08/16/2007 09:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Congress, Ready to Act on Climate Change

I'm at lunch with a Washington lobbyist who has good news. "It's quite plausible that we can get a cap-and-trade bill through this Congress," Nikki Roy says. Roy, who is formally known as Manik Roy, PhD., is director of congressional affairs for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. His job is to persuade Congress to pass serious legislation to regulate greenhouse gases, and he puts the odds of action this fall at about 50-50. "It's been an exciting summer," he says.

Roy, who is 50, knows what he's talking about. He's got a master's degree in environmental engineering from Stanford, a PhD in public policy from Harvard, and more than 20 years of experience on Capitol Hill. So the fact that he thinks a breakthrough on climate change may be around the corner is significant.

What's the basis for his optimism? Essentially, it's the coming together of a group of Senate moderates to support a meaningful climate change bill -- one that would bring emissions down by 60-80% by 2050 -- as well as signs from key Democratic committee leaders in the Hose that they are ready to do the same.

The challenge, as he explains it to me, has been to to devise a bill with the "environmental integrity" to win over liberals who favor strong action (think Sens. Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders) without scaring off moderates and conservatives (think Sens. John Warner or Lindsey Graham). What the moderates want is some mechanism to deal with economic problems, should they arise, as the price of energy increases.

To put it plainly, politicians want to be reassured that the deep, wrenching and inevitable changes brought about by the radical, albeit gradual, de-carbonization of America will not wreck the economy. Those are my words, not his.

If climate change legislation passes this fall, it will be because the enviros and key Senators have been laying the groundwork for years. Roy, a former Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, singles out John McCain, who with Joe Lieberman introduced a strong bill to regulate greenhouse gases back n 2002. "On this issue, I have enormous admiration for him," Roy says. The McCain-Lieberman bill won support from 44 senators a few years ago. You need 60 votes to close off Senate debate and pass a major bill.

That became more likely this summer when Warner, a Virginia Republican, joined with Lieberman to introduce a bill that would reduce emissions by 10% in 2020 and 70% in 2050 -- enough to win backing from environmentalists. You can read more about the bill on Pew"s website.

Warner could be the key to getting a bill out of the Senate Environment Committee, where Democrats hold only a one-vote edge. He comes from state where, it's safe assume, there are strong, conflicting opinions about climate change; the commonwealth includes both coal mines and the coastline along the Chesapeake Bay. But he's also a national security geek, and he has said that he's worried that global warming could lead to environmental refugees and political instability.

Meanwhile, to deal with fears that carbon caps will damage the economy, four Senators -- Republicans Warner and Lindsey Graham of South Caroline and Democrats Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana (the land of oil & gas & Katrina) -- introduced legislation that would aim to protect consumers and business from the potential costs of carbon regulation. (You can read their press release here.)

The four senators want to create something called a Carbon Market Efficiency Board, modeled on the Fed, to build some flexibility into the regulatory scheme. This board could ease up on an emissions cap if the economy is suffering, but only by lowering the cap in the future. In effect, it would give industry the freedom to pollute more now so long as it pollutes less later, once economy rebounds. The idea came out of research conducted at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. The Institute's Director, Timothy Profeta, is a former Lieberman aide who recently testified in the Senate.

Yes, It all sounds very wonky but the key is that a bill is emerging that can win support both from environmental community and from conservatives like Warner and Lindsay Graham. Who would have expected that?

Corporate America and its lobbyists will have a lot to say about all this. The U.S. Climate Action Partnership (US CAP) now has more than 30 corporate members, along with big enviro groups like NRDC, Environmental Defense, World Resources Institute and Pew. Corporate members include GE, Wal-Mart, GM, Ford, DuPont, Duke Energy, Conoco Phillips and Lehman Bros.

Business can go a long way towards persuading Congress that a strong global warming bill won't sink the economy... and that doing nothing might.

Originally posted here.