Climate Bill Bogs Down in Senate

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen should have cleared a path for the U.S. Congress move forward again on climate change legislation, but Senate Democrats already are saying the bill might not come in 2010. After fights over the stimulus and health care, legislators are less willing to stomach compromises on climate change. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is looking smarter for having passed the House’s version of the climate change bill when she had the chance.

Brian Beutler reports for TPM that in the Senate, conservative Democrats from coal, oil, and manufacturing states are taking a stand against cap-and-trade provisions, which would limit carbon emissions nationwide. According to Beutler, “It’s likely impossible that [President Barack Obama] and Senate leadership will be able to keep the Democratic party united to stop a filibuster of cap-and-trade legislation, which means Democrats will have to secure the support of a handful of moderate Republicans—nuclear energy enthusiasts, in particular—if they hope to pass a meaningful bill.”
After the House of Representatives passed a climate change bill in July, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) set a September deadline for the six committees with a stake in the legislation to finish their work. Four months later, the Environmental and Public Works committee, the first to tackle the issue, is still debating a version of the bill sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

With slow progress on the Kerry-Boxer bill, more business-friendly options are bubbling up from the Senate. Sen. Kerry has teamed up with Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and with progressives’ most reviled Congressman, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), to craft a bill that Republicans might support. Another effort, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), restricts carbon inputs rather than carbon emissions. (Need a refresher on proposed climate solutions? The Nation’s Chris Hayes can help.)

The Cantwell-Collins effort has at least one advantage over the House’s 1,498-page climate change bill, as David Morris reports for AlterNet. It’s only 39 pages—so far. More importantly, Morris writes, this strategy “treats carbon trading as a necessary evil, not the core of an emission reduction strategy, thereby probably earning the senators the eternal hatred of a Wall Street salivating over the potential bonuses another multi-trillion-dollar global securities market would generate.”

Despite these alternatives and resistance from some Democrats to cap-and-trade, Steve Benen notes at the Washington Monthly that the framework that the House passed in July and that provided the starting point for the original Kerry-Boxer proposal does have some positives.
“Proponents note that the policy has some pretty compelling selling points, including the fact that it caps emissions, combats global warming, reduces pollution, helps create new jobs in a burgeoning sector, and lowers the federal budget deficit, all at the same time,” Benen writes. If the Senate leadership gives into pressure from moderate Dems, he continues, the consequences are high.

“This needs to get done, and if the Senate takes a pass on 2010, it’s hard to imagine when the next available opportunity might be. It’s not as if this will get easier after Republicans make likely gains in the midterms,” Benen concludes.

Without a climate change bill in 2010, United States representatives will carry the same handicap—a recalcitrant legislature that could reject a global accord—to the next round of United Nations negotiations. Without legislation to back their proposals, U.S. negotiators lose the power to hold other countries’ accountable to global climate change goals.

Already, the U.N. is planning how to improve the treaty process for next year. As Andy Kroll notes at Mother Jones, “The world has changed considerably—economically, ecologically, socially, etc., etc.—since the existing UN treaty process was set into motion after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit where countries drafted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international treaty that each subsequent Conference of the Parties, or COP, attempted to build on and improve.”

Splitting the world into industrialized, developed, and developing countries may no longer make sense, writes Kroll. Smaller, less developed nations did their best to alert the conference to their needs, but the final agreement came from larger powers like India and China, developing countries with agendas markedly different than those of nations like Tuvalu. The unenthusiastic reception of that deal highlighted problems with the treaty process as much as disagreements among the participating nations.

“If the recent climate talks illustrated anything, it’s the extent to which the current treaty framework—an unwieldy process in which consensus among the 192 participating countries is near impossible—no longer serves its intended purpose of guiding nations toward meaningful, rigorous emissions reductions,” Kroll writes.

As global leaders try to move forward from Copenhagen, the impact of that breakdown should become clearer, as Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard explains. “Because the document was not adopted unanimously, it has no real legal or formal bearing—it may never play a role in future UN deliberations.” Sheppard writes. “Converting this accord into meaningful action will be torturous. For all the angst the document provoked, it is extremely vague and leaves many key details unresolved.”

For years, the United States would not commit to the climate change goals agreed on through the U.N. treaty process, and now, any progress the Congress does make may come too late.

“Although Obama said on Friday that he and other leaders remain committed to a new, legally binding treaty in the future, there is no road map or timeline in the accord to reach such a goal,” Sheppard explains.


This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow them on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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