Regular consumers of climate science are by now intimately familiar with the notion of tipping points — thresholds that, when crossed, commit us to a new and potentially irreversible future. Such tipping points, whether natural or political, are notoriously difficult to anticipate, but years from now, 2007 may well be remembered as an important one — the year in which serious domestic action on climate change first assumed a sense of inevitability.
So many forces contributed to this trend that it would be difficult to catalog them all, but certainly the bluntly stated results of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shattered any remaining opportunities for skepticism about the conclusions of climate science. Add to this an unprecedented abundance of state-level action and lower-court rulings, the historic Supreme Court decision in which carbon dioxide was determined to be a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and all of the related anxiety on the part of industry about the direction of regulation, and one can begin to understand the strong, but sometimes conflicting pressures on Congress to act.
No less important is the fact that all of these developments followed on the heels of a new Democratic majority in Congress. In 2007, five economy-wide cap-and-trade bills were introduced in the Senate, and another two were introduced in the House. At present, only one of these, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, introduced by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va., has made it out of committee. All signs suggest that this bill will be the subject of intense debate in 2008, with several contentious issues, such as the stringency of reduction targets, the desirability of various measures to mitigate costs and decisions about how to allocate tradable carbon permits, subject to future amendment.
Ironically, in this new political era, global warming legislation may face as many challenges from the left as from the right. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., one of the most liberal members of the Senate, voted against the bill during subcommittee markup on the grounds that it did not go far enough in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. And in testimony before the Environment and Public Works Committee on the eve of the full committee markup, Fred Krupp, speaking on behalf of the advocacy group Environmental Defense, stated that his organization would oppose any bill with an imposed carbon price ceiling at any level.
Why is the environmental community adopting an approach that could restrict opportunities for compromise down the road? At one level, they clearly feel emboldened by growing public support for climate policy. But they also seem to believe that, given current political winds, prospects for more ambitious legislation will be even greater in the next Congress.
This strategy is obviously risky. No matter how certain Democratic prospects appear, there is little reason to suspect that the next Congress will be any more disposed to aggressive climate legislation than the current one. The politics of energy, like politics in general, tend to be fiercely local and do not always neatly divide along partisan lines — one need only look as far as Detroit or the farm belt to see this. Moreover, in the next election, the composition of committees with jurisdiction over environmental issues may change significantly, with unpredictable and far-reaching consequences. Most conspicuously, Warner, a key pro-environment Republican voice on the Environment and Public Works Committee, has already announced that he will not seek a sixth term.
Even if the next Congress were to be more sympathetic to climate action than the current one, a hard-line strategy would still be risky, a fact underscored in December, when delegates from around the world met for the 13th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Whether U.S. delegates highlight the potential for long-term domestic emissions reductions of 70 percent or long-term reductions of 80 percent matters much less to countries contemplating action than the more basic American assurance that binding restrictions are imminent. Because the start of the commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol begins this year, failing to act now in hopes of securing a more stringent domestic program later could lead to a longer and more dangerous gap in the international governance regime.
Whether compromise will prevail in the Senate and, for that matter, in Congress as a whole, remains to be seen. Either way, the debate will take place against an unusual backdrop: a historic election year in which energy and environment issues are now directly coupled in the minds of many to issues of national and economic security. At this point, only one thing seems certain — that 2008 will hold as many surprises as 2007.
Mignone is the 2007-2008 William L. Fisher Congressional Science Fellow of the American Geological Institute. He is currently serving on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.