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Climate repair

U.N. delegates in Bali seek a post-Kyoto plan, and the Senate has a chance to push the U.S. forward.

December 06, 2007

Credit Al Gore, or Hurricane Katrina, or lousy skiing conditions in the Alps, but events of this week show that global warming has become a hot topic for governments around the world, including this country's -- even if the heightened awareness may not yet add up to a willingness to take tough measures to solve the problem.

Thousands of delegates from 190 countries have swarmed to Bali, Indonesia, for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, making it probably the biggest climate conference ever. Its aim is to work toward a successor to the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012.

Those expecting a landmark announcement at the end of the 12-day session, which started Monday, are doomed to disappointment. The goal is simply to create a road map that will guide negotiations for the next two years. And even getting a comprehensive framework will be a challenge, given that developing nations such as India and China -- whose greenhouse gas emissions are growing so fast they render moot the rest of the world's proposed cuts -- will resist anything that would lead to mandatory reductions, and President Bush has sent a delegation to ensure that cuts will be "aspirational" rather than required.

Yet Bush won't be president forever. His administration will be history by the time the negotiations are concluded in 2009, and if he's replaced by a Democrat, there are likely to be major changes in the U.S. response to global warming: Every one of the Democratic candidates favors mandatory greenhouse gas restrictions. And the Democratic-controlled Congress is moving forward with a bill that would change the United States' status from the world's biggest climate villain to one of its strongest environmental leaders.

Senate Bill 2191 from Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) is not ideal from either an economic or environmental standpoint. By embracing a bulky, easily manipulated cap-and-trade scheme rather than carbon taxes, it heightens the economic pain and the odds of negative unforeseen consequences. Meanwhile, even the best-case scenario suggests that it wouldn't cut emissions by anywhere near the level that scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Nonetheless, it's a powerful step that would for the first time impose a price on greenhouse gases; it's also better than any other under serious consideration, and it would mark the start of a historic effort.

A vote expected today in the Environment and Public Works Committee could move the Lieberman-Warner bill to the full Senate. Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) reportedly has her bags packed, ready to fly immediately to Bali to tout the bill if it's approved. That could help erase the United States' well-deserved international reputation as the country most responsible for global warming and among the least willing to do anything about it.

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