Art of the possible

December 05, 2007

A committee sharply divided between some of the Senate's leading environmentalists and the body's most outspoken critic of green initiatives is scheduled to vote today on imposing the nation's first limits on greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

At the center of the likely fireworks is a bipartisan measure that is both too sympathetic to polluters and yet faces a blizzard of amendments from industry backers who hope to weaken the bill or bury it altogether.

The extremes on both ends can't be allowed to kill this vital legislation. Warnings from the scientific community about the impact of global climate change grow ever more dire. The time for putting pollution curbs in place is passing rapidly. The Senate measure sponsored by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John W. Warner of Virginia may not be perfect, but it's a good start and may be further improved by the committee today.

The so-called cap-and-trade proposal sets short-term and long-term goals for reducing emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, from industries that burn fossil fuels. Companies would be allowed to exchange pollution credits among themselves to meet the overall target. As currently written, the bill calls for a 15 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. By 2050, emission levels would be reduced by about 63 percent.

Those targets are not as ambitious as they should be. The United States is such a major emitter of greenhouse gases that some scientists argue its 2050 target should be an 80 percent drop from 2005 levels.

Further, the bill's sponsors chose not to auction off about half of the pollution credits to industry. Instead, the government would give away those very valuable credits, especially in the beginning, creating a windfall for the worst polluters and limiting revenue that could be raised.

Barbara Boxer of California, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, supports a much stronger measure and is expected to move to tighten the auction provision today. But she had to compromise in order to blunt concerns about the economic impact of higher energy costs. Working vigorously against her is James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking Republican on the committee, who has called man-made global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

This country is still so backward on dealing with climate change that the U.S. is something of a pariah at the 180-nation U.N. Climate Change Conference under way in Bali, Indonesia. With the recent re-election defeat of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, America is the only major industrialized power still resisting mandatory pollution caps.

So, Mrs. Boxer and her committee allies - including Maryland's Benjamin L. Cardin - would be wise to take the toughest bill they can get, and work to fix the flaws later.

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