Washington Summit on Climate Stabilization
September 20, 2006
Remarks as prepared:
            Of all the important issues Congress is failing to address this session, this is the most significant.  It is very disappointing to me – and I am sure to many in this audience – that Washington has been too slow to respond to the serious threat of global warming.  The 109th Congress is nearing its adjournment without having done a sufficient amount to address the issue.
            I understand that many of the speakers yesterday addressed you on the scientific aspects of climate change and the environmental impacts that are being catalogued across the country.  I would like to use this opportunity today to share with you some of my observations on the politics of this issue within the Congress and then to answer some questions.
The Question
            The question we have been asking in Congress is – “Is there a path forward for the United States to begin responsibly meeting the challenge of global warming?”  At this time in our history, is it politically feasible for us to constrain the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere, just as we constrain the amount of sulfur dioxide we put in the air or the amount of PCB’s we dump in our rivers?
            The progress that has been made to date has been made at the international level and even at the state level.  I was pleased last month to hear the news out of California that the State Assembly there demonstrated leadership on this issue and became the first state to legislate for cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.  By comparison, the United States as a whole has largely opted out of any real international commitment and national leadership on controlling greenhouse gas emissions.
The United States has relied almost exclusively on voluntary measures and tax subsidies for technology to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.  I was pleased to get the results of a report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office on Monday that explains why our current policy has not really led to changes in the technologies we use.  The report suggests that without the proper price signal to drive technologies, a voluntary program alone will be ineffective.  The correct strategy should include a combination of existing policies to fund R&D with a mandatory price signal.  There are a number of different proposals in Congress right now to do just that.
An alternative proposal
            The first major proposal to be debated in the Senate on global warming was a cap on emissions of greenhouse gases proposed by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman.  They proposed that by 2010 the United States reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to year 2000 levels.  This reduction would be accomplished through establishment of a cap and trade system.
            The Senate first voted on the McCain-Lieberman proposal in 2003 and it received 43 votes of support, including mine.  In the congressional elections in 2004, though, the makeup of the Senate shifted away from this proposal.  In June of last year, the McCain-Lieberman proposal (slightly changed) received only 38 votes.
            An alternative proposal for an economy-wide cap and trade system has been put forward by the National Commission on Energy Policy.  It differs from McCain-Lieberman in 3 primary ways:
1.      It sets less ambitious goals.
2.      It contains a so-called safety valve (which insures that the cost of compliance will not exceed a set amount per ton of carbon put into the atmosphere).  That cost cap would grow slowly each year. And,
3.      It provides for Congress to review the progress of international actions every five years to determine the appropriate level of continued efforts by the United States.
I believe that this alternative proposal has the best chance of being enacted by Congress in the next year or two.  During the debate on the energy bill in the Senate last year, 53 Senators voted in support of a Sense of the Senate Resolution that endorsed this alternative in general terms.
Progress to date
Following the vote on the Sense of the Senate Resolution, I have been working with my colleagues in the Senate and on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to see if there is a possible path forward.  We have held hearings to assess the scientific basis for enacting a greenhouse gas program and to determine the economic impacts such a program would have.
I think the most important moment in our deliberations, however, was an all-day conference that we conducted in April to question businesses and NGO’s on how to design such a system.  At this conference, a number of big energy companies, including the two largest owners of utilities in the United States – Duke and Exelon – said they would welcome or at least accept mandatory caps on their greenhouse gas emissions. 
Together with my colleague – Senator Domenici, the Chairman of the Energy Committee – we put out a summary of the conference that listed some of the things that we heard at this event.  Many participants expressed the view that the risks associated with a changing climate justified the adoption of mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.  This has been my view.
Following the Conference in April, I asked my staff to work with other Senate offices and interested stakeholders to see if we could resolve some of the key issues discussed at the Conference.  I am confident that we have learned a lot and are moving forward in a manner that will be able to contribute to the debate.  It is my hope to continue working on this through the end of the year, and should I be re-elected, to pursue this issue early in the next Congress.
Other activity
Over the past year, there has been a flurry of activity by Senators and Members of the House of Representatives to introduce and work on legislation to curb global warming.  Most recently, Senator Jeffords introduced a bill, the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act.  Some of these measures are more aggressive than what I have been working on and some of them seek the level of modesty that I think is possible.  Others attempt to isolate the issue by regulating certain sectors – like the electric utility sector – rather than through an economy-wide program.
It is extremely encouraging to see the debate reaching a new level of discussion.  We are now in the phase where stakeholders realize that they cannot be left out of the debate and that just saying no is not a viable approach.  Nonetheless, there are still many issues that need to be resolved before we can advance legislation, such as the size and scope of the program as well as the details of how to allocate permits to emit and fund new technology.
I saw that Vice President Gore recently spoke in New York about global warming, as he has been doing so for some time now.  He called for a freeze in CO2 emissions and dramatically changing the way we generate, transport and use energy.  These are good goals and goals that I support, but we face major challenges in Congress to implement them.  We need to focus on our strategy for achieving these goals and should build on incremental change as often as we can.
            These issues are difficult, but I am encouraged by California’s example of demonstrating the political will and resolve to work through serious and complicated issues on their own.  Previous experiences with the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and Superfund have shown that subsequent to state action it is now the federal government’s turn to enact policy.  We can do so in a bipartisan manner that reflects California’s success, as well as the success in the Northeastern states and elsewhere across the country, but we cannot continue to delay if we want to enact a consistent national program.
            A consistent national program that effectively addresses climate change is ultimately our end goal.  Again, I want to congratulate California and the other states and regions of the country that are moving forward and filling a void of leadership that Washington has failed to fill.  But global warming is a national and international issue, and that requires leadership across the country.  It is possible that the upcoming elections will help shift this dynamic.  Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that global warming is increasing in the public consciousness as an important concern and one that politicians and lawmakers will have to confront.