Coal State's GOP Senator Turns Focus to Climate

Virginia's veteran Republican Sen. John Warner says he has become newly engaged in the issue of global warming and is working across the aisle to try to fight it.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In the Senate, a number of climate change bills have been introduced this year, but one proposal may have a leg up. It has a powerful Republican senator on board - John Warner of Virginia.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: In 28 years in the Senate, Warner has focused mainly on national security. Environmental problems have rarely been high on his list. No surprise given he's from a coal-mining state. But he's always had an independent streak. And now at 80, the aristocratic senator has taken on a new challenge with gusto.

NORRIS: I come to this issue - I would have to tell you - uninformed. I don't claim to be an expert in this area, but I have an intense interest.

SHOGREN: He says this interest come from a lifelong love of the outdoors.

NORRIS: I remember going with my father into the upper reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains as a small boy, trout fishing. And the trout were in abundance. Today, the acid rain has virtually removed them from many of the streams.

SHOGREN: In 1990, he was part of a bipartisan effort in Congress to cut the pollution from coal-fired power plants that causes acid rain. Warner says he recently witnessed damage to another special landscape: the forests of Montana, where he was a firefighter before he served in World War II. Now, many of the trees are dead, killed by a beetle that thrives in dryer, warmer weather. Climate change may be the culprit.

NORRIS: It is tragic these magnificent trees just dying as far as the eye can see and that's one of the most valuable pieces of lumber we have.

SHOGREN: Warner is working with Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent Democrat who's been trying to pass climate change legislation for several years.

NORRIS: He brings a credibility and balance to this collaboration that I think is encouraging a lot of our colleagues to look forward with some optimism to what we're going to produce.

SHOGREN: What they want to produce is something called the cap and trade system. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions 70 percent by 2050. The government would set a cap on emissions and tighten it over time. Companies that clean up faster could sell the right to pollute to other companies.

Warner is adding a Republican sensibility to the effort. He wants to make sure regulating greenhouse gases doesn't cost industry too much by creating a regulatory board. If the trading price for greenhouse gases becomes too high, the board would step in. As Warner hurries towards the Capitol after a hearing, he said it's a delicate balance.

NORRIS: We got some obvious challenges, but both of us are fearless, we're going to try and meet them.

SHOGREN: What's the challenge that you think is the biggest?

NORRIS: Well, I think the concern with regard to the economy. We cannot put in place a system that could result in massive loss of jobs.

SHOGREN: Some environmentalists say the senator's proposal doesn't cut pollution fast enough. But they welcome Warner's involvement. Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club.

NORRIS: I think it reveals that climate change has moved from being an issue that's seen as having a distinctly Democratic and liberal tinge to one that is now understood to be very vital to America's national security.

SHOGREN: But there's pressure from the other side as well. Some industry groups don't like it either.

NORRIS: This draft does not lead me to be encouraged.

SHOGREN: Luke Popovich is the vice president of the National Mining Association. Still, he's glad Warner's involved.

NORRIS: It is somewhat reassuring that you have a senator from what is recognized as a coal state deciding on how coal is going to be used.

SHOGREN: Virginia mines coal and half of the state's electricity comes from coal. Burning coal emits lots of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. At one global warming hearing, Warner joked about how that puts him in a difficult position.

NORRIS: I'm not here to talk against coal or I'd be voted out of office tomorrow given my state's position in coal. But I have fought for many years on trying to clean up these plants and...

SHOGREN: Warner's quandary shows just how difficult it will be to craft climate legislation without hurting industries that are important to senators whose votes are needed to pass a bill.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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