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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

What will it take to force political action on climate change?

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As utilities fire up their "clean coal" machines and international negotiators haggle over the precise definition of a tree, only one entity has the courage to stand and deliver the hot air the world so desperately craves on climate change: the U.S. Senate. After a hectic couple of weeks, filled with Republican walkouts and Democratic intransigence, the Senate's Environment and Public Works committee has pushed a bill to the Senate floor that would cut carbon dioxide.


Unfortunately, Republicans (other than Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina) are dead set against it. "My colleagues have advanced a bill with potentially serious economic harm without a comprehensive analysis of its costs," wrote Ohio Sen. George Voinovich to Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "My request [for an economic analysis of the proposal] could have shown whether the bill would have any appreciable impact on global climate change."


And Democrats from coal country are skeptical of a bill that would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. "I'm not for either bill," either the House or Senate version, known alternately as Waxman–Markey and Kerry–Boxer, respectively, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia at an event to unveil the world's first demonstration project to both capture and store CO2 (albeit just 1.5 percent of the attached power plant's total emissions). "It's too much too soon."


And Rockefeller is just one of 32 senators from the 16 states that produce coal—to say nothing of the many more states that rely on the dirty black rock to produce cheap electricity—some of whose votes will be needed to pass any bill. Rockefeller's price tag is not low: He's calling for another $10 billion to develop carbon capture and storage to make coal cleaner (on top of the $3.5 billion in the recent stimulus package) followed by another $20 billion to $25 billion over the long term, "which is nothing. Health care is $850 billion and we're talking about the future of the world," Rockefeller said.


Nevertheless, the coal country senator is no contrarian about climate change. "Some think it's a hoax," he said. "Well, it isn't. It just isn't." And he feels the time is coming for climate legislation, if not quite yet (or in time for international negotiations in Copenhagen this December). "The climate change legislative piece is going to be pushed off to next year."


Meanwhile, the House Science and Technology Committee looked into what might be done if the world fails to act before climate change becomes catastrophic: geoengineering. "If geoengineering is ever used, it should be as a short-term emergency measure, as a supplement to, and not as a substitute for, mitigation and adaptation," testified environmental scientist Alan Robock of Rutgers University. "And we are not ready to implement geoengineering now." Sounds like exactly the kind of thing the Senate is looking for.

Image: Senator John D. Rockefeller IV

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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