On Climate Change, Henry Waxman Wants Congress to Act Now

The House Energy Committee chair says his panel should pass a bill to curb emissions by Memorial Day.

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He battled Big Tobacco and fought for the "nutrition facts" label now carried on food products. And he became a household name after leading hard-hitting congressional probes into tough subjects: from waste and fraud in Iraq reconstruction and steroids in baseball to the coverup of the friendly-fire death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman and the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Henry Arnold Waxman, 69, is a Democrat from California who has called Congress home for half his life. He has long inspired strong views on Capitol Hill, where some regard him as one of his generation's great lawmakers and a relentless champion for the common good, even as others dismiss him as a partisan pit bull with an insatiable appetite for headlines.

Either way, one thing is certain: One of his top concerns has long been global warming, and after dethroning a fellow Democrat to win the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he's vowing quick action on comprehensive energy legislation containing provisions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

If America doesn't act, Waxman warns, the country will pay a hefty price in terms of health, the environment, national security, and global instability. "We're more and more suffering the consequences of global warming and climate change, which scientists tell us could be irreversible if we don't take very serious action now," he says.

Waxman wants his new committee to have a bill to curb carbon emissions prepared by April so that it can be approved by the panel before Memorial Day. President Barack Obama, he says, "has called upon us to move forward in this area. It's something that we can no longer neglect."

Opponents, starting with the top Republican on the committee, argue that the science isn't proved and the timing, with countries around the world mired in recession, isn't right. House Republican Joe Barton of Texas, a former chair of the panel and now its ranking member, says a sure way to turn a severe economic downturn into a depression is to pass a "cockamamie climate change bill" that includes mandatory cap-and-trade provisions.

A cap-and-trade system would involve the federal government setting yearly limits on total greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide. Washington would then allocate emission credits that could be traded, banked, or sold to meet the cap. Each credit would allow a factory or coal-fueled power plant to emit 1 ton of greenhouse gases.

Advocates believe the provisions would spur private-sector innovations, keeping the United States at the cutting edge of new energy technology and energy efficiency. Opponents envision industrial jobs going overseas. Waxman, addressing critics who warn about the risk of outsourcing, says doing nothing about global warning would result in an economy worse off than it is now, with damage to public health, the environment, "even our cities, our agriculture, our forests, and our national security."

As draft legislation is hammered out and congressional hearings are underway, Waxman is showing few of his cards, careful to avoid being pinned down on exactly what he'd like in a bill or how much he'd concede. Whether the full House and Senate would approve climate legislation is also unclear, particularly in an area where Democrats, some from manufacturing bases or coal-producing regions, tend to be divided by regional interests. One environmentalist tracking the debate says Waxman "is making a gamble that he can get this done quickly while Obama's popularity is high."

Copenhagen. Looming next December are international climate talks in Copenhagen under the auspices of the United Nations. That's another impetus behind the Democrats' bid for swift congressional action. Environmentalists point out that a hard-fought debate in Congress that forces agreement between pro-environment and pro-business legislators could be a useful preview for the Obama administration of what kinds of proposals it might be able to offer in Denmark.

Long before he was one of Congress's more ambitious environmentalists, Waxman grew up above his father's grocery store in the Watts section of Los Angeles. He went to UCLA both for college and law school and, in short order, entered the California Assembly. He won election to Congress at age 35 in 1974, when a wave of Democratic reformers won seats in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. It was in 1992 that he first introduced global warming legislation.