Climate for change: Congress needs to take a historic step on warming

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According to a famous quotation often attributed to Mark Twain, everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. Let's hope that doesn't apply to climate change -- because all the talk is primed to bring about major congressional action.

Last week, the outlines of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (HR 2454) became clear after intense discussions in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Its chairman, Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and subcommittee chairman Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., have helped fashion a bill that they hope can pass in the face of Republican opposition. The committee is set to vote this week.

Identified as a crucial vote on the committee, Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, has been pressured by parties on both sides of the energy/environmental debate. With competing claims that HR 2454 will lead to both job losses in traditional industries and gains in emerging green endeavors and will both cost Americans money and save them money, it's easy to see why the Waxman committee has struggled for some sort of working consensus.

Stark differences in opinion on the bill's effects partly reflect attitudes to basic questions: Is global warming real and should major steps be taken to alleviate it? For our part, we answer "yes" to those questions but we do recognize that the nation's energy policies can't be changed overnight.

Sure and steady will get the job done. The great strength of the Waxman-Markey bill is that it will set a schedule for moving the nation to clean energy and combatting global warming.

The bill uses a cap-and-trade system, which sets a limit on emissions (the cap) and allows polluting industries to buy or sell credits so long as the ceiling isn't breached (the trade). Of course, it would be simpler if each industry were to pay a carbon tax for pollution -- but politically that's a non-starter.

Whatever the method, the goal is still curbing emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. As originally conceived, the bill would have cut emissions from 2005 levels by 20 percent in 2020 and roughly 83 percent by 2050. That first target has come down a bit in the latest version -- to 17 percent by 2020, although the half-century goal is still in place.

That sort of compromise has led Greenpeace to say that it can't support the latest version of the bill because it doesn't go far enough in curbing emissions. For its part, PennEnvironment, a major voice in this state, takes a more measured view, finding things to like in the bill and things to remedy. In the latter category, it decries that the renewable electricity standard, which requires a certain amount of power from renewable sources, has been weakened in the latest version.

This bill isn't perfect and could stand some tweaking to make it stronger. For all the argument over details, however, Congress is poised to do something about climate change. If Rep. Doyle and others help accomplish that, it would be a historic move.


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