Of global warming and White House elephants

by Jon Margolis

Any day now, if all goes according to plan, a bill that will actually do something about global warming will come up in the United States Senate.

Come up, and go right down.

Not even the bill’s sponsors, Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, predict passage. Their goal is to get more votes than they got last year. That means they’d be satisfied with 45 votes, delighted with 46 or 47.

None of those are winning numbers.

Not that winning in the Senate would do much good, because the House version of the bill, with similar bipartisan sponsorship from Republican Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Democrat John W. Olver of Massachusetts, will not get to the floor. The House has a slightly larger Republican majority, a less collegial culture, and rules granting its leadership greater supremacy. To persuade Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay to bring the bill up for a vote would require far more political pressure than now exists.

On one level, then, the perceptive observer might conclude that government is not about to do anything at all to diminish climate-changing greenhouse gases, or even the rate by which they increase. Not so. Or at least, not exactly so.

Congress will do nothing for the nonce. But there is also an administration, and it would be a slight exaggeration to say that the administration is doing nothing at all. Precious little? Yes. As little as possible? Perhaps. But not nothing at all.

The Bush administration has generally favored the "Jumbo" approach to the issue. Jumbo was a 1962 movie starring Doris Day, amusing but forgettable, except for the moment when Jimmy Durante is trying to sneak a large elephant away from a police raid on the circus, only to be spotted by a cop who shouts, "Hey, you! Where are you going with that elephant?" Durante, in his battered fedora and shloompy suitcoat, standing right in front of the immense pachyderm named Jumbo, turns to the cop and in his gravelly voice, replies, "What elephant?"

Or, as the administration might phrase it, what global warming? One of Bush’s first acts as president was to abandon U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Last year, after the Environmental Protection Agency concurred with the scientific consensus that the world is getting warmer, and that most of the warming is "attributable" to human activities, the White House meddled with the agency’s work so much that then-EPA administrator Christine Whitman just scrapped the entire global warming chapter of a regularly scheduled environmental report.

But the administration has only taken the Jumbo strategy so far. The EPA was not ordered to delete the global warming evidence from its Web page, and the agency plans to revisit the subject, perhaps with more vigor, in its 2006 Report on the Environment. The administration has never withdrawn its endorsement of the State Department’s Climate Action Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2002, nor has it backed away from President Bush’s 2002 pledge that he was "committed to a leadership role on the issue of climate change." It is also supporting research to develop hydrogen-powered automobiles and to find a way to gasify coal and bury the carbon deep in the ground.

So unlike some of the right-wing pseudo think-tanks or even Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, the administration does not deny that global warming is taking place, or that greenhouse gases are its cause.

But the Bushies do question whether Jumbo is doing so much damage that he has to be put back in his cage. The administration still stresses the "uncertainties" remaining in the scientific evidence, and it declines to endorse mandatory emission reductions.

Instead, the Energy Department has put into place a set of voluntary guidelines under which "utilities, manufacturers, landowners and citizens, will be able to register their greenhouse gas emissions reductions." An analysis of the voluntary plan by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group known for its prudent research, concludes that even if it works, the plan would allow greenhouse emissions to grow as fast as they did in the 1990s.

The administration also refuses to consider carbon dioxide a pollutant, arguing that the Clean Air Act does not so designate it. They are right: It does not. But the act does include a general definition noting that anything that gets into the air and damages "health and welfare," which could include altering the climate, may be considered a pollutant.

So, if the administration wanted to define carbon dioxide as a pollutant, it probably could. During the Clinton administration, EPA lawyers concluded that their agency had the power to regulate carbon dioxide. But, having made that claim, the agency never acted on it.

This Clintonian prudence might give pause to partisans who argue that a President John Kerry and a Democratic Congress would inevitably lead to stronger emission controls. Had all the Democrats voted for McCain-Lieberman last year, it would have passed. Seven, including Montana’s Max Baucus, and Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, voted against it.

McCain and Lieberman plan to keep bringing up their bill. McCain, especially, has a track record here. He started trying to pass a campaign finance bill in the mid-1990s. He succeeded in 2002. He is nothing if not tenacious. One does not survive years in a North Vietnamese prison camp without that trait.

Furthermore, the government in Washington is not the only one we have. There’s one in Albany, another in Hartford, and three — Olympia, Salem and Sacramento — on the West Coast. In all of these statehouses, governors — some of them Republicans — are taking the lead in trying to reduce emissions in their states and regions. Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York has even proposed a plan similar to McCain and Lieberman’s.

But it’s the Republican on the other side of the country who could do more than anyone to reduce emissions — and befuddle the president politically.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is backing California regulators who say they will press ahead with plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 29.2 percent by 2015. Several other states, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, already follow California’s lead on auto emissions. Others may join them.

Still, the legalities of this approach are complex — states may regulate emissions, but not fuel economy — and the auto industry could sue California. So might the administration, but here the politics are complex, too. Most Americans, according to a recent Zogby poll, think global warming is a problem now, or will be soon. Most of them want the government to set standards to control emissions rather than relying on voluntary compliance.

President Bush’s job approval numbers are dismal. Schwarzenegger’s are boffo. It would be awkward for the leader of the party espousing "devolution" of power to the states to sue a popular governor of his own party who’s on the popular side of an issue.

Arnold, after all, could have picked up Jumbo and carried him away from the circus, all by himself.

Jon Margolis covers the temperature in Washington, D.C., from Vermont.

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