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Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
June 2, 2009
Congressional leaders working against a six-month deadline to pass a sweeping package of environmental legislation before global climate change talks begin in Copenhagen in December
Barack Obama is prepared to stake his own political prestige on getting climate change legislation through Congress, and would be willing to intervene directly to ensure passage of America’s first law to reduce the carbon emissions that cause global warming.
Nancy Sutley, who is pivotal in setting Obama’s green agenda as the chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told the Guardian that the president is ready to use his considerable personal popularity to rally Congress behind a sweeping climate change bill.
“When the bill is further along in the legislative process there are some things where it may make a difference in expressing a strong view,” Sutley said in an interview. “What [Obama] has been saying consistently is that he wants a bill and that this represents a very important step forward. ”
Congress is now working against a six-month deadline to pass a sweeping package of environmental legislation through both houses before the world gathers at Copenhagen in December for talks on a global climate change treaty.
World leaders have warned US officials that Congress needs to take concrete action to reduce emissions if Washington hopes to bring China and other major polluters to a deal at Copenhagen.
Some Democratic leaders are pushing to bring forward the original timeline for putting in place the most crucial element of Obama’s green agenda – the greenhouse gas cutting laws. The president told Congress in February he wanted legislation by the end of its current session in November 2010.
The accelerated pace set by some Democrats seems designed to capitalise on recent momentum behind a climate change bill which cleared a crucial committee in late May. The strategy also seeks to take advantage of Obama’s current popularity – Gallup gave him a 65% average approval rating last month.
The Senate voted down a climate change bill a year ago and it was thought it might not attempt to move a vote on the issue again before the Copenhagen talks. But in a sign of growing confidence from the Obama administration, Democratic leaders are reportedly planning to move forward the date for the full vote in the house of representatives to the end of this month.
The house energy committee, which is weighed heavily towards coal and oil state Democrats, was the first major obstacle for the climate change bill, and Obama drew on his political capital help get it passed.
The president invited key members of Congress to the White House to make a personal appeal for the bill. Those at the meeting say the pitch was crucial to securing the support of wavering Democrats.
Obama would be ready to take further gambles on his personal popularity, Sutley said.
She said he was unlikely to intervene in the near future to shore up targets for emission reductions – already criticised by some environmentalists as failing to go as far as dictated by the science to prevent a catastrophic rise in temperature. However, the president may feel compelled to step in to shield consumers from higher electricity bills. “He has talked about the idea that we have to think about consumers,” she said.
The bill in its current form would force polluting industries to reduce steadily their emissions of carbon and the other greenhouse gases that cause global warming. It would also require power companies to get 15% of their electricity from clean sources of energy like wind and sun.
As Congress resumes this week, the bill now undergoes review by as many as eight committees, which could all attempt to put their stamp on the bill. The biggest threat to the bill’s survival comes from the agriculture committee, where the Democratic chairman, Collin Peterson, has threatened to impose a veto.
Peterson, and other Democrats from farming states, say the bill would hurt farmers and producers of corn-based ethanol. He told MinnPost.com: “If they don’t fix this, there isn’t going to be a bill.”
Environmentalists are concerned that those competing pressures during the review process could force compromises that would seriously weaken the bill.
The bill is already is doing less than scientists recommend to prevent a catastrophic rise in temperature. In its current incarnation, the bill calls for a 17% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2020 – which is much lower than the European Union’s targets. However, the US matches the longer-term EU target of 80% reductions by 2050.
Obama, when running for president, supported a 2020 target of a 14% cut in greenhouse gas emissions. However, Sutley said the president was unlikely to press for that original target, or to explicitly adopt the new more stringent 17% cut.
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