by Katherine Stapp
(IPS) NEW YORK -- With most of the world leaving the United States in the dust on climate change policy, the fray is shifting from global summits to Washington's Capitol Hill, where a growing coalition of Democrats and Republicans is lobbying for a national cap on carbon dioxide emissions.
The Kyoto Protocol to regulate emissions of CO2 and other so-called greenhouse gases, which took effect Wednesday, has been dismissed by the George W. Bush administration as too pricey and damaging to the U.S. economy.
The party line at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been to emphasise the "uncertainties" of climate science. High-profile officials like Dr. John Marburger III, Bush's science adviser, have also disputed the data underlying computer models on global warming, the latest of which predict catastrophic temperature increases of up to 11 degrees by mid-century.
But in a reflection of the widening divide between Washington and the states, which are looking at the very real possibility of lost agricultural production, wildfires and coastal flooding, many elected representatives are rejecting Bush's voluntary approach to controlling emissions.
The biggest piece of legislation, the Climate Stewardship Act, was first introduced by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman in 2003, when it won backing from 43 out of 98 senators.
"The issue is not going away and the cost of inaction will continue to rise," McCain said on Feb. 10. "To further define the problem is not enough. We must take a more active role in finding a solution."
The United States produces about one-quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, with the state of Texas alone regularly exceeding France in annual emissions.
The McCain-Lieberman bill targets the utility, transportation, and industrial sectors -- which together represent 85 percent of all U.S. global warming emissions -- and would create a market for companies to trade pollution credits, modelled on the successful 1990 Clean Air Act's plan to address acid rain.
Compared to Kyoto, which calls for industrialized countries to cut emissions an average of five percent below 1990 levels by 2012, the U.S. bill is modest, ordering industry to return to 2000 levels -- about one to two percent less than the United States emits today -- by 2010.
Economists say the plan could create 800,000 jobs by 2025, and that energy and fuel industry losses would be relatively small.
Efforts to bring the legislation to a vote again in 2004 failed due to opposition from the Republican Party, but the bill's backers reintroduced it last week and say that momentum has grown in both houses of Congress to take action with or without the White House's blessing.
"We're seeing a phenomenal increase in interest, especially in the Senate, but we still have some distance to go in the House (of Representatives)," said Manik Roy, director of congressional affairs at the Virginia-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
In a notable turnaround, even Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who once called the Kyoto Protocol "outrageous" and "arbitrary," says he will introduce three global warming bills next week.
"Achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is one of the important challenges of our time," Hagel said in a speech at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, last week. "Human society has contributed to pollution and, evidence suggests, a global warming trend."
And Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who voted against the McCain-Lieberman bill in 2003, has now convened a subcommittee on global climate change and says he is especially concerned about the effects of global warming on his state's native Inuit population.
While the House of Representatives is dominated by Republicans that adhere more closely to the White House agenda, legislation mirroring the Climate Stewardship Act has been introduced there as well.
"Even conservative Republicans are saying that climate change is a real problem," Roy noted. However, he cautioned that "saying that they're starting to deal with this as an issue is different from saying they will support specific legislation."
Meanwhile, Bush is taking his energy policy in a wholly different direction, seeking expanded oil, gas, and coal development on public lands, including in the ecologically sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska -- plans that have been repeatedly blocked by Congress.
The president also praized nuclear power as "clean" and "safe" in his State of the Union Address, and his recent budget proposal includes federal support for the first new nuclear plants in the United States since the end of the 1970s, when there was a partial meltdown of the reactor core at Three Mile Island in the northeastern state of Pennsylvania.
So where is industry itself in this debate? In fact, many U.S.-based multinationals that do business in countries where greenhouse gases are about to be regulated have long seen a financial incentive in getting a head start.
The chemical giant Dupont, for example, earns a third of its $26.9 billion in annual sales in countries that have ratified Kyoto. Over the last decade, Dupont has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent, largely by targeting non-carbon greenhouse pollutants, like nitrous oxide.
By 2010, some analysts predict that global commodities trading will reach more than nine trillion dollars, driven by crude oil, natural gas, and carbon dioxide. Washington's refusal to ratify Kyoto could end up costing U.S. companies millions, they say, because U.S. industry will be mostly cut out of the potentially lucrative emissions market.
"There are leaders, laggards, and a vast group in the middle that is hedging its bets," said Roy. "But partisan interests are preventing a rational discussion of business interests in Congress. Corporate leaders are being told not to be too conspicuous about their leadership in addressing climate change."
Meanwhile, with analysts predicting that Congress is unlikely to take action this year, almost every U.S. state has unveiled plans to reduce global warming pollution, and many have moved to the next step by working together in regional blocs.
The most prominent include a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions from utilities developed by nine northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, and an alliance to boost energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy in the power grids of 19 western states.
"On virtually every major environmental law, the states have been out in front, taking it beyond the modelling," Roy said. "They've helped industry get beyond their fears, showing that it can be done and they're still in business."
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