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Global Warming Symphony #1: The Overture

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Congress opened the first full debate on global warming yesterday, taking up the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. This is only the overture -- everyone agrees that even if the Senate passes this legislation (an uphill battle) there's no way to override President Bush's threatened veto. The only plausible theory ever offered for how such a bill might pass this year was that the business sector, faced with the certainty that both presidential candidates will be less hostile to pricing carbon than Bush has been, might decide to cut a deal this year while it still has Bush in the White House. That didn't happen. Instead, the Carbon Complex has come virtually unglued, claiming that Lieberman-Warner would raise gas prices to $8/gallon. Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe is calling this "a climate tax on the poor." Even the Bush administration's wildest exaggeration concedes that Lieberman-Warner would increase gas prices by no more than $.50/gallon by 2030.

But although no bill will pass this year, the debate is both important and revealing. It's important because it signals to both capital markets and the rest of the world that the U.S. will rejoin the global community. For many around the world, the moment when the U.S. left its role as a global leader was back in the Clinton administration, when by 99-1 the Senate warned it would not ratify any treaty like Kyoto on climate. Faced with a similar choice a few weeks ago, the Senate reversed itself, voting 61-34 against a proposal by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint to reaffirm that the U.S. would expect India and China to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gasses before it would enter any international agreement.

And it's enormously important to note that the debate over how we use the revenues from setting a price on carbon has moved to the center of the policy conversation. Lieberman-Warner still gives far too many of the permits away to companies that historically polluted, but both Democratic presidential candidates have called for 100 percent auction revenues, and the tide is steadily moving against bribing big carbon. The nuclear industry is still seeking to pick the public pocket, and there will be amendments offered to sweeten the pot for them -- but Boxer, Lieberman, and Warner have refused to incorporate giveaways to nukes in the basic bill, a fact being cited by John McCain as his reason for refusing to support it.

What we need to do with this dollars is clear -- some need to go to help the consumers and communities hit by higher fossil fuel prices, and some need to go to help protect communities and ecosystems from the ravages of a chaotic climate. But most of the revenue should be used to finance, both here in the U.S. and globally, an innovative, high-performance transition to a low-carbon energy sector, with the dollars going primarily to the most cost-effective low carbon solutions -- vehicles that get 100 miles per gallon of fuel, homes and offices that are energy self-sufficient, a smart grid that can handle renewable and decentralized power sources like solar and wind. Nuclear power is the least cost-effective way to reduce our dependence on CO2, and we can't afford to waste money.

And that's what's revealing about the Senate debate. Sadly, most of the debate will still be about which energy-producing regions and industries get the edge. The Senate still acts as if energy policy were fundamentally about producing fuel -- coal, oil, gas, nuclear -- instead of recognizing that most American companies consume energy services, rather than produce fuel. Most American jobs are driven by how effectively we transform energy into useful services, not by how much stuff we can dig out of the ground. And the biggest leadership challenge for the next president will be to transform how the Congress thinks, and acts, about energy.

John McCain isn't setting a very good example this week. Once again he's is wrapping himself in the symbols of clean energy, running a new ad with an image of a windmill and claiming he will make energy "cleaner and cheaper." Meanwhile, the production tax credits that are essential to keep the American wind industry going still haven't been extended by Congress -- because McCain won't provide the crucial 60th vote needed to break the filibuster mounted against these credits by the Republican leadership.

He would have had a chance to walk the walk for clean energy during the debate on the Climate Security Act this week -- amendments will be offered, for example, to create a 20 percent renewable portfolio standard so that McCain could help clean energy without voting for what he calls subsidies. But McCain has signaled that he won't participate in the debate this week.

He should take a leaf out of the book of Congressman Ed Markey. Markey, as Chair of the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, is raising the bar for his colleagues. He's introduced a new comprehensive global warming bill, the Investing in Climate Action and Protection Act, (iCAP). iCAP incorporates the 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 that scientists say we need, but it auctions off 94 percent of the permits right from the start and then puts half of the proceeds into consumer rebates and the other half into aiding the cost-effective transition to a clean-energy economy. If Senator McCain wants to engage seriously in the climate debate, he needs to recognize that the science on this issue has moved even in the past two years, and his policy approaches are rapidly becoming almost as outdated as Bush's.

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