Climate change gets new respect in D.C.

Shift in public opinion captures lawmakers' bipartisan attention

January 31, 2007|By Janet Hook and Richard Simon | Janet Hook and Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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, a California Democrat, 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 the issue - the role that manmade pollutants play in the increase in Earth's temperature - was shrugged off by many politicians. Especially among Republicans, it was regarded as an untested theory or an alarmist fantasy.

Polls show most Americans believe the studies that show pollution is a cause of climate change. And politicians have begun 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 the candidates who want to succeed Bush - including Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and former Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat - 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, Sierra Club 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 United States is the leading emitter of carbon dioxide, producing about one-quarter of the world total. About 80 percent comes from fossil fuels, with power plants and vehicles as the leading culprits. Presidential politics and legislative debate came together yesterday 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 limits on the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and intends to introduce another to target vehicle emissions by raising miles-per-gallon rules. His cosponsors on the first bill include leading Democratic presidential contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

Other candidates have their own proposals. New Mexico's Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson plugs his efforts to get his state to generate more electricity from cleaner sources, such as solar and wind power. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, recently introduced a resolution calling for the United States to return to international negotiations on climate change that Bush spurned.

Edwards, who ranks global warming as one of his top three issues, recently said he has given up his old-fashioned sport utility vehicle for a hybrid one. Even conservative Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, mentioned the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in announcing his candidacy.

Some states are beginning to act on their own, causing influential business leaders to call for federal rules 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 of Michigan, a Democrat and 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.

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.

Janet Hook and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.

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