Political climate is changing on global warming

  • Article by: ROB HOTAKAINEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 2, 2007 - 9:56 PM

Minnesotans on Capitol Hill are in the middle of a heated debate over what steps to take to cut greenhouse gases.

The debate in Washington over climate change seems certain to intensify in the wake of an international report Friday that human activities are very likely causing rising temperatures and sea levels.

Various proposals have been made -- capping emissions and creating renewable energy standards, for example -- and congressional leaders are promising a much more vigorous look at the issue than it's received in the past. But no consensus has emerged over who would pay for reducing wastes from industry, energy plants and vehicles.

The White House on Friday solidly endorsed the report, saying it would serve as a valuable source of information for policymakers. The administration reiterated its opposition to mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases as a way of dealing with the problem.

Nowhere is the tenor of the controversy clearer than in the Senate. Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar has ended her first month in Washington by joining a new nine-member subcommittee charged with finding ways to address global warming, putting her in position to help create a national strategy. She favors strong limits on greenhouse gases.

Leadership on the issue in the Senate has taken a dramatic turn.

Agreed: It's not a hoax

The last chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, called theories attributing global warming to human activities a "hoax" and blamed the media for hyping the issue. The new chairwoman, Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, says the United States is rapidly reaching "a tipping point when irreversible changes to the world we know may occur."

Another sign of change: Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who was criticized by environmental groups in October for floating a proposal to strip states of their ability to fight carbon dioxide emissions, has backed away from the plan. He says he is "passionate about cutting down carbon emissions" and that Inhofe was mistaken on global warming. Coleman predicted there will be a "drastic difference" with Boxer replacing Inhofe.

While the issue of global warming has long divided politicians in Washington, Boxer said "a real consensus is coming together," with scientists, the public and the Bush administration agreeing that global warming is real and that humans are contributing to it.

"We are at a historic moment -- the tide is turning," Boxer said at a hearing this week. She has touted a California state law that requires lowering emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

So far, a handful of bills have been introduced. Many Democrats are proposing mandatory caps on emissions, while others are promoting a more flexible "cap and trade" system. Under such a plan, Congress would set federal emissions standards and then allow companies to sell emissions credits when they fall below the standards and to buy credits when they exceed them. Congress also must decide whether to impose a single national standard that would pre-empt state laws.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Friday he will push to expand public transportation: "If we made a 10 percent mode shift in surface transportation to transit, we would save the equivalent of all the oil we import from Saudi Arabia in a year. That's 550 million barrels of oil."

Seeks strong limits

Klobuchar said she's backing strong limits on greenhouse-gas emissions and "some version" of a cap-and-trade system. She also wants Congress to approve renewable fuel standards for cars and trucks and to provide incentives for manufacturers and consumers to build and buy hybrid and flex-fuel vehicles.

Klobuchar, appointed to serve both on the environmental committee and its global warming subcommittee, gave a speech this week that made reference to her state's legendary subzero temperatures: "Many people here might wonder why Minnesotans would be concerned if it warmed up a few degrees."

But she said protecting the environment is part of Minnesota's heritage.

"Our decisions on global warming may well be the ones that have the most profound impact on our future generations and on the very fate of the Earth."

Coleman floated a new plan this week that would require utilities to generate a growing percentage of their electricity from clean energy sources, such as wind, fuel cells and fossil-fired plants that capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions. An analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a Department of Energy statistical and analytic agency, shows Coleman's plan would lead to a reduction of 14.7 percent in projected increases of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 - although still 23.1 percent higher than 2004 levels.

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