Will New Congress Take on Global Warming?

David Goldston, former chief of staff for the House Committee on Science, discusses why he thinks the new Congress will make its mark on climate policy. Goldston is scholar in residence for the Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy, at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, in response to the Bush administration, which has long ignored or at least downplayed global warming, the Democratic-led Congress yesterday passed the CLEAN Long-Term Energy Alternative Act of 2007 as designed to put some teeth - you might read there money - into the development of alternative energy sources. Could a change in our climate policy be far behind?

My next guest says the U.S. climate policy is where this Congress may really make its mark. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is making moves to create a special committee that will manage House efforts on global warming. Several bills in the Senate would establish caps on emission levels. But how far could these efforts go with an administration that seems more committed to the status quo than any concrete action on climate change? Can this Congress also act quickly enough to head of efforts by some states like Texas to build new coal-fired power plants that would spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere equivalent to millions of SUVs.

That's what we'll be talking about for the rest of the hour. If you'd like to join us, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

David Goldston was the chief of staff for the House Committee on Science from 2001 to 2006. He's a scholar in residence in the program in science technology and environmental policy at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University in New Jersey. And he's writing a column for the journal "Nature" on the intersection of science and policy, and the first one is out this week.

David Goldston joins us by phone from Arlington, Virginia. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID GOLDSTON (Former Chief of Staff, House Committee on Science): Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Nice to be with you. How serious do you think this new Congress is on tackling global warming?

Mr. GOLDSTON: Well, it seems to be more serious every day. I mean the fact that the speaker is now appointing a committee especially to look at climate change means that she doesn't want the issue to languish. There's, as you noted, the four bills already in the Senate. So it's looks like it's really going to try to put this issue on the front burner, which wasn't clear even just a couple of weeks ago.

FLATOW: But will it be looking to serve the same industrial base? In other words, the same coal interest, for example. Well, we'll use coal because they're very important politically. We'll just try to clean it up instead, perhaps, of looking at alternative energies like solar and wind and things like that.

Mr. GOLDSTON: I think they're going to be looking at all of that. I mean coal accounts for about 50 percent of U.S. energy production. That's not going to change anytime soon. No one thinks that it will. But we don't want to be just stuck with the current technologies. And despite support for research on new technologies, nothing really much has gotten into the marketplace because there haven't really been policies in place to encourage that, and I think that's what there's the potential to change now.

FLATOW: We had a bill that was passed this week. Tell us about it.

Mr. GOLDSTON: Well, this bill was mostly dealing with tax breaks for oil companies. The aspect of it that's most relevant to the discussion we're having now is it does set up the potential to have a trust fund for alternative energies, alternative energy methods.

The House is going to be deciding over the next few weeks and beyond how to actually set up and use those funds, assuming that they really come in. So I think we're just starting to see the beginning of this. I think again, the important thing is that there be real policies and not just research money because there's no incentive to get new technologies into the market without some policies to really draw them in.

FLATOW: And how can Congress write a policy? That's usually up to the president, is it not?

Mr. GOLDSTON: Well, no. I mean it really has - the president can do some things but a lot of these things can be done legislatively either instead of by the president or require legislation. So they can set new energy efficiency standards for appliances, new corporate fuel economy standards for automobiles, provide tax incentives, which has to be done through legislation for purchases of new technologies.

So there's a whole range of tools, and all of these are in the hands of the Congress. And the Congress has been largely unwilling to shape them in recent years despite passing a large energy bill that largely left real change by the wayside.

FLATOW: How different could this process be with Democrats in the majority, in charge of committees that before were just standing by?

Mr. GOLDSTON: Well, I think it's a huge change. The main power the leadership has is the power to schedule. And so - and that's true at both the committee level and at the level of the entire chamber. So what's happened in recent years is it's basically been next to impossible to get climate change legislation onto the floor of the House or the Senate.

In the Senate, sometimes things could get in through amendments, but only rarely. There was - the Senate a couple years ago passed a non-binding resolution simply saying that climate change was real and we ought to do something about. It didn't say anything specific. When that went to conference with the House, it was there on a Saturday morning in July, that language lasted about three seconds.

So the House hasn't even really been able to have even the beginnings of a debate or even hearings particularly much on climate change up until now. All that will change. Now I think the work of actually putting together a bill is going to be hard, and certainly I don't see how it can be done on the very short timescale that the speaker has announced so far. But I think just getting this debate started is a 180-degree change from where things have been.

FLATOW: Yeah, and in particular you have a change in the Senate. Senator Inhofe, who used to be chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, isn't he quoted as saying that global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American public?

Mr. GOLDSTON: Yes, and…

FLATOW: And he's gone.

Mr. GOLDSTON: Right. Well, he's the ranking Republican on the committee, but he can't control the agenda. And yes, I mean he's said that repeatedly. And when he had hearings on climate change, which he did - in fact, I think one of them was probably the last hearing the Congress had last session - they were about how the media had been manipulated into thinking climate change was real and so forth.

In the House, the silence has actually been more absolute, but because of that it's been less noted. I mean, really, in the House you didn't even have somebody having hearings to raise questions about the issue. The committees were mostly silent. We had some hearings on the Science Committee, and the Government Reform Committee had some hearings at the end of last year, but the Energy and Commerce Committee, for example, which was the primary committee of jurisdiction, had virtually no hearings on climate change and just a couple on fuel-economy standards.

FLATOW: Can we expect to see any bills coming out from both the House and Senate that would tap emissions of CO2?

Mr. GOLDSTON: I think that's going to be where everyone's energy is, to try to get such bills out. Most of the bills that have been introduced so far in the Senate all have caps. I think that'll be the direction that the House - that this new House committee looks at. The environmental groups are looking toward that. This new group of companies and environmental groups that's going to be announcing a plan on Monday talks about a cap.

I mean and so everyone seems to be moving in that direction. Now once everyone agrees that that's the direction to go on, there's a lot of specific questions that are very difficult to work out, about the impact on individual industries, about how you allocate credits and so forth. So that's going to be an arduous process.

But it's important that it actually start. It often takes a couple Congresses to get something through, and nothing obviously happens unless the debate gets started.

FLATOW: Let's go to Sean(ph) in West Palm Beach, Florida. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SEAN (Caller): Hi, how are you guys doing today?

FLATOW: Hi there.

SEAN: Hi. I'm an electrician by trade, all right, and so I know that there are many other fuel - I mean multiple energy sources aside from burning coal and oil and other fossil fuels. There's solar. There's wind power. You can harness the tides. I mean all of these are renewable resources. They're safe. They're secure.

From most utility companies, if you make your house solar-powered, they'll help you with the financing for that and they'll even reimburse you because any power that you generate in excess of what you use gets dumped back into the grid, and so you get a refund as far as that goes.

But there's all these other energy sources that are clean, they're good. I just want to know why is there not going to be more funding - you know, federal funding directed towards these alternate power sources?

FLATOW: David?

Mr. GOLDSTON: Well, I think there will be. Actually, the president actually has even supported that in the past, in last year's State of the Union message. This fund that the new legislation that passed the House yesterday is designed to create would be targeted for that. And the government actually has poured a lot of money into some of those areas, certainly solar and wind, for a couple of decades and it's actually had some impact. Other areas like tidal energy are newer.

I think that will be increased. I think again, the bigger problem has not been the research, although we certainly need more funding in that, it's that there hasn't been a concomitant effort to create incentives, sufficient incentives for people to actually buy these things.

FLATOW: Well, you know, we've had farmers - we've done a lot of shows on wind energy, for example. We've had farmers who are being paid $3,000 to $5,000 per wind turbine on their farm, making more money as farmers farming the wind than farming their cows or the wheat that may be growing around.

Mr. GOLDSTON: Right. There's a number of those in upstate New York.

FLATOW: And they're multiplying. I mean upstate New York - Kansas, I'm talking about, Oklahoma, Texas, upstate New York absolutely. And they tell us we could put many more of these up, and we would love to, and the utilities would like us to. We just can't get to the grid from where we are. You have to be within five to 10 miles of the grid to feed the power back.

It would seem to me that one of the things the federal government can do, because it is the federal government, is to expand out the grid, you know.

Mr. GOLDSTON: Those kinds of problems are the ones that ought to be looked at. I mean one of the problems with energy debates in recent years is they've been fought almost entirely on ideological grounds and very little effort to see, OK, what are the actual bottlenecks and what can we do about them?

And hopefully, you know, this committee again that the speaker's setting up and also just the general thrust of attention in both the House and the Senate will look at some of these problems and not just at - beyond just looking at a global cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide and beyond the ideological debates that have basically hampered the energy debate or a long time.

And hopefully, that will focus more of the public attention as well, and media attention. Energy legislation has traditionally been one of the most under-covered issues there is, and yet the entire economy rests on it.

FLATOW: Even the Department of Energy recently said that in just three states, I think it was - I don't remember. I think Kansas, Texas and North Dakota. Those three states have enough potential wind energy to fuel, to power the whole country.

Mr. GOLDSTON: Right.

FLATOW: Electrical demand.

Mr. GOLDSTON: And there are - again, there are policy tools that would focus people's attention more on this, such as renewable portfolio standard, which requires, you know, a certain percentage of electricity to be generated from alternative sources. If those kinds of requirements started being imposed, then that focuses people's attention on, OK, where are the bottlenecks? What's preventing us from reaching those levels or even higher levels? And then people will start looking at real problem solving on the ground.

Unfortunately again, the energy debate has been not very focused on solving real problems on the ground and much more on scoring ideological points.

FLATOW: Talking with David Goldston this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

You've spent, what, six years on the Hill?

Mr. GOLDSTON: Well, more like 20, but six in the last position.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: As chief of staff on the House Committee on Science. Can you tell us about the new incoming House chairman or the committee chairman, or how he might look at science as compared to Sherwood Boehlert, your old boss?

Mr. GOLDSTON: Sure. The new chairman is Bart Gordon from Tennessee. He's a fairly centrist Democrat. He's been on the committee for years. He's someone who likes to have an activist agenda, and he has stated very publicly that he is going to try to sort of follow in the footsteps of Mr. Boehlert in terms of trying to run the committee in a way that's both activist and bipartisan. He's even hired some of the staff who worked for Mr. Boehlert.

So I'm very optimistic about what the committee is trying to do. I mean they definitely have a focus on these energy issues. Mr. Gordon's introduced a couple of bills on energy and he's also been very active in pushing the idea of having a new agency within the Department of Energy that would specifically try to look at long-term energy research that could really sort of get beyond sort of incremental changes and into more substantial changes in alternative-energy technologies.

FLATOW: Where do you think the first changes will come in - as you say, the cap - sorry, capping the CO2 is a long-term. It could take years for that. Where might we see the first real changes happening? Might they be in the CAFE standards, although that's…?

Mr. GOLDSTON: I think some of the easier ones that might come first might be more on the tax-incentive side, although it's a little early to know. I mean I think the folks who are actually doing this work haven't fully figured out the agenda yet. But tax incentives tend to be easier to write. The problem is you have to find out - find an area to make up the lost revenue, and also tax bills tend to become magnets for other tax provisions, which get more politically complicated.

I think the fuel-economy-standard debate is also one that seems to be changing 180-degrees. I mean, again, it was very hard to get debate even on the floor. Mr. Boehlert managed, along with Mr. Markey, to get their bill debated as an amendment several times. In the Senate, there was much less debate on fuel-economy standards. And now a number of bills have been introduced that were more ambitious than the bills that couldn't get anywhere before.

So I think that issue is up for grabs again, which is important because the transportation sector is really one of the few sectors of the economy that's less energy efficient than it was 30 years ago.

FLATOW: Do you think that this can actually become a political issue in the next election, two years from now?

Mr. GOLDSTON: I think it can. I mean I think the way that both bodies in Congress are looking at it, and supposedly the president is going to be talking about this in the State of the Union message as he did last year, indicates that people think that the public is worried about climate change and about energy issues in general.

The problem is so far most of the political effort has been focused on rhetoric and to try to actually talk tough so as to distract from the fact that not much was really happening.

What's different now is it looks like there may be some real efforts to make real changes in things like fuel-economy standards, renewable portfolio standards and gradually moving toward a cap on carbon-dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions.

FLATOW: Well, we'll keep watching, as you will, David. Thank you for taking time to join us.

Mr. GOLDSTON: Good to talk to you, Ira.

FLATOW: David Goldston was chief of the staff of the House Committee on Science from 2001 to 2006. He is now scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University in New Jersey.

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