A new Congress began less than one month ago, yet early indications suggest that 2009 may yield the most dramatic policy response to climate change in U.S. history. The challenge of passing domestic climate legislation before U.S. negotiators participate in global climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December remains difficult. Economic recession, a health care overhaul, and two foreign wars will compete with climate change for political attention.
A new Congress began less than one month ago, yet early indications suggest that 2009 may yield the most dramatic policy response to climate change in U.S. history.
The challenge of passing domestic climate legislation before U.S. negotiators participate in global climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December remains difficult. Economic recession, a health care overhaul, and two foreign wars will compete with climate change for political attention.
Despite the difficulties, observers are becoming more optimistic that domestic "cap-and-trade" legislation to target greenhouse gas emissions could be ready this year.
"After years of being the last place on Earth to act on climate change, this is our moment," said Massachusetts Senator John Kerry on Wednesday.
House Speaker Nancy PelosiÂ said earlier this monthÂ that the Congress would not be ready this year to pass a cap-and-trade bill, which would limit net emissions and allow emitters to trade pollution permits through a national carbon exchange.
Pelosi has since reversed her opinion, telling reporters from her home state of California that a bill would be ready before the Copenhagen conference.
"I believe we have to [enact a cap-and-trade system] because we see that as a source of revenue," she said, according to theÂ San Francisco Chronicle. "You cap and you trade so you can pay for some of these investments in energy independence and renewables."
California Representative Henry Waxman, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, controls the first stage of cap-and-trade legislation. At his committee's first hearing earlier this month, Waxman said a bill should beÂ ready by May.
"No Time To Waste"
Kerry, a long-time advocate of climate change legislation, now chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Although traditionally focused on foreign aid and national security, the committee highlighted the growing evidence of a dangerously warming planet during itsÂ first substantive hearing of the year.
"The science is screaming at us," Kerry said. "There is no time to waste. We must learn from the lessons of Kyoto, and we must make Copenhagen a success."
Former Vice President Al Gore testified at the hearing to support Kerry's calls for action. It was the first time the Nobel laureate appeared on Capitol Hill in nearly two years.
"The solutions to the climate crisis are the very same solutions that will address our economic and national security crises as well," Gore said. "In order to repower our economy, restore American economic and moral leadership in the world, and regain control of our destiny, we must take bold action now."
Gore, who is currently chair of the nonprofit groupÂ The Alliance for Climate Protection, also urged Congress to place a price on carbon emissions before the Copenhagen negotiations begin.
"Our country is the only country in the world that can really lead the global community," Gore said. "This is the one challenge that could ultimately end human civilization, and it's rushing at us with a speed that is unprecedented."
The Obama Factor
The White House is also making early moves to address climate change. President Barack Obama on Monday instructed his administration to review federal and state fuel efficiency rules for motor vehicles. The move is expected to end more thanÂ five years of political disputesÂ that have allowed automakers to avoid increasing their efficiency standards.
InÂ his remarks, Obama declared that his administration would end the United States' reliance on fossil fuels. "America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes, and a warming planet," he said.Â "We will not be put off from action because action is hard.Â Now is the time to make the tough choices."
In addition, the United States created a new position to handle the ongoing international climate change negotiations. Todd Stern, an assistant to President Bill Clinton during the 1990s, was selected to serve as a special envoy on climate change.
"With the appointment today of a special envoy, we are sending an unequivocal message that the United States will be energetic, focused, strategic, and serious about addressing global climate change and the corollary issue of clean energy," said Secretary of State Hilary Clinton duringÂ the announcement.
These statements, in addition to Obama's repeatedÂ pledges to cap greenhouse gas emissions, are leading many environmentalists to increase their expectations for what Congress could achieve in 2009.
"The prospects have increased pretty significantly," said Manik Roy, vice president of federal government outreach at theÂ Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "It's still ambitious to finish a domestic climate policy by the end of the year, but we think it is achievable."
The Road Ahead
Senate RepublicansÂ prevented a cap-and-trade billÂ from coming to a vote last year. Although more supporters of climate legislation have entered the halls of Congress since the November election, Democratic lawmakers are not all united.
Ten Democrats told Senate leadership that they would not have voted in favor of last year's bill, if they had the opportunity. They said a successful bill would have to provide more taxpayer support to deal with uncertain energy prices, include farmlands and forests as carbon sinks, and increase research funding for the use of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to mitigate coal-fired power plant emissions, according toÂ their letter [PDF].
"We look forward to working with you to ensure that any final bill will address the problems of climate change without imposing undue hardship on our states, key industrial sectors, and consumers," the letter said.
To further complicate the debate, more members of Congress now support carbon taxes after years of lawmakers focusing primarily on a cap-and-trade approach. Supporters have included Republican leaders as well. "I wish we would just talk about a carbon tax - 100 percent of which would go to the American people," said Republican Senator Bob Corker at Wednesday's hearing.
Legislators such as Connecticut Representative John Larson have introduced and lobbied forÂ carbon tax legislation. But Roy said some leaders may be proposing the tax to stall momentum.
"Some of them are raising the idea sincerely. They care about climate change," Roy said. "But with some who are raising a carbon tax, I wonder whether they are doing that just to draw energy from the cap-and-trade approach."
If climate change legislation fails to pass this year,Â White House aides have saidÂ that the currently debated financial stimulus package would provide key first steps to reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions.Â The House of Representatives approvedÂ a plan on Wednesday that would provide aboutÂ $100 billion of supportÂ for renewable energy, energy efficiency, transportation, and environmental restoration projects.
But Congress needs to overhaul the entire economy, through a price on carbon, in order to create a more sustainable solution to current economic, energy, and climate change crises, said David Foster, executive director of theÂ Blue-Green Alliance, a collaboration of labor unions and environmental groups.
"Although passage of the stimulus bill would be extremely successful, we can't slow down and we can't stop there," Foster said. "We really have created an unsustainable economic model. To think we can somehow stabilize that and go back to doing business as we were in the summer of 2008 - with oil at $147 per barrel, with an enormous trade deficit, and with a terrible global warming problem on our hands - that is the model that got us into this mess."