For a few minutes, it was like a scene from An Inconvenient Truth: Al Gore, the former vice president, lecturing about global climate change, skipping authoritatively from one data point to the next, wielding statistics, graphs, and charts about shrinking ice caps and greenhouse-gas emissions.
His audience, this time around, was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in its first hearing since President Barack Obama's inauguration. Its choice of Gore as star witness was layered with political symbolism, highlighting the priority that congressional Democrats, bolstered by their enlarged majority and new White House support, are giving to climate change issues.
In particular, there were new indications that a cap-and-trade bill on carbon dioxide could emerge later this year, as a reassuring precursor to U.S. participation in next December's climate change conference in Copenhagen. There, leaders from more than 180 countries are scheduled to meet and agree upon a new emissions treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which was rejected by the Bush administration.
Addressing grumblings from some Republicans, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the committee's new chairman, presented the Democrats' case: "Some may argue that we cannot afford to address this issue in the midst of an economic crisis," he said at the outset of the hearing. "Those who pose that question have it fundamentally wrong. This is a moment of enormous opportunity for new technology, new jobs, and the greening and transformation of our economy."
Gore, in his lengthy and, at times, professorial testimony, asked Congress to take political action on two fronts: with the stimulus package and with cap-and-trade legislation. "This first step is already before us," Gore said. "I urge this Congress to quickly pass the entirety of President Obama's recovery package. The plan's unprecedented and critical investments in four key areas—energy efficiency, renewables, a unified national energy grid, and the move to clean cars—represent an important down payment and are long overdue."
Outlining what the United States must to do over the next 11 months to prepare for Copenhagen, Gore spoke of past bipartisan environmental efforts, such as the Montreal Protocol in 1988, designed to halt the depletion of the ozone layer. "President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill joined hands to lead the way," Gore said.
From the Republican ranks, there was much less vocal opposition to Gore's arguments—his data about polar ice melting, his narrative of the consequences of rising carbon dioxide levels for civilization—than there was just a few years ago. Senators of both parties seem to now mostly agree that a price on carbon dioxide, most likely through a cap-and-trade system, is inevitable, even coming soon. "We're now talking about firing real bullets," said Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. "I think this year something may really occur."
Still, there are sharp disagreements over how such a program should work, in particular how the money raised by a carbon-pricing system—tens of billions of dollars—would be used. Some, such as Corker, would like to see it returned in full to American taxpayers. Others want to see it used for particular ends: to help cities and states adapt to eroding coastlines, wildfire damage, and multiyear droughts attributable to climate change, for instance, or to help pay for advances in clean energy. Such disagreements were, to a certain degree, responsible for the collapse of last year's attempt at climate change legislation in the Senate, as were Republican arguments over the negative impact of such a regime on the American economy.
Democrats, in response, seem to have adjusted their rhetoric. Said Gore during the hearing: "For years, our efforts to address the growing climate crisis have been undermined by the idea that we must choose between our planet and our way of life. These are false choices."