In Climate Change Debate, It's All About Jobs

Many in Congress worry about the economic impact of curbing emissions.

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Rep. Betty Sutton, a Democrat, wants Congress to tackle climate change, but she has some concerns. She represents Ohio's 13th District, which includes Akron, where the unemployment rate is 10.3 percent. "I certainly want jobs," Sutton said last week, responding to Republicans' claims that proposed climate change legislation will cause further job losses. "I want to find ways—and I believe it can be done—to get these jobs of the future without sacrificing the livelihood of people in the process."

As House leaders launched an aggressive push on global warming legislation last week with four days of intensive hearings, the focus was squarely on jobs and the economic impact of trying to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the deepening recession has emerged as arguably the most formidable hurdle to congressional action.

In a show of the administration's priorities, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appeared side by side, reaffirming the president's desire to act on climate change and lending support to the broad direction of a draft global warming bill introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman and Rep. Ed Markey.

But getting climate change legislation through the parochial-minded Congress will largely depend on where moderate Democrats end up, particularly those in the Senate. Some key senators hail from manufacturing- and industry-heavy states that get most of their electricity from coal—for Ohio, it's 86 percent—and they will be watching their delegations in the House, which is taking the lead on crafting a bill.

The legislation's cornerstone is a program that would cap emissions but allow companies to purchase credits if they need to exceed those limits. Lawmakers are asking whether a cap-and-trade program would create jobs to power a "green energy economy," as the Obama administration argues, or send jobs overseas as companies seek cheaper places to pollute.

Last Wednesday, Jackson cited new EPA models showing that a cap-and-trade program will most likely have only a modest impact on American families—increasing annual spending by less than $150. Officials arrived at this estimate, she said, by assuming that 40 percent of the money raised by selling emissions credits would be passed back to Americans. Congress, however, has yet to decide what it will do with that money.

Republicans, for their part, insist the costs would be much higher, perhaps as much as several thousand dollars per family. In most of their estimates, they assume that consumers will get no rebates or support at all, which congressional aides say is unlikely.

On the jobs front, Republicans cite estimates from the National Association of Manufacturers, an influential trade association, of between 3 million and 4 million lost jobs. Jackson dismisses the "large doomsday scenarios," saying the White House expects cap-and-trade legislation to create "millions" of jobs, in part by stimulating clean energy manufacturing.

Despite some signs that support for the climate change bill is eroding, not all moderate Democrats are giving up. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown recently argued: "Inaction is not an option."