U.K. official confident U.S. will act on climate change legislation

Even though climate change legislation has stalled in Congress, a senior British official who is working with U.S. policymakers expressed confidence that the bill’s prospects are bright.

In an interview with The Hill, United Kingdom Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband said U.S. lawmakers and the White House are committed to moving the bill this year.

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Miliband, who met with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) this week, said, “The [climate] bill is being worked on as I understand it, and it will emerge soon.”

While acknowledging that President Barack Obama’s number one priority in 2009 is healthcare reform, Miliband said, “My sense from talking with the administration is there is a significant amount of commitment to the December deadline.”

Miliband is referring to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which is scheduled to take place Dec. 7-18. The Obama administration has expressed hope that a climate change bill will be signed into law by then, setting the stage for a historic international agreement.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earlier this week suggested a deal in the upper chamber might not be reached until 2010.

Miliband, however, is not giving up on the December goal.

“The world has a very clear deadline with Copenhagen in December,” Miliband said. It is important to act globally to address climate change soon, he said, partly because of scientific reasons but also because of the politics of the moment.

“The lesson I learned in politics is you need to seize the opportunities as they arrive,” he said.

Miliband is working closely with the Obama administration, including Carol Browner, a senior adviser to Obama on climate change, as well as State Department policymakers Todd Stern and Michael Froman.

He also said he talks regularly with former Vice President Al Gore. Lawmakers who he has conferred with on climate change include Sens. Kerry, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

The 39-year-old British policymaker said he doesn’t have a strong preference whether the U.S. should tackle carbon emissions through legislation or regulation, but adds there is an appetite on Capitol Hill to pass a bill.

Still, he recognizes the hurdles lawmakers face: “We need to understand each other’s constraints so I’m certainly not coming here to lecture the United States.”

He said many in Europe were pleasantly surprised with the passage of the House climate bill earlier this year.

Obama “defied expectations” by urging Congress to act so soon after his inauguration, Miliband said, noting that some were under the impression the president would tackle climate change in his second or third year in office. He pointed out that the measure crafted by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is more ambitious than what Obama promised during his presidential campaign.

U.S. concerns about competitiveness regarding India and China’s involvement in reducing their carbon emissions are legitimate, Miliband said.

Yet, Miliband said, there needs to be some understanding of their perspectives: “We are asking [China and India] to do something which we didn’t do. We’re saying to them: ‘You’ve got to grow in a low-carbon way.’ We grew in a high-carbon way for the last 150, 200 years.”

China and India recognize they must act, Miliband said. If they don’t, he added, they know they will face devastating effects of climate change.