By Jim Dawson | Inside Science News Service
As the second term of the George W. Bush’s Administration nears its end, policy makers, scientists, environmentalists and others long-concerned about the planet-wide changes being triggered by global warming are optimistic that with a new president, the United States will finally take concrete steps to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change.
While it seems certain that the dithering in the executive branch that has marked the last eight years of U.S. global warming policy will end following the November elections, the path to regaining world leadership in the efforts to slow climate change is not necessarily a smooth one. And given the current collapse of Wall Street and the $700 billion bailout, passing any new legislation that involves carbon taxes or increased energy costs – the favored first steps in combating climate change – may be difficult, no matter how well intended.
Both presidential candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, not only acknowledge that global warming is a serious threat, but that it is being caused by the release of carbon into the atmosphere by human activities. The statements of both candidates are strong.
“There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively,” Obama said in a recent written answer to a question posed by the non-profit Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA). “First, the U.S. must get of the sidelines and take long-overdue action here at home to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions.”
While that statement reflects the long-held Democratic position on global warming, John McCain’s views on climate change are also strong. “We know that greenhouse gas emissions, by retaining heat within the atmosphere, threaten disastrous changes in the climate,” the Republican said in his response to the SEA question. “The same fossil-fuels that power our economic engine also produced greenhouse gases that retain heat and thus threaten to alter the global climate.”
Despite the “drill here, drill now,” rhetoric that McCain as adopted in recent weeks in his presidential campaign, he has long been a leading advocate in the Senate – to the consternation of many of his Republican colleagues – of policies that would limit carbon emissions through a system called “cap and trade.” Indeed, he and Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Con.) introduced a bill in Congress to limit greenhouse gas emissions in 2003.
Although it seems likely that the U.S. will pick up the mantle of global leadership on climate change, the questions of when and how climate change laws will be enacted remain open. In the current Congress, which is nearing the end of its two-year session, there have been seven different cap-and-trade bills introduced to deal with climate change. The most successful made it out of committee and was debated on the floor of the Senate. But it died a procedural death and never came up for a vote.
The cap-and-trade approach sets a cap on how much carbon can be released, and allows polluting industries to trade “pollution credits.” The system worked well in the 1980s to cut the acid rain problem in the U.S., but determining the cap and figuring out the number of credits industry should have are tied up in both economics and politics.
The carbon tax option would charge emitters a set fee, or tax, based on how much carbon they release into the atmosphere. The fee makes industries pay for the carbon they emit, but it doesn’t guarantee a limit on the emissions.
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