as the third-lowest since satellite record-keeping began in 1979.

"The bad part about this is it really shouldn't be surprising us," said C. Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch, referring to the bleaching event. "This is exactly what we've been predicting. None of us want to be seeing this or believing it, because it's a scary prospect."

Norway's Kongsvegen glacier still looms within sight of Ny-Alesund, the northernmost human settlement on Earth. But along with the rest of the world's glaciers, it is shrinking.

Robert Bindschadler, NASA's emeritus chief scientist, said researchers are just beginning to grasp how warmer ocean waters are helping erode ice sheets and that this will lead to more rapid sea-level rise by the end of the century.

"It's the heat in the oceans that are attacking the ice sheets. That's the primary driver," he said. He added that because researchers have largely relied on satellite data to gauge ice-sheet melt in the past, "we don't have many measurements of how that process takes place. We're kind of just getting started."

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