Senate climate debate focuses on economic impact

The planet shared equal billing with the economy at a Tuesday Senate hearing on climate change, as supporters sought to promote the controversial bill as both a mechanism to create jobs and protect the environment.

Making the case that a climate bill will stimulate a listless economy has emerged as a central theme for congressional Democrats and outside groups that support capping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions in order to win over wary centrists from industrial and farm states. A climate change bill narrowly passed the House prior to recess but is thought to face longer odds in the Senate, where Republicans have pledged to stop it with a filibuster.

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Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who called her panel’s hearing the start of a “historic” effort in the Senate to address the climate threat, said the cap-and-trade bill would “reduce our dependence on foreign oil, create millions of clean-energy jobs and protect our children from pollution.”

The clean-energy sector, Boxer added, has outperformed every other industry in her state, which is in the midst of a severe budget crisis.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said climate legislation was “about keeping jobs in America.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) spoke of the need to invest in “farmers in the Midwest rather than oil cartels in the Mideast.” And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said the energy market created by the cap-and-trade system represents the “greatest market opportunity in a generation” — the reason financial-services firms on Wall Street have lobbied aggressively for a climate bill.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson added to the economic arguments, warning the panel in testimony that “American businesses need strong incentives and investments now in order for this nation to lead the 21st-century global economy.”

Supporters of the legislation have long known that to pass a climate bill that promises to reshuffle the nation’s energy fuel mix, they have to provide more than a “green is good” argument, given the environment’s tendency to lose out when set against pocketbook issues in Congress.

Groups like the National Wildlife Federation have worked with sportsmen and -women’s organizations worried about the impact climate change will have on sensitive habitats to add a blue-collar imprimatur to the debate.

The Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, meanwhile, have teamed up with the Steelworkers Union in a “Blue-Green” alliance to bring labor’s voice to the debate.

Matt Bennett, vice president for policy at The Third Way, said making the debate as much about the economy as the environment is critical to the bill’s ultimate success.

“There is no way we are going to get this done if the American public doesn’t believe it’s in its interests to do it,” Bennett said.

The Third Way has briefed senators and staffers from industrial and farm states on the results of a focus-group study that sought to assess where public opinion was on the issue.

Voters, Bennett said, were expecting a change in the nation’s energy mix that has for more than a century relied on fossil fuels like oil and coal. And they expected the change to stimulate the economy.

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“They believe this will be the next big thing,” Bennett said.

But the study, which the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research also participated in, found that the public was hardly paying attention to the issue. That may mean voters can still be convinced to support or oppose a climate bill.

The economy was also on the minds of committee Republicans, most of whom seem disinclined to vote for a climate bill.

“What we are dealing with here is going to be a large tax increase,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate’s leading global warming skeptic.

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) said that during the House debate, his office fielded 929 calls from people who were against the climate bill and only three from those in support. He said the House bill would “punish” the Midwest and Southeast, where utilities tend to use more coal power to produce electricity. Coal accounts for around 40 percent of the carbon dioxide human activity in the United States releases into the air annually.

The House bill calls for a 17 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from a 2005 baseline by 2020 and more than 80 percent by 2050.

Critics say the cuts come too quickly, outpacing the likely availability of carbon-reducing technologies that are economically viable.

The American Petroleum Institute released a statement in conjunction with the Senate hearing urging the chamber to chart a different course than the House. It noted a study commissioned by the National Black Chamber of Commerce that estimated the House bill would yield a net loss of more than 2 million jobs.