Lawmakers Plan Climate Change Legislation

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Last year, Democrat Henry Waxman of California helped pass a climate change bill in the House of Representatives, the American Clean Energy and Security Act; its fate is unclear. On the Senate side, Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine have proposed a climate change bill as well, called the Carbon Limits and Energy for America's Renewal, or CLEAR. Host Guy Raz speaks with each of them about the possibility of climate change legislation passing through Congress this year.

GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Many, many people outside the Washington-New York area, including many of our listeners, became fed up with all the media coverage of those recent blizzards. You know what I'm talking about.

(Soundbite of news programs)

Unidentified Man #1: Good morning. Snow monster, a massive winter storm

Unidentified Woman #1: Washington, D.C., is getting hammered so bad that officials are pulling plows off the road. The local electric company

Unidentified Woman #2: two feet in the nation's capital gave new meaning to the term White House.

RAZ: Well, the thing about the snowfall here in Washington is that it wasn't only historic; it could actually have real-world consequences nationally and even internationally.

We begin the hour with a look at whether climate legislation is doomed, at least this year, and in a few minutes, a cognitive linguist on framing the climate debate.

But first to those storms. They happened to affect cities where both politicians and influential media personalities live, people who make law and people who shape public opinion, and the blizzards provided a pretty convenient backdrop for some of those people.

(Soundbite of TV program, "The Glenn Beck Program")

Mr.�GLENN BECK (Host, "The Glenn Beck Program"): The snow is hammering Washington, D.C., again. I believe God is just saying: I've got your global warming here. You want a piece of global warming?

(Soundbite of TV program, "The Sean Hannity Show")

Mr.�SEAN HANNITY (Host, "The Sean Hannity Show"): Rumor has it that another storm could be headed this way next week. Global warming, where are you? We want you back.

RAZ: Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck on the recent storms here. Senator James Inhofe helped his grandkids build an igloo on Capitol Hill. They put up a sign. It read: Al Gore's new home. His colleague, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, posted the following on his Twitter feed. It's going to keep snowing in D.C., he tweeted, until Al Gore cries uncle.

On Friday, at a town hall meeting in Nevada, President Obama weighed in as well.

President BARACK OBAMA: A lot of the people who are opponents of climate change, they say, see, look at that. There's all this snow on the ground. You know, this doesn't mean anything. I want to I want to just be clear that the science of climate change doesn't mean that everyplace is getting warmer. It means the planet as a whole is getting warmer.

RAZ: Virtually, all climate scientists point out that heavy snow requires warmer weather, and the recent storms are consistent, they say, with climate change.

Here's an excerpt from a story by NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Warmer water means more water vapor rises up into the air, and what goes up must come down.

RAZ: Now, despite a scientific consensus and mountains of data that confirms climate change, the combination of a weak economy and an election year and that snowstorm may actually torpedo any chance for passing a climate bill this year.

Last summer, the House passed a bill written by Democrats Henry Waxman and Ed Markey. That bill will, over time, dramatically reduce America's carbon emissions. But now that Democrats can no longer count on a 60-vote majority in the Senate, Waxman-Markey stands little chance of becoming law, and yet, Henry Waxman is still optimistic.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): I do believe we can pass a bill this year, a comprehensive bill, and I don't think I'm being Pollyanna about it. People told me I couldn't get a bill out of my committee on energy and climate change, and then they said, well, you got it out of committee, but you'll never get it past the House, and we got it past the House. Now, people are saying, well, because the Republicans are being so partisan, you'll never get it through the Senate, but I think we're going to have to get a bipartisan bill in the Senate, and I think we're on track to do that.

RAZ: Without a congressional bill that addresses the climate crisis, the pledge made by President Obama at the recent U.N.-sponsored climate conference, a pledge to cut America's CO2 emissions by 17 percent, well, that pledge would become an empty one.

And so two senators, Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington state, are proposing something different: a climate bill that's being framed as a jobs bill.

Here's Senator Cantwell.

Senator MARIA CANTWELL (Democrat, Washington): Really, it's to trying to take advantage of the opportunity to get off of carbon and on to alternative sources of energy that will unleash job creation in America and, in the end, take better care of our environment.

RAZ: And describe how it would work. I mean, would there be a cap-and-trade kind of system where there's a cap on carbon emissions and companies who want to go beyond that?

Sen. CANTWELL: We think it should be simple. We think you should take the top 2,000 producers, who are putting carbon into the atmosphere, and instead ask them to start reductions of carbon by the president and Congress setting a reduction level over a gradual period of time. And that anybody who, during that time period, wants to continue to produce, has to participate in an auction and get a permit.

The revenue from that would go back to rate-payers, basically to individuals in our economy, to help keep them whole during this time period. So really, what they would be getting is an energy rebate, and we think that helps protect consumers. So we don't want to disrupt the U.S. economy. We want to grow the U.S. economy and do so in a predictable way, and that's the kind of thing that businesses can take to the bank. That's the kind of thing that the American consumer believes will help them make a transition.

RAZ: So let me see if I understand this correctly. If a company that does produce CO2 emissions wants to exceed the limit, they'd have to buy credits, and that money, that revenue, would go back to taxpayers either in the form of a tax credit or something else, and they can then use that to pay their energy costs. Is that right?

Sen. CANTWELL: Yes, that's generally, that's correct.

RAZ: But why would businesses support a bill like this if, in effect, it means they're going to have to pay for carbon emissions, which are free now? I mean, they can pollute for free.

Sen. CANTWELL: Because they also know that you have to make the transition. Business looks for predictability. They look for certainty. And if you can set up a system where there is a gradual decrease, a goal that can be met without huge economic disruption, those companies will do that.

RAZ: Now, why do you think that your idea has a better chance of passing than, say, the Waxman-Markey bill that was passed in the House?

Sen. CANTWELL: Well, this isn't about which bill or what process. It's about making this simple and clear and predictable. This is the first time we've had a Republican, Susan Collins from Maine, put her name on a piece of legislation and actually push to have it through Congress, and I'm hoping that we'll get other Republican support for that.

She knows, and other of my colleagues knows, that if you have something that's predictable that business can buy into that people will start migrating off of these fossil fuel-oriented energy solutions and onto green energy solutions, and you could unleash a transition to millions of new jobs.

RAZ: That's Senator Maria Cantwell. She's a Democrat from Washington state.

Senator Cantwell, thanks for being with us.

Sen. CANTWELL: Thank you.

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