Senate subcommittee approves cap-and-trade bill – New climate assessment and adaptation provisions

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This week a subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved by a narrow margin the first major “cap-and-trade” climate change bill to be considered formally in the 110th Congress.  In addition to establishing a framework for capping carbon emissions and trading carbon credits, the bill includes provisions for scientific assessment, adaptation, and mitigation of climate change. However, there appears to be a disconnect between Congress and the federal Climate Change Science Program. 

[2009 UPDATE:  For more recent Climate Science Watch posts on climate change cap-and-trade legislation—including the adaptation components of the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009—see our “Congress: Legislation and Oversight” page, which will be updated regularly with new material on current legislative developments.]

[November 5, 2009 UPDATE: See our post: “Why Is There No US Climate Policy?”]

[October 30, 2009 UPDATE: See our post: Senate testimony on climate change and national security raises questions: Whose security?]

[October 6, 2009 UPDATE: See our post: Adaptation provisions in the Kerry-Boxer Senate climate and clean energy legislation]

[July 1, 2009 UPDATE:  See our post: House climate bill gives White House science office lead role in guiding climate research and services]

[June 30, 2009 UPDATE: See our post: Paul Krugman on “treason against the planet”—“the immorality of climate change denial”]

[June 26, 2009 UPDATE: See our post: Funding for adaptation in the Waxman-Markey House-passed climate change cap and trade bill]

This post was developed by the Climate Science Watch research team.

On November 1 the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Subcommittee on Private Sector and Consumer Solutions to Global Warming and Wildlife Protection (we know that’s a mouthful), chaired by Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), marked up and reported out the first major “cap-and-trade” bill to be considered formally in the 110th Congress.  The 214-page bill, “America’s Climate Security Act” (S. 2191), has nine titles and, according to Sen. Lieberman’s press release following Subcommittee passage, “is projected to reduce total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by as much as 19% below the 2005 level (4% below the 1990 level) in 2020 and by as much as 63% below the 2005 level in 2050.”  Additionally, according to Lieberman, the bill “contains a robust set of measures to sustain U.S. economic growth, protect American jobs, and ensure international participation in emissions reductions.” 

When introducing the bill on the Senate floor, Sen. Lieberman expressed the sense of urgency that seems to have caught on in Congress like the California wildfires of last month: “I have said before, and I will say it again, at this moment, I feel as if we had been in a race between tipping points. The challenge would be that we get to the political tipping point where we could come together and do something about global warming before we reach the environmental tipping point, after which it would be harder to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.” [Quoted from Congressional Record, October 18, 2007 Page S 13081]

Reflecting the jurisdiction of the Committee, the legislative proposal gives primary authority and responsibility for carrying out the greenhouse gas emissions reduction program to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but assigns roles to other agencies and departments as well. 

S. 2191 is a bipartisan bill, introduced October 18 with nine cosponsors from both sides of the aisle.  It is largely viewed as being “centrist” and has already disappointed people on both sides of the global warming battle: denialists such as Sen. James Inhofe (the Ranking Republican on the Senate Environment Committee), elected officials from coal states such as Wyoming Sen.  John Barrasso (R), many in the environmental community, and some progressive Presidential candidates and activists who are calling it a corporate giveaway.

Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has called the bill a pragmatic starting point. Others have called it a dress rehearsal for future federal legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions and a welcome turning point from the Bush policy relying entirely on voluntary emissions reductions.  A variety of complex issues raised in markup will continue to be played out at the full Committee level, on the Senate floor, and in the House of Representatives, which has seen introduced a number of cap-and-trade bills but has yet to act on any of them. 

During the mark-up session, over a dozen amendments were offered; most were rejected.  Some were tabled for consideration at full Committee or for the Senate floor.  The bill passed out of the Subcommittee, as amended, by a vote of 4 to 3.  The vote tally was as follows:  Senators Lieberman (D), Warner (R), Baucus (D), and Lautenberg (D) voted “yea;” Senators Barrasso (R), Isakson (R), and Sanders (I) voted “nay.”

While most everyone in the climate policy community is intensely focusing this week on the emissions reductions potential of the bill and the devil-in-the-details aspect of the mechanics of carbon allowance allocations and trading mechanisms, a few provisions relating to the science of climate change and adaptation responses caught our attention.

The “Scientific Look-back” Provision

The proposal (Sec. 7001 of the bill) calls for the EPA to enter into a contract with the National Academy of Sciences to submit reports to Congress every three years evaluating implementation of the Act and to make recommendations to the Congress after determining whether or not sufficient greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions—at home and abroad—are being achieved to “forestall dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”  More specifically, the Academy must assess if we are stabilizing atmospheric GHG concentrations enough to know “whether a 2 degrees C global average temperature increase has been exceeded or may be exceeded in the foreseeable future.”  The Academy is also to address indicators of ocean ecosystem health and ways to improve it, the status of the “best available science and the status of technologies to reduce, sequester, or avoid greenhouse gas emissions,” and other aspects of implementation of the Act.

Nowhere in the bill is the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) / U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), the multiagency federal research program for climate and global change research and assessment, mentioned as a vehicle for carrying out these scientifically based assessments. 

Throughout the markup session Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) offered a variety of amendments. One proposed changes to the “scientific look-back” provision, which was already slated for minor changes under “manager’s amendment” (part of a package of pre-approved amendments).  Claiming that scientists are now recognizing that they underestimated the climate threat, Sen. Sanders expressed his unwillingness to stop at mere Academy recommendations to the Congress for additional carbon cuts in the event that it determines we are headed “dangerous climate change,” worried that the report would sit on a shelf and not be acted upon.  His amendment would have required the EPA to promulgate regulations needed to achieve the required emissions reductions within one year of receiving the recommended reductions from the Academy.

Chairman Lieberman opposed the amendment, stating his concern that the setting of CO2 emissions caps will have such an enormous positive or negative effect on our economy that “we don’t want to delegate the authority to deal with the consequences of that to essentially a single person working at the direction presumably of the President, at the EPA where the Administrator serves.”  He added, “This is a national decision that ought to be made by a future Congress….because Congress is more representative of the country.”  Noting that “we have an EPA Administrator that is doing some not-so-great things specifically related to global warming, and now is forcing California to go to court to fight to receive the waiver [for regulating tailpipe emissions] it deserves to try to do something about global warming” he stated his strong preference to place his “confidence long-term into Congress rather than the Executive Branch to protect the public interest.”
Given the pattern of censorship and suppression of climate science exhibited by this Administration, documented widely including on this website, his argument carries some weight.

Notwithstanding these shared reservations, Sen. Lautenberg saw merit in the Sanders amendment and proposed a hybrid provision whereby the EPA would be required to act, under Congressional oversight and supervision.  It was agreed that the concept would be taken up by the full Committee.

The “Technology Assessment” Provision

Another provision, also under Sec. 7001, is a requirement that the EPA Administrator contract with the National Academy of Sciences to report on the “status of current greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies” (including for GHG capture and disposal; efficiency improvements; zero-GHG emitting energy technologies; and biological sequestration technologies).  The Academy is also to determine whether the Act “promotes the development and deployment of GHG emission reduction technologies” and to let Congress know whether or not existing technologies can achieve the required emissions reductions.  It is evident that the bill’s authors are concerned that we will lean too heavily on what they call “infeasible” technologies” – those that are not moving beyond “laboratory-scale conditions,” are “unsafe,” can’t reliably reduce GHG emissions, or can’t perform their intended purpose.  Moreover, the Academy is being asked to project when low-carbon or GHG-cutting technologies might become feasible before 2050, and to identify alternative GHG emission reduction strategies that might be employed. In essence, Congress is asking the Academy to do precisely what the now-defunct (thanks to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) Office of Technology Assessment did for Congress in 1991 when it published Changing by Degrees, a seminal report on technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, Changing by Degrees, Washington D.C.: U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1991). 

The U.S. Climate Change Technology Program (CCTP) – the Bush Administration’s answer to developing technologies to address climate change – is not mentioned in connection with this activity—or anywhere in the bill. 

“Assessment Review and Adaptation” Provisions

One last provision caught our attention, one that requires an “Adaptation Review” (see Sec. 7003). The provision requires the EPA to conduct “regional estimates,” in consultation with at least ten federal agencies and departments (including many that now participate in the current CCSP and CCTP) and various state agencies.  The EPA is to conduct “6 regional infrastructure cost assessments in various regions of the United States, and a national cost assessment, to provide estimates of the range of costs that should be anticipated for adaptation to the impacts of climate change.”  The EPA is also charged with developing estimates for “low, medium, and high probabilities of climate change and the potential impacts of climate change” and report to Congress on these findings. 

Within six months of the bill’s enactment, the EPA is to submit to Congress a “climate change adaptation plan” for the United States, in accordance with IPCC findings, the Global Change Research Act of 1990, and “any other scientific, peer-reviewed regional assessments.”  This provision does not stipulate whether these assessments are to be conducted by the federal or state governments, or nongovernmental entities such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.  The “adaptation plan” is to include: a prioritized list of vulnerable systems and regions in the United States; requirements for coordination between federal, state, and local governments to ensure that key public infrastructure, safety, health, and land-use planning and control issues are addressed;  requirements for coordination among the federal government, industry, and communities; an assessment of climate change science research needs, including probabilistic assessments as an aid to planning;  an assessment of climate change technology needs; and regional and national cost assessments for the range of costs that should be anticipated for adapting to the impacts of climate change.  As part of this exercise, the EPA is to include an assessment of impacts of climate change on low-income populations both in the U.S. and in developing countries.

These adaptation and assessment provisions are strikingly similar to those that governed the National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Change in the late 1990s, and provisions in H.R. 3221, the New Direction for Energy Independence, National Security, and Consumer Protection Act of 2007, that would amend the Global Change Research Act (see our August 13 post, “Energy Bill Passed by House Has Many Provisions on Climate Change Impacts, Assessment, Adaptation.”  They are also strikingly similar to current Climate Science Watch efforts to revive an assessment and adaptation capability in the U.S. that we are calling the “National Climate Change Preparedness Initiative.”

Again, we note that there is no mention of, and likely little or no awareness of, the 21 Synthesis and Assessment Products being churned out by the CCSP in the program’s purported effort to comply with the Global Change Research Act and be relevant to decisionmaking—efforts deemed insufficient and incompliant with the GCRA by a federal district court earlier this year (see our August 22 post, “Court Rules that Bush Admin. Unlawfully failed to produce Scientific Assessment of Global Change.”

The Disconnect between the CCSP and Policymaking

The National Academy of Sciences recently issued a critical evaluation of the CCSP; one of its primary findings was that “The Bush administration’s climate research program has helped scientists clarify some basic facts about global warming, but has done little to provide much-needed information about how society might mitigate or adapt to the changing climate.”  The Academy also found that “[p]rogress in synthesizing research results or supporting decision making and risk management has been inadequate.”

There appears to be a major disconnect between Congress and the ongoing federal programs for assessing climate change and supporting the development of response strategies. In this legislation, Congress is asking other entities, such as the National Academy of Sciences, to perform functions that the existing $1.8 billion federal climate change research program should already be doing, or potentially could do – if it had the intellectual credibility and programmatic capability to do so and wasn’t politically constrained from performing its proper function.

First, we do not see a meaningful CCSP communication and decision-support outreach effort extending toward Congress (other than communications related to budgets). When was the last time the leadership of the CCSP made a connection with the Senators and committees with jurisdiction over climate change policy? The CCSP touts “Decision Support” as one of the principal strategic rationales for its existence – yet the program as such appears to have little if any meaningful ongoing communication with or outreach to the Congress. We have observed in some cases that senior Congressional staff responsible for the development of climate change-related legislation are not even aware of the existence of the CCSP when they call for climate change assessments. 

Second, the numerous House and Senate authorizing and appropriating committees that have jurisdiction over climate-related activities do not appear to be making much of an effort to find out what the CCSP and CCTP are up to, or what their value is to the state of climate change understanding and preparedness. Congress does not oversee or appropriate funds to the CCSP or the CCTP as such, but rather in the traditional fashion, balkanized among numerous committees and subcommittees, typically focused on one particular agency or another, and with only limited communication with each other. This is no way for Congress to effectively address the climate change problem in a way that makes integrative use of federal resources. Are those who drafted the Lieberman-Warner bill aware of the federal climate research programs? Why do they apparently envision no role for these federal programs, on which the taxpayers are spending billions of dolars, in dealing with the climate change problem? 

If we are going to have an effective federal response to climate change that involves connecting scientific research and assesment to policymaking and civil society, this mutual disconnect between Congress and the federal research programs will have to be overcome.

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