Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act.
In the Paramount Pictures classic, "The Road to Bali," Bob Hope and Bing Crosby play song and dance men who get gigs diving for underwater treasure. During their zany adventure, they meet up with hoodlums, a giant squid, and, of course, Dorothy Lamour.
Though not exactly a remake, another drama involving a road to Bali is playing out in the United States Senate. In this case, it involves political theatrics leading up to a big United Nations meeting in Bali, staring December 3, to plan a post-Kyoto strategy for dealing with global warming.
Like the original, this story has three leading characters: Senators Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., John Warner, R-Va., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. (Although Boxer might disavow any Lamour-like pretensions, she did make a guest appearance this year on HBO's trendy "Curb Your Enthusiasm.")
The current version seems to be part tragedy, part farce. Tragic in the sense that politics and science appear at odds: The Bush administration continues to protect industry and oppose much-needed mandatory controls, despite a scientific consensus that we need to reduce heat-trapping emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050 to stabilize the climate. Even though a bills has been introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to achieve this result (Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has introduced a similar measure in the House), Boxer hasn't tried to bring it up for a vote in the Environment and Public Works Committee that she chairs because, apparently, the votes simply aren't there.
But Boxer wants to arrive at the Indonesia summit on a Bali high — to proclaim that her committee has passed a symbolic gesture towards progress despite Bush intransigence. And so she has turned over the show, so to speak, to Lieberman and Warner, who set out to craft a compromise that might get enough votes to squeak through Boxer's committee.
And here's where the elements of farce come in, as Lieberman tries to blend highfaluting rhetoric with old-fashioned, backroom deal-cutting in a race to get the bill through the committee in time for Bali.
"If we fail to start substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next couple of years, we risk catastrophic damage," notes Lieberman, who has been leading global warming control efforts in the Senate in recent years, but who also was the top recipient of PAC money from electric utilities in the last election cycle.
As a sop to coal-burning power companies and other smokestack industries, Lieberman set a weaker long-term emission reduction goal, and agreed to give literally hundreds of billions of dollars worth of free emission credits to corporate polluters — a move that Friends of the Earth has denounced as "obscene." The Congressional Budget Office has warned that free credits for industry could lead to windfall profits — and higher consumer costs than if all the credits were put up for sale by the federal government.
But even those concessions apparently weren't enough to get the ball rolling. Without any fanfare, the bill was rewritten in the backroom to include special multibillion dollar breaks for rural electric co-ops in Virginia (for Warner) and Montana (for Senator Max Baucus, D-Mont., who cast the deciding vote as the bill squeaked through Lieberman's subcommittee on a 4-3 vote.
The Crosby-Hope movie was known for cameo appearances by stars, including Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Jane Russell. And several key figures could play important cameos in this remake (Global warming skeptic James Inhofe, R-Ok., is trying out for the role of the menacing squid): Senators Tom Carper, D-Del., and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, D-NY.
Carper signaled this week that he would oppose the bill unless it also includes limits on power plant emissions of toxic mercury and other life-shortening emissions. Clinton — following rival John Edwards' denunciation of the bill as a "massive corporate windfall" — declared that she, too, opposes free credits to big polluters. (So, by the way, does Barack Obama, D-Ill., though Clinton is the only Democratic presidential candidate on the Boxer committee.)
As the clock ticks towards Bali and a possible committee showdown, perhaps the most eloquent committee dissenter is Sanders, who noted, aptly, that "I want to see everybody love each other and get along and all that good stuff, but the issue is: Are we solving the problem?"