Two recent developments helped to energize those who are trying to get a comprehensive energy and global-warming bill through Congress this year.
But, only a few days later, further developments demonstrated just how difficult a task enacting meaningful climate-change legislation continues to be.
On April 24, The New York Times published a devastating article detailing how the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing businesses in the fossil-fuels industry, ignored the findings of its own scientists for years as it waged an aggressive campaign to discredit the idea that emissions of greenhouse gases could lead to global warming.
The newspaper obtained Global Climate Coalition documents that had been introduced in the discovery process in a federal lawsuit in which the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, a coalition member, is trying to keep the state of California from limiting vehicles’ greenhouse gas emissions. A lawyer for environmental groups supporting the state gave the newspaper the documents; he was not identified.
The documents show that while the coalition was spending millions on lobbying and public-relations efforts to sow doubt about global warming and its human-related causes, its own scientific and technical experts were advising it that the science on the role of greenhouse gases in global warming was well established and undeniable. An internal report prepared for the coalition in 1995 said that the science could not be refuted. Another document prepared by the coalition’s technical advisors said that “contrarian” arguments doubting global warming were not credible.
Yet throughout the 1990s, the coalition continued to spend heavily on advertising campaigns challenging the reality of global warming and opposing the international Kyoto Protocol negotiated in 1997 in an effort to combat climate change.
The coalition was financed by corporations and trade groups in the oil, coal and auto industries as well as others. It was disbanded in 2002.
The Times story pointed out that the coalition’s efforts were effective to some extent, as they confused the public, slowed the growth of popular support for action against climate change and thus encouraged Congress to drag its feet on legislation.
Also on April 24, Al Gore, the former vice president who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change, went to Capitol Hill as the star witness for House Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee who were cranking up the latest effort to address global warming.
Calling for support of legislation that would create a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions and require utilities to produce 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, Gore said that the country is at a moment of “great peril” and must rise above partisanship. He called the climate-change bill “one of the most important pieces of legislation ever introduce in Congress…” with the “… moral significance equivalent to that of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the Marshall Plan of the late 1940s.”
By helping the nation make the transition to a clean energy economy and away from too much dependence on carbon-based fuels, he said, the bill would at the same time address climate change, the economic crisis and the national-security threats related to foreign oil. Gore detailed recent evidence of the damage done by global warming, such as the melting of ice sheets that could lead to catastrophic rises in sea levels, increased wildfires and greater intensity of hurricanes, and changing chemistry of the oceans and disappearance of fish species.
Gore’s strong testimony might have been expected to give the legislation a boost. The lingering naysayers were witnesses at the House committee hearing, too, however. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker, said that President Obama could lose a re-election bid over global warming.
By the start of the week of April 26, House Democrats were showing signs of wavering. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, postponed a scheduled subcommittee markup of the bill until at least the week of May 3. Observers said that the leadership appeared to be having trouble rounding up enough votes because Democrats from industrial and coal-producing states are balking. Some representatives say that their constituents fear that the legislation would make their electricity bills soar.
News reports said that Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee were negotiating over whether to weaken the legislation by reducing the amount by which emissions must be cut by 2020 and by giving electric utilities free pollution allowances.
There was also talk of some House Democrats wanting to delay action on the bill because they believe it will be much more difficult to get the bill through the Senate. If climate-change legislation is going to be politically dangerous, they don’t want to stick their necks out unnecessarily.
The New York Times article mentioned that although the Global Climate Coalition had disbanded in 2002, some of its members, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute, continue to lobby against significant curbs on emissions.
And, as reported here on April 21, lobbying on climate change is a booming growth industry in Washington, with lobbyists for industry outnumbering those for environmental, health and alternative energy by about 8-to-1.
Linda Brinson retired in November as the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C.