Five Hot Spots in Congress's Upcoming Climate Change Debate

A preview of the debate over proposals for a cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

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3. How aggressive should those emissions targets be?

President Obama and House leaders are calling for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 percent (from 2005 levels) by midcentury, in line with what climate change scientists say needs to be done. The stickier question is how aggressively the United States should move in the next decade or so. Obama has proposed a 14 percent reduction by 2020. The new House bill is more aggressive, calling for a 20 percent cut by 2020. For more conservative Democrats, this may be pushing it, again reflecting economic concerns. On the other hand, for foreign countries looking for the United States to make bold moves at next December's climate change talks in Denmark, this may not be enough.

4. Should other programs be added to the bill as sweeteners?

In an effort to woo skeptical members of Congress, House leaders are trying to tie cap-and-trade provisions to other, often more popular energy policies, such as clean coal technology, energy-efficiency measures, or plug-in hybrids. That's what Democrat Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia and others pushed for in the House draft bill that came out last week. On the Senate side, however, Democratic leaders are choosing to split things into different bills. Both houses will have to agree on the same bill at the end of the day.

5. And then there's the economy.

All of these fights could get eclipsed by overriding fears about the health of the economy. Conservative Republicans continue to cite a study released last summer by the like-minded Heritage Foundation warning that hundreds of thousands of jobs could be lost if a cap-and-trade system is implemented and that electricity rates would skyrocket. Democrats have begun to fight back, arguing that the Republican critics are overlooking not only provisions that would return money to Americans but also the economic gains that would come from energy efficiency and conservation.

At the end of the day, says Mignone, it's a numbers game. "What you need is a stable coalition of the environmental left with a collection of centrist Democrats and Republicans who want to do something but need to feel that their concerns are being adequately addressed."

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