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Congress's Earth Week

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by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers

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Thirty-nine years ago today, 20 million Americans participated in the first ever Earth Day. Initiated by former Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson (D), the first nationwide environmental protest sought "to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda." Though the event was originally envisioned to "bypass the traditional political process," the eco-friendly message was embraced by politicians who took it as an opportunity to roll out environmental initiatives such as establishing an Environmental Bill of Rights. As Americans across the country participate in Earth Day this year, the focus will be on moving toward a low-carbon future based on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels and the creation of a green economy with millions of quality clean energy jobs. Appropriately, Congress is engaging in the "mother of all climate weeks" this week, when "fifty-four witnesses will testify on climate change legislation in three full days before the House Energy and Commerce Committee." The House Science and Technology Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are holding climate-related hearings this week as well. Following the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) landmark decision last week that greenhouse gas pollution endangers the health and welfare of the American public, the pressure is building for lawmakers to advance clean energy legislation. "The commitment is real and we will pass legislation this year," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said recently. "We don't want another Earth Day to go by saying, 'What are we going to do about the climate crisis?'"

DECISION TIME APPROACHES: Following President Obama's call for investment in a clean energy economy, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chair Ed Markey (D-MA) unveiled the American Clean Energy and Security Act last month that sets national standards for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and global warming pollution. Though the draft legislation does not specify how the bill will return revenues generated from the program to ratepayers, the Center for American Progress Action Fund's Joseph Romm noted that the proposed legislation "boosts the economy, creates green jobs, and puts the country on a path to preserve a livable climate." Waxman and Markey's legislation has been met with the expected complaints from conservatives and centrists, who claimed that it would "raise energy taxes in the midst of a serious recession" and "impose too much of a burden." While the House is expected to pass climate legislation this summer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said yesterday that the chamber won't take up the legislation until the fall. But the EPA's announcement last week that six greenhouse gases pose a danger to public health and welfare, "will certainly create some pressure on Congress," according to David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club. After a 60-day comment period, the EPA will be legally required to start limiting carbon dioxide emissions, which means that if Congress wants a say in the design of a reduction program, they need to act.

THE ECONOMIC IMPERATIVE: Grist's Kate Sheppard notes that "as the House begins serious debate on a climate bill, the biggest sticking point is shaping up to be how much it will cost average Americans." In an effort to use the economic downturn to their advantage, conservatives have been pushing bogus claims that green economy legislation would cost American families up to $3,100 per year in higher energy prices. But two reports released yesterday seriously undermine their deliberate muddying of the waters. In a two-year study, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that "the United States can dramatically cut global warming emissions and reduce consumer and business energy bills at the same time." Analyzing the economic, emissions, and energy effects of their recommendations for clean energy, clean vehicles, and global warming standards, UCS found that by 2030, net household savings would reach $900 a year, while oil use would drop 6 million barrels a day and cut global warming pollution in half. In an analysis of Waxman and Markey's legislation, the EPA found that that the bill would "play a critical role in the American economic recovery and job growth." Without considering the costs of inaction, the EPA found that "returning the revenues" in a lump-sum rebate "could make the median household, and those living at lower ends of the income distribution, better off than they would be without the program."

RIGHT-WING HOT AIR: As Congress moves forward in the debate over transitioning to a clean energy economy, "Republicans have yet to produce an energy plan." Roll Call notes that Republicans' solutions "remain unclear." On ABC's This Week last Sunday, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) was unable to say how his caucus proposed to deal with carbon emissions. Instead, Boehner claimed that the idea that carbon dioxide is dangerous is "comical," while he disputed that there is a climate crisis. "The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical," said Boehner. "Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you've got more carbon dioxide." Boehner is not alone in pushing factually-challenged claims instead of actual solutions. On March 25, during a hearing on climate-change adaptation, Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) suggested the planet is "carbon-starved" while declaring that carbon dioxide is "plant food." "So if we decrease the use of carbon dioxide, are we not taking away plant food from the atmosphere?" asked Shimkus. At the same hearing, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) suggested that humans can simply adapt to climate change by finding "shade."