Coal State's GOP Senator Turns Focus to Climate
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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