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A Risky Game on Climate

February 01, 2003

Eclipsed by the rising heat between President Bush and Saddam Hussein, global warming -- a prominent issue in the 2000 presidential campaign -- was scarcely mentioned in autumn's midterm elections. Now, however, two of the president's old rivals, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), have introduced legislation that should make it hard for Congress to continue evading the problem.

Nine of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1990, altering ecosystems from the Caribbean to the Arctic. California starfish, alpine herbs, Atlantic Ocean coral reefs and Arctic phytoplankton are dying.

Natural variability may have caused some warming. No bill will solve the problem completely. Still, top climatologists agree that even a marginal decrease in warming can at least delay dramatic and potentially dangerous geographic changes, such as the expected loss of the ice cap around the North Pole by century's end.

The proposed Climate Stewardship Act would require power plants to slow their spouting of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide or pay penalties. Plants whose emissions fall below a set maximum level could earn credits and sell them on the open market. Those that exceed their limits would have to reduce their pollution or buy some of those credits.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) should have sent the bill, S 139, to the Commerce Committee, which has held all of the major hearings on climate change policy since President Clinton committed the country to reducing its fossil fuel emissions at a 1997 summit in Kyoto, Japan.

There the committee's chairman, McCain, might have scheduled it for a vote. That prospect apparently made Frist nervous, so he instead stood by as the Senate parliamentarian referred the bill to the Environment and Public Works Committee, whose chairman, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), will probably try to kill it.

Myron Ebell, who directs global warming policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, revealed the underlying political game when he told a Washington trade journal: "I'm sure Chairman Inhofe will give it all the consideration it deserves, which is none. I guess that means it's dead." That's wishful spin on Ebell's part. Global warming is causing problems and they aren't going away. S 139 strikes a middle ground between the unaffordable reductions required by the Kyoto treaty (cutting fossil fuel emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2012) and the Clear Skies plan proposed by the Bush administration, which sets only voluntary goals.

McCain and Lieberman may be old Bush rivals, but their bill is more than political showmanship. Frist should put an end to the parliamentary games that are preventing legislators from considering it.

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