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Congress Moves to Follow on Kyoto

Environment: Lawmakers are caught off guard by other nations' decision to deal with problem of global warming without U.S. help. Effort to pass legislation to curb emissions is revived.

July 25, 2001|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congressional efforts to combat global warming received an unexpected boost from a decision this week by more than 180 countries to deal with the problem without the United States, outside experts and key lawmakers said Tuesday.

They added that prospects now appear good that Congress will pass one or more measures designed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, which scientists say is the chief contributor to global warming.

"The odds are improving that this Congress will deal with the issue before the [2002] election," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a leading environmentalist in his party.

Several House and Senate members said they were caught off guard when the other countries adopted rules Monday in Bonn to implement the Kyoto Protocol without U.S. participation.

"Bonn surprised people," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). "The feeling was that, if the United States took its football and left the field, the game couldn't go forward. But the rest of the nations of the world found their own football, and they completed the game. They left the United States on the sidelines."

In meetings in Europe last week, President Bush cited congressional sentiment as having contributed to his decision to play no role in the development of rules to implement the 1997 accord reached in Kyoto, Japan. The accord called on industrial countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels.

But sentiment in Congress has changed significantly since the Senate voted, 95 to 0, four years ago to direct the president not to sign a binding treaty to limit emissions unless developing countries were required to do the same.

Bush, who has characterized the Kyoto accord as "fatally flawed," has promised to address the issue of global warming. But so far his proposals mainly have involved studying the problem and redirecting funds to underwrite new technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

After meeting with his counterparts in Genoa, Italy, last week, Bush agreed to produce a U.S. strategy to combat climate change by the next meeting of Kyoto participants, scheduled for October.

But on Capitol Hill, several efforts to address climate change already are in motion.

Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), in his new role as chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, is holding the first hearing Thursday on legislation that would regulate four pollutants emitted by power plants--including carbon dioxide, which scientists consider the major contributor to global warming.

Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both houses to significantly tighten fuel-efficiency standards for sport-utility vehicles and light trucks, which would reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The GOP-controlled House also has altered its stance on climate change. Representatives have voted overwhelmingly to strip language from funding bills that would prohibit federal agencies from spending money to implement the Kyoto accord.

Even two traditional climate-change skeptics--Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)--are co-sponsoring a bill that would direct the White House to create an office on climate change and to produce annual strategies to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions. Both senators represent states that are major producers of fossil fuels.

"I think there's a greater willingness to go ahead," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy Committee. "I don't know for certain where the votes are. But I believe [senators] are less and less comfortable with the administration's apparent inability to form a policy. Some of that is about what's happening internationally, and some of that is what people are hearing from their constituents."

They agreed that the United States' awkward--some say untenable--position on the sidelines of the Kyoto process is increasing the prospects for congressional action.

"The events in Bonn will accelerate movements that have begun here over the last several months toward doing something to curb American greenhouse gas emissions," Lieberman said. "There has been a growing bipartisan movement to take action even while the Bush administration has been pulling away from the international process. It really has been fascinating."

Eileen Claussen, who was assistant secretary of State with responsibility for climate change negotiations in the Clinton administration, said she was amazed by the shift in attitudes in the Senate.

"Kyoto was such a dirty word from the end of 1997 until now," said Claussen, now president of the Pew Center of Global Climate Change. "You could barely go up to the Hill and say 'Kyoto' before. You might have been able to say 'climate change,' but any real interest in doing something about climate change was only from a very small minority."

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a leader on climate change policy in the Senate, said the agreement in Bonn improves the odds that Congress will proceed on climate change legislation, albeit in piecemeal fashion.

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