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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Climate is changing, politically

Climate is changing, politically
New attention from presidential hopefuls and others shows that global warming is not just the Democrats' issue anymore.By Janet Hook and Richard Simon, Times Staff WritersJanuary 31, 2007
WASHINGTON — All of a sudden, global warming is hot.
After years of languishing on Capitol Hill, efforts to curb global warming have picked up momentum, powered by a growing bipartisan belief that climate change can no longer be ignored.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has declared it a top priority for the House. Presidential candidates from both parties call it one of the biggest issues faced by the next occupant of the White House. Even President Bush, long a skeptic, is sounding the alarm.
That's an abrupt break from the past, when many politicians shrugged off the issue. Especially among Republicans, it was regarded as an untested theory or an alarmist fantasy.
Polls show that most Americans believe the studies that show pollution is a cause of climate change. And politicians now are scrambling to keep up with science and public opinion.
Legislation to curb global warming is still a long shot in Congress, because there is no consensus on a solution. But almost all of the candidates who want to succeed Bush — including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) — are far ahead of him in proposing ways to reduce carbon emissions.
"There has been a sea change in this issue over the last year," said Cathy Duvall, the Sierra Club's national political director. "It went from a back-burner issue to something people understand is a problem. Now they are looking for leaders to take action."
The U.S. is the leading emitter of carbon dioxide, responsible for about one-quarter of the worldwide total. About 80% comes from fossil fuels, with power plants and vehicles as the leading culprits.
Presidential politics and legislative debate came together Tuesday when McCain and several other candidates discussed their climate-change legislation at a Senate hearing.
"The number of individuals in Washington who reject the clear evidence of global warming appears to be shrinking as its dramatic manifestations mount," McCain said. "We are no longer just talking about how climate change will affect our children's and grandchildren's lives, as we did just a few years ago, but we now are talking about how it is already impacting the world."
McCain, considered a front-runner for his party's presidential nomination, has introduced a bill to impose mandatory limits on the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. His cosponsors include two leading Democratic presidential contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
Other candidates have their own proposals. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, touts his efforts to get his state to generate more electricity from cleaner sources, such as solar and wind power. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) recently introduced a resolution calling for the U.S. to return to international negotiations on climate change that Bush spurned.
Edwards, who ranks global warming as one of his top three issues, recently pointed out that he had given up his sport utility vehicle for a hybrid one. Even the very conservative Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) mentioned the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in announcing his candidacy.
The issue's prominence is rising for a variety of reasons.
There is mounting scientific evidence that pollution plays a significant role in global warming. Climate scientists who advise the United Nations are meeting in Paris this week and are expected to issue a report on how warming is likely to affect sea levels.
The Oscar-nominated documentary featuring Al Gore, "An Inconvenient Truth," that raised awareness of the issue, vividly depicting the consequences of a warmer planet.
Some states, including California, are acting on their own, causing influential business leaders to call for federal regulation to avoid a patchwork of state and local laws.
Most important, Democrats who want action on the issue now control the House and the Senate, and the party's leaders have moved it to center stage.
Pelosi has asked committees to produce legislation by July 4 and has moved to establish a special global warming committee to bypass Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), an auto industry ally who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He is seen as a potential obstacle to legislation, including new limits on tailpipe emissions.
Among those leading the Senate's efforts is Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has called climate change "the greatest challenge of our generation." Boxer inherited the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee from Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who bowed out with a hearing that showcased his belief that human-caused climate change was a hoax.

Despite signs that Congress might shift from talking to legislating, advocates of limits on greenhouse gases warn against high expectations, noting that any measure must make it through the narrowly divided Senate and past Bush's veto.
And proposals to cap emissions, especially from coal-fueled power plants, also face opposition from many Republicans and some Democrats who contend they would harm the economy.
"There's going to be a lot of sound and fury," said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program, "but unless something changes pretty radically, it's really hard to see how an important bill passes this Congress — and is signed by this president."
That's why many environmentalists are looking ahead to the 2008 elections. The League of Conservation Voters Education Fund has launched an initiative, called "The Heat is On," to ensure global warming is at the center of debate. The organization is tracking what candidates say and hopes to pressure them through town hall meetings and ballot initiatives.
"We will make sure there is an expectation they will outline clear solutions," said Navin Nayak, director of the project.
Like ethanol in Iowa, global warming could become a litmus-test issue for candidates in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary. More than 100 Granite State towns plan votes on a resolution calling for federal action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Ted Leach, a Republican and former state lawmaker from New Hampshire, is co-chairman of the Carbon Coalition, which persuaded the towns to weigh in. He has issued a warning to presidential contenders: "If we don't hear out of you what we want to hear, you're probably not going to get our votes."
The 2008 presidential candidate most deeply involved in the issue is not a Democrat, but a Republican. McCain has for years pushed legislation to impose mandatory limits on emissions that contribute to global warming. That goal has put him at odds with most in his party and has helped him build his reputation as a maverick.
One candidate who has kept a distance from the issue is Republican Mitt Romney. As governor, he pulled Massachusetts out of a regional accord to reduce emissions, worried about its effect on energy bills.
But GOP pollster Whit Ayres said Republican candidates would do well to follow McCain's lead. Ayres argues that global warming is a winning issue not just among Democrats, but among Republicans as well.
In a July 2006 survey of GOP voters, he found that a majority agreed that the Earth's temperature was rising and that human activity, not normal climate cycles, was the cause.
Ayres said the issue was "an opportunity for Republicans to reach out to people in the middle and demonstrate their sensitivity in an area not normally thought to be a Republican strength."
He acknowledged, however, that there was political risk for candidates in certain regions, such as coal- and auto-producing states. Those pressures were in evidence in 2004, when Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) backpedaled on a proposal for a major increase in fuel economy standards while campaigning in Michigan.
John Weaver, a top McCain advisor, dismisses the political risks, noting that McCain won the Michigan primary in 2000 despite his views. "We are evolving not only as a party but as a country on the issue, as people come to grips with reality," Weaver said.
The issue's high profile notwithstanding, there's no guarantee politicians will take quick action to combat global warming. Three months into his presidency, Bush reversed a 2000 campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Environmentalists, however, are optimistic that the political dynamic has shifted dramatically and that this campaign will be different.
"I don't think a position like the current president has will be acceptable," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "Virtually every candidate is going to be more progressive than that."
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