On Climate Change, Environmental Groups Want Obama to Reverse Troubled Bush Legacy

After eight years in the cold, environmentalists hope the next White House will be friendlier.

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When President Bush announced his decision to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming in March 2001, he ushered in an era of disappointment and frustration for climate change advocates.

Today, buoyed by Barack Obama's victory, environmentalists are optimistic that that era is ending. But they say progress on climate change matters—which most groups rank as one of their top priorities for the new Congress—will require not only the support of the next president but also new strategies and ideas to avoid a repeat of past legislative and public relations failures.

The next 12 to 13 months will very likely involve a delicate, deliberate dance as President Obama and the new Congress attempt to tackle global warming issues both at home and abroad—a new international climate change treaty is expected to be signed in December 2009 in Copenhagen—while also navigating the rapidly changing contours of a global economic crisis.

The timing of these efforts could prove critical. Most environmentalists see adopting a cap-and-trade program, under which the government would set caps on emissions and require bigger polluters to buy credits, as the cornerstone of any national climate change policy. On Tuesday, in a video address to a summit of governors and foreign officials, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the idea, saying the United States must reduce carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2050—in line with proposals by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But getting a cap-and-trade program through Congress, even with its greater Democratic majority, will likely be a lengthy and arduous task, and some environmentalists, noting the failure of past climate change bills, say rushing the legislative effort is a bad idea. Instead, they're looking for Obama to tackle the issue in stages: First, by putting a strong energy bill through Congress in the first months of his administration that would focus on green energy and job creation, and then returning to cap-and-trade efforts later in the year.

Richard Moss, managing director for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund, says that energy legislation supporting renewable energy and energy efficiency will help lay the foundation for greenhouse gas emission reductions. But he also notes that Obama will be under pressure to work with Congress on setting emissions targets before Copenhagen. "History teaches us we are not going to be very successful if we drive our climate change policy by international agreement," Moss said. "Kyoto Protocol is an unfortunate case of agreeing internationally on climate change targets without paying adequate attention to Congress."

If Congress does take up a climate change bill, environmentalists say a different approach is needed from what has been used for previous bills, such as the Senate bill that sank last June amid Republican cries that it would bleed trillions of dollars from the U.S. economy.

Part of that problem with that effort, says Friends of the Earth Legislative Director Shawnee Hoover, is that "it was an inside game, full of inside-the-beltway politics. It became this big money grab where there was not a lot of demand from constituents around the country."

The failed bill, known informally as the Lieberman-Warner Bill after cosponsors independent Sen. Joe Lieberman and retiring Republican Sen. John Warner, would have required a 10 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 and a 70 percent cut by 2050—too low for many environmentalists and too high for some businesses. But the bill was also attacked for its complexity and lack of transparency. "It had so many offramps, so many ways to do creative accounting, that it became questionable whether emissions reductions could be achieved under it," Hoover says.

Environmentalists hope to craft a bill in the new Congress that is simpler and more easily understood by the public—a sentiment shared by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico. Pointing to recent comments by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger linking the state's increasingly destructive and costly wildfires to global warming, they also want to convince skeptics that it will cost more to do nothing than it will to put emission caps in place.