Climate change bill: How Congress could fail us all, even if it passes health care

While the planet's environmental apocalypse may not be much much nigh than it was last month, this year's Election Day bore grim tidings for voters concerned with climate change. By electing public officials whose tendency on this issue is inaction, we may tipped the climate ever so slightly in the direction of the doomsday scenario -- a realm of irreversible ecological change that scientists have long warned about.

One battlefield was New Jersey, which elected Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie, a U.S. attorney, over hapless Democratic incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine. Another was Virginia, which elected former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell over his Democratic challenger, Creigh Deeds. Christie vowed, if elected, to make trouble for the Environmental Protection Agency, while McDonnell revealed his own radical views denying climate change, despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its existence. McDonnell's denial of global warming also puts him at odds with the most prominent members of the Republican party, who acknowledge climate change as fact:

Not that the elections of Christie and McDonnell are themselves signs of the approaching Four Horsemen. But if the Republican party regains momentum, that would spell bad news for climate and energy legislation. The Virginia election especially has been cast as a predictor of the Republicans' winning back enough seats in the U.S. Senate and House next year to continue the party's work of obscuring of global-warming science, obstructing of the emergence of renewable energy, and bending over backwards to serve the fossil-fuel industry.

But the election may have been part of the back-and-forth in a season of Democratic dominance. In late October, as Congress worked on health-care reform, President Obama and Vice President Biden were on the road, pitching renewable energy. Obama starred in a media event at the newest and biggest solar-power plant in the U.S., the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, in Arcadia, Florida. Biden was in his home state of Delaware for the announcement that a closed GM plant would be reborn to produce as many as 100,000 plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars. Biden's speech is at 2:43 of this video:

In turning its attention to climate change, the Obama administration is confronting a colossal task -- convincing Congress to pass a meaningful climate and energy bill -- and is looking beyond any criticism that reducing carbon-emission costs will wreck the economy in the short-term. But arguing that climate legislation would hurt the economy seems like a cost-benefit analysis performed by accountants on the deck of the Titanic.

The key to such a bill's success lies in renewable energy's potential for job creation. The administration has touted renewable energy as a key driver for job growth. But when and how many jobs would emerge is painfully unclear as Bracken Hendricks, green jobs adviser to the Obama transition team and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, demonstrated last month on NPR as he sidestepped pointed questions about green job creation.

Both sides of the green-jobs debate have oversold themselves, says Marc Gunther, senior editor at Fortune and an advocate of renewable energy and green jobs. "It's intellectually dishonest to pretend that we can forecast, with any degree of accuracy, the impact of a complicated government policy on a dynamic global economy decades into the future," Gunther wrote in Fortune. "Both sides know that their projections are based on a host of assumptions which may or may not come true."

But the most disturbing news yet for climate-legislation supporters was last week's announcement that Warren Buffett was buying the Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad (BNI) for $34 billion. It's impossible not to see this deal as a play for coal: Burlington Northern owns the rights-of-way along the Powder River Basin, where it hauls enough coal -- 297 million tons last year -- to power one in 10 U.S. houses. "Buffett is trying to get into coal, but doing it in a cheaper way," Jack Albin, chief investment officer at the Harris Private Bank in Chicago, told Reuters. "It's leveraged against coal's demand without actually having to buy the commodity itself."

On Friday, Republican senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee boycotted a vote that pushed the Boxer-Kerry climate bill through committee. Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma -- who has called global warming a "hoax" -- took the standard Republican line that the bill would kill jobs and hurt the economy.

Unless Buffett knows something the rest of us don't -- and he often does -- then it seems unlikely that meaningful climate legislation will make it through Congress this year. Bruce Stokes, international economics columnist for the National Journal, told NPR this week that environmental lobbyists are trying to push for climate legislation to pass within the first few months of next year, before members of Congress turn to the more pressing business of getting themselves re-elected. "It's a very narrow window of opportunity," Stokes said. And if Congress doesn't pass health-care legislation this year, the window will be narrower.

The two biggest carbon-dioxide polluters are China and the U.S., according to Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations for the Asia Society. The U.S. and China generate more than 40% of the world's carbon emissions, Schell says; 80% of China's electricity, and 50% of America's, is powered by coal. Yet neither country wants to make the first move away from coal, he says -- and both need to convince Congress to pass climate and energy legislation. "Otherwise, the U.S. will have no world standing," Schell says. "It will be in an amputated leadership position, and without the U.S., I don't think the rest of the world can act.

"Simply put," Schell says, "if the U.S. and China cannot come to terms with coal and carbon emissions, I think it's very doubtful that the world will soon find any remedy for climate change." So it all comes down to the U.S. Congress, which may yet pass health-care reform -- and then fail at a task that's much, much bigger.

Mark Svenvold, author of Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America, teaches English at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
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