Jeremy Symons is director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Global Warming Campaign. He previously worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, where he served on the working group of Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force until April 2001.
Last Wednesday, a powerful committee in the House of Representatives spoke out on global warming. The House Appropriations committee voted to go on record and declare that Congress must confront global warming with mandatory cuts to the pollution causing the problem. The resolution acknowledges the “substantial risk” posed by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This same measure was passed by the Senate last year on a close vote, despite lobbying against it from both the White House and industry lobbyists.
The full House will have to decide this week whether or not to follow suit, as the measure moves forward as part of a major appropriations bill. The oil industry’s top allies in Congress have already signaled their intention to fight it. If there is a showdown, it will be the first time that House members are forced to go on record and show where they stand on global warming.
This stirring of life in Washington on the issue comes as a surprise after five years of steady denial. The House has never seriously addressed the issue of curbing pollution from global warming, and has instead spent recent years rubber-stamping legislation to implement the Bush-Cheney energy plan. Congress passed an energy bill in 2005 that was short on vision but long on handouts to energy companies, which have coughed up more than $108 million in campaign contributions since the 2000 elections. It was enthusiastically signed by President George W. Bush.
The consequences of this misguided energy plan are all too clear. According to a forecast from the Department of Energy that examines the effects of this new energy policy, U.S. emissions of global warming pollution from oil, coal and natural gas are now expected to increase 13 percent over the next decade. This increase will add to pollution rates that are already far too high, feeding the buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere and accelerating global warming.
This week’s action in the House should provide insight into whether Congress is finally feeling the heat on global warming. Public dissatisfaction over Congress’ inaction has been growing. Nearly seven in 10 Americans want the government to do more to address global warming, according to a recent Time/ABC News poll. Forty-nine percent—an up-tick from 31 percent in 1998—consider it extremely or very important to them personally. The demand for action is coming from all quarters, including recent calls for action from prominent evangelical leaders.
While pressure for action has been building, the resistance to action is softening in some quarters. The House and Senate resolutions both point to a surprisingly fertile area of common ground on how best to regulate global warming pollution: an emissions cap and trade system. At a Senate workshop this spring, Fortune 500 companies and environmental groups alike expressed confidence in this innovative system for tackling pollution while growing our economy.
Such a system is characterized first and foremost by setting a national goal for curbing the nation’s global warming pollution. Under the system, industry has mandatory timelines for meeting the pollution targets, but is free to choose the best opportunities for reducing emissions. Businesses can buy and sell “emission allowances” from each other, tapping the power of the marketplace to provide broad incentives to spur technology.
For nervous legislators, the evolving national consensus in favor of reducing global warming pollution and the growing public unrest on the topic serve as a backdrop to the political scramble over the latest surge in gas prices. Soaring gas prices and escalating pollution levels are both symptoms of the same malady: our addiction to oil.
Rather than kicking the oil habit, up until now our nation’s energy policies have simply fed the oil addiction, driving up oil demand and prices. The United States now uses 1 million barrels more every day than we did when President Bush came to office.
Our fuel economy standards for automobiles haven’t been seriously updated since the era of 8-track tape players. House leaders and the White House have teamed up repeatedly over the past five years to kill initiatives that would have significantly updated the fuel economy standards for new cars, which today guzzle more gas on average than models sold 25 years ago.
Instead, the Bush administration is once again talking about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, this would save U.S. consumers only a penny a gallon two decades from now.
As politicians offer up sound bites instead of real policy reform, time is running out. Over the past year, the buildup of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere topped 381 parts per million, higher than at any time in the past 650,000 years. The devastating impacts are already hitting home. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma illustrated what can happen when warmer ocean temperatures exacerbate the effect of storms in an active hurricane season. Scientists have documented a 50 percent increase in the power of hurricanes as ocean temperatures have warmed during the past three decades.
According to a 2004 study, the percentage of Earth's land area stricken by serious drought more than doubled over the last 30 years, due largely to rising temperatures. In the western United States, immense wildfires have fed off the record droughts, which are worse than at any time in the past 500 years in some areas.
Dr. James Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recently concluded from the latest scientific findings that “we have to stabilize emissions of carbon dioxide within a decade” or “many things could become unstoppable.”
We are in a race to see if we can cross the political tipping point and implement real solutions before we rush past the planetary tipping point.