Climate Change and New Congress Democrats take over the House of Representatives and the Senate next month. How will this new congress tackle the issue of climate change?
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Climate Change and New Congress

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Climate Change and New Congress

Climate Change and New Congress

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

We're talking this hour about climate change. And with the Democrats in control of Congress this January comes a bit of a committee chairmanship musical chairs. Congressional committees, including the key Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, will be under Democrat control when the new Congress convenes. Will that ship bring a change in the way Congress tackles global warming.

Joining me to talk more about this is NPR reporter Elizabeth Shogren. She covers environmental issues for NPR. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Thank you. It's great to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Also with us is Manik Roy, who his friends know as Nikki. He is director of congressional affairs for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Roy.

Dr. MANIK ROY (Pew Center on Global Climate Change): Great. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: I don't know if you were listening before about the Supreme Court decision and what could happen with the EPA. Is it possible that Congress could make all of this moot, if it wanted to - the new Democratic Congress - by changing the laws about what the EPA should regulate?

Dr. ROY: You know, there's a lot of court cases right now. There's a lot of states that are acting out on their own. And I think all this is being done largely to fill the vacuum that Congress is leaving so far. And if Congress filled that vacuum, I think a lot of this would go away.

FLATOW: Elizabeth, what do you think?

SHOGREN: Well, I agree. I think it won't be immediate, any action in Congress. So whatever the Supreme Court does will kick in first. And so whatever the Supreme Court does will have a lot of consequences, and I think you talked about that a lot on the last session. I heard you talking about the consequences that could be pretty reaching and could have a big impact on whether the states get to go ahead and do the things that they are trying to do now on their own.

FLATOW: Well, who in the new seats - in this chairmanship changes in Congress - who are going to be the most influential now, congressmen, senators, who will determine the future of global warming legislature or the environmental track in the U.S. Congress now?

SHOGREN: Well, you see a really interesting change in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. You had in there, James Inhofe, who is a senator from Oklahoma who's famous for saying that climate change, or climate change caused by men, is perhaps the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people. And in his place comes Barbara Boxer, the senator from California, who's going to be the new committee chairman.

And she's already made it very clear that she plans to run the committee in a dramatically different fashion. She says pushing ahead, some kind of climate change legislation, is her top priority and she's already working with other Democrats and other key committees in the Senate - and Republicans as well - to try to move something forward.

FLATOW: Nikki, you agree?

Dr. ROY: Yes, absolutely. And there are some other, sort of behind the scenes, or less visible ones. Senator Inouye is going to be taking over the Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over CAFE, of fuel economy standards for cars. And our understanding is that he's going to be a little bit more aggressive on that than his predecessors.

Senator Bingaman has been - who is now going to be the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee - has been a long time advocate of doing something about climate change. It's been especially a proponent of pushing of some more moderate measures than some other folks have pushed, and he's now in a position to do that.

And then, you have to watch a couple of the Republicans - and we've just talked about the Senate, let's just stick with that for a second - but you have to watch a couple of Republicans. Senator McCain is probably the individual, most responsible for the education of Congress on this issue, over the last several years.

He is the one who pushed for votes on climate change legislation that he wrote with Senator Lieberman, and recently he announced that he's going to continue to do that. And then Senator Warner, who is just retiring from - he's term limited as chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He has more seniority on the Environment Committee than Senator Inhofe, so he might end of taking the top Republican spot on that committee, which would make him a much more - he's much more amendable to climate policy - and would make him a much more productive partner than Senator Inhofe for Chairwoman Boxer on that committee.

FLATOW: Would we see anything like a carbon tax or a carbon cap in trade, or any of the kinds of things that would actually limit emissions of carbon dioxide?

SHOGREN: Well, the three senators wrote a letter to President Bush, just a couple of weeks ago - Senator Boxer, Senator Jeff Bingaman, who will head the Energy Committee in the Senate, and Senator Joseph Lieberman. And they all said that they plan to - they pledged to push through legislation that would set mandatory limits on greenhouse gases. And so that - some people call - some people talk about a tax, but they would be unlikely, I think, to pass a tax, but that would, in fact, set a - make it cost something to use carbon by setting a limit on how much could be used. And they would want to set up some kind of cap-and-trade system that would give market-based incentives to encourage people to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. And so they seem to be very committed to doing it. It will be interesting to see whether or not they can get even through the Senate, nevertheless through both houses of Congress, a bill would do that.

FLATOW: And a possible veto here?

Ms. SHOGREN: Well, and of course there is that and the White House hasn't been shy about saying that they still are dramatically opposed to such a measure. In fact, the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality came out just a couple of days after the election and spoke with a bunch of reporters.

I was there and he talked about how all of the measures that the Congress has been talking about so far are simpleminded, and that the president wouldn't approve anything like that. That's what he said anyway.

Dr. ROY: I agree there's no way that we're going to see a carbon tax. I think the - one of the first things that the Clinton administration did back in 1993 was propose a BTU or energy tax, and it was a disaster, a political disaster. And I don't think anybody wants to repeat that.

I actually see three scenarios. I wouldn't put this in the likely category, but there are plausible scenarios for enactment of some kind of climate legislation by 2008. One is a - a sort of Nixon-goes-to-China approach. I don't think the Bush administration is quite there yet, but we have a president who is waging an unpopular war, who needs political capital to do some of the things that wants to do for the next couple of years to create a legacy for himself beyond the war. And it is - there is a president, and Nixon being the classic case, of presidents who work on ancillary issues, to them ancillary issues, such as the environment. Nixon created the EPA. Nixon sort of waved through the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. So that's one scenario.

And another scenario is that if you look at the history of the U.S. environmental legislation, there has always been - for so many of our laws, there's been a moment when the U.S. public got the issue, whether it was Love Canal or Bhopal or the burning of the Cuyahoga River.

And at some point, I think the American - Katrina helped the American public sort of focus on the climate change. I think at some point it might be - there might be an event that the American public will look at it and say, wow, now we understand the urgency of this issue. And when that happens, it almost doesn't matter who's in the White House, who's running Congress. It'll show through.

The third scenario is if John McCain becomes the nominee in the spring of 2008, I think it sets up a really interesting dynamic, when the new head of the Republican Party is - the person becomes the new head of the Republican Party is a - one of the most forceful advocates for a climate action.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Caroline in Colorado. Hi, Caroline.

CAROLINE (Caller): Hi there, Ira and guests. I wondered if anybody was aware of a news release that was issued on Wednesday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. It represents Environmental Protection Agency scientists. And over 10,000 EPA scientists and other employees, according to this news release, are calling on Congress to take immediate action against global warming. And also, their petition also says that they have been censored by this administration.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a reaction.

Ms. SHOGREN: I did see that press release. It's been clear for a long time that there are lots of people within the EPA who are career employees of the agency who do wish that the government would move ahead in some kind of more aggressive fashion to deal with the challenges of climate change. That's not a secret, and I think that it's very interesting that that organization put out the press release, but it's not a surprise.

FLATOW: Any possibility of hearings in Congress to find out what has happened with science and all these, you know, these different agencies?

Dr. ROY: I think you can count on it. I know Mr. Waxman has - Henry Waxman of the Los Angeles area, Democrat, is now going to be the chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee in the House. And that committee was already doing some interesting work on the climate change under the chairmanship of Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia.

But we know that Mr. Waxman has a long-standing issue in climate change. He has been especially incensed at the problems of, you know, manipulation of climate science by this administration. And I'm sure that he and others will be taking on that exact issue.

FLATOW: What about some of the new members coming into Congress, particularly too, I'm going to point up senator-elect from Montana, Jon Tester, who's gotten lots of attention. He is an organic farmer, if I'm correct in reading his press releases. And then there's also a wind energy engineer that just got elected, John McNerney.

Ms. SHOGREN: I think these are really interesting candidates to point to because during their campaigns they talked a lot about clean energy, and especially in both cases they talked a lot about wind energy and various kinds of renewable power.

I think one of the things that you might see coming from this Congress - if the Congress can't get a consensus around some kind of climate change legislation that would be across the board and would put caps on the economy as a whole, then I think you might be able to see some kind of smaller steps that are important and could have an impact of pushing the economy towards what is becoming more and more popular kinds of clean energy like wind energy.

And I think these new members of Congress should be really interesting to watch them about, because they're bringing real world experience to the Congress. And at a time when people are kind of jaded about Washington and politics, I think those who come with real world credentials will have a lot of say in Congress.

Dr. ROY: That's absolutely right. The one caution I would make, though, is that to a large extent in this election - and this has been talked about everywhere - but to a large extent Democratic moderates replaced Republican moderates in this election.

And it - in some ways it is easier - it was easier of those Republican moderates to vote for climate action than a lot of the Democratic moderates who replaced them. In some ways it's not that the votes for climate action have increased necessarily; it's that the prospects for a rational debate over climate policy have increased.

So we - Senators Boxer and Inouye and the others can make a - they can make a case, but they are still going to have an audience that will have some challenges.

FLATOW: We're talking about the new Congress and the new environmental regulation at this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking with Elizabeth Shogren from NPR and with Nikki Roy from Pew Center on Climate - Global Climate Change.

Do you think that the new Congress, and talking about energy and the environment, might pick it up as a national security issue? It's been pointed out, you know, the dependence on foreign oil, maybe we should be driving foreign policy a little bit more by not being dependent on the Middle East oil or foreign oil. And that means more energy here at home.

Ms. SHOGREN: Well, you've seen a lot of senators talking - Democratic senators talking about that already since - since the changeover. And I think that's - that's going to be very interesting to watch as Democratic try to press that issue, and it won't just be Democrats, because Senator John McCain and Senator Lugar from Indiana have been pressed - are both Republicans and they've been pushing this issue very strongly as an issue of national security.

So I think that dynamic will come up, but it's always difficult to know how that will play. That same theme is used to try to open up more offshore and onshore access to natural gas and oil. And I think we'll see that argument being played very strongly, too, and that's also a national security issue.

FLATOW: Do we see the Alaska drilling dead now?

Ms. SHOGREN: I think it's dead.


Ms. SHOGREN: At least for now. I mean issues don't necessarily stay dead in this town. And you never know who's going to win next time and what will happen, but I think for this Congress it's really hard to imagine how it could come up.

FLATOW: Nikki, where do you see the first battle being fought here, once everybody's sworn in in January?

Dr. ROY: Let's see, the first battle - actually, I think in part, one of the battles that will have to be fought is just within the Democratic Caucus over how aggressive to be on this issue. Do they - there's been some pressure from the environmental community to move out right ahead by trying to get votes on bills.

And there are others who I think are probably thinking more strategically, who say, look, we have a - we have a job of convincing that we need to do in this Congress. For several years the Congress has been hearing, you know, from people like Michael Crichton being held out as climate change experts.

Let's get some real peer-reviewed scientists and hear what the real science tell us on this issue. And so it's partly a - that's actually one of the issues that I'm watching most closely right now.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And Elizabeth?

Ms. SHOGREN: Well, I think one of the issues you could see coming up soon will be something that has to do with - not with climate change but with offshore drilling. And so I could see that being a struggle, and I think that's one of this - it will be - it will show us a little bit about how difficult these dynamics could be even within the Democratic Caucus, and that will be interesting to watch.

FLATOW: Of course what we all know about politics is that nothing happens the way we think it's going to happen, does it?

Ms. SHOGREN: No, and I think that that's what's so fun about this particular time. As lots of dynamics have changed, there are lots of people moving into jobs that they've never held before and they will be exercising leadership in ways that they don't even know about themselves right now.

I was talking with Senator Boxer about it a week or so, a couple of weeks ago, and it seemed to me that she didn't know yet what she was going to do, but she was really excited about the prospect of all of a sudden having all this authority to decide who's going to come in and who's - what kind of hearings are going to be held and what kind of bills are going to be put forward.

And so that's just one example of all the dynamics that are happening. And of course it's not just the lawmakers who have a role to play in all of this, but also the lobbyists. And I would imagine that there are lots of people in the industry right now who are thinking, do we want to push forward some kind of climate change legislation in the next couple of years, because if two years from now, if Senator John McCain or a Democrat comes to power in the White House, we might get a bill that we like even less.

So I bet there's a lot going on now that could just change this dynamic in all different ways.

FLATOW: Yeah. We're going to - I want to thank both of you for taking time with us. We're going to talk a lot about the new Congress and what other issues of science that are coming up. This is just the beginning. Thank you, NPR reporter Elizabeth Shogren, and Nikki Roy, director of congressional affairs at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

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