To Save the Planet, Listen to the Scientists

A Senate panel on Wednesday took up global warming legislation. To Vermont's own Bill McKibben, a national leader on the environment and climate change, it's about time. "Long after the Nobel-winning reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, long after Hurricane Katrina, long after 'An Inconvenient Truth, they're finally taking up the single biggest question that the planet faces," he wrote. Senator Bernie Sanders, the sponsor of the strongest legislation on climate change, is a

A Senate panel on Wednesday took up global warming legislation. To Vermont's own Bill McKibben, a national leader on the environment and climate change, it's about time. "Long after the Nobel-winning reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, long after Hurricane Katrina, long after ‘An Inconvenient Truth, they're finally taking up the single biggest question that the planet faces," he wrote. Senator Bernie Sanders, the sponsor of the strongest legislation on climate change, is a member of the subcommittee. "Let me be as blunt as I can be in telling you where I am coming from on this bill," he said at the outset of the hearing.

"On most issues, Congress goes through the time-honored tradition of working out compromises which both sides can end up accepting. The issue is not what I want versus what Senator Lieberman or Senator Warner or Senator Inhofe may want - and the need to work out an agreement that we can all accept. That's not the dynamic we face today. The issue today is one of physics and chemistry and what the best scientists in the world believe is happening to our planet because of greenhouse gas emissions.

"I want to see all the kids in America have health care. Other members think the SCHIP program should not be expanded. We compromise on 4 million more children in the program. I think a program should be expanded by $100 million. You think it should be expanded by $50 million. We compromise at $75 million. That's the way business is done here and in other democratic societies and there is nothing wrong with that. We live in a country where people have different political views and in almost every instance members of the Senate compromise to reach an agreement.

"Today, however, we have a qualitatively different situation. I wish it wasn't so, but it is. The issue is not what I want versus what Senator Lieberman or Senator Warner or Senator Inhofe may want - and the need to work out an agreement that we can all accept. That's not the dynamic we face today. The issue today is one of physics and chemistry and what the best scientists in the world believe is happening to our planet because of greenhouse gas emissions. The issue is what we can do, as a nation, along with the international community, to reverse global warming and to save this planet from a catastrophic and irreversible damage which could impact billions of people.

"In other words, we are not in a debate now between Bernie Sanders and anyone else. It's not a debate between what I want or what you want. We are in a debate between science and public policy. And the views that I am bringing forth, to the best of my ability, are the views of the most knowledgeable scientists in America and the world: the people who, among other achievements, have just received the Nobel Peace Prize.

"Let me talk about my biggest concerns with the legislation.

"First, I understand that different experts are analyzing the reductions from all provisions of the bill, but it is my view that the 2020 target should be at least a 15 percent mandatory, under the cap, reduction from total current U.S. emissions. Many are starting to say that we need near-term reductions more on the order of 20-30 percent of total U.S. emissions, so 15 percent is rather modest. Additionally, the 2050 target should be at least an 80 percent mandatory, under the cap, reduction from total U.S. emissions in 1990. In addition to thinking about the reduction targets and timelines, we must ensure that the latest science is periodically considered and that it informs our ongoing action, the so-called "look-back" process.

"Secondly, right now, the legislation transitions to 100 percent auction or public benefit by 2036, over 20 years after enactment. The right to pollute should not be given away, at least not for so long, and thus I want to see 100 percent auction or public benefit by, at the very latest, 2025.

"Third, the bill, as currently drafted, allows a firm to get 15 percent of its reductions from offsets - projects that can be difficult to track and quantify - and this worries me. It especially worries me when I consider that the legislation also allows another 15 percent of a firm's allowances to be borrowed from the future and another 15 percent to come from international markets. Mr. Chairman, with only a few very quantifiable exceptions, I would be hesitant to rely on offsets to meet our emission reduction goals.

"Fourth, the bad news is that we have a huge crisis in front of us. The very good news is that as a result of exceptional work and technology breakthroughs, we now have the tools - at our fingertips - to reverse global warming as we move from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and such sustainable energy sources as wind, solar, geothermal and others. Mr. Chairman, a recent report on a poll, entitled, ‘A Post Fossil-Fuel America: Are Americans Ready to Make the Shift?,' found that 88 percent of Americans think that it is time for ‘our nation to start thinking in terms of the concept of a ‘new industrial revolution,' one that is characterized by the orderly phasing out of fossil fuels and the phasing in of clean, renewable energy sources - many of which are available now, such as wind and solar for electricity.' I couldn't agree more with this finding.

"What does this actually mean - moving to more sustainable sources of energy?

It means that within 10 years, we should have at least 10 million solar rooftops producing clean, cheap, and secure electricity.

"It means that we should be building more solar plants - right now we have only 2, with one having just come on line this June.

"It means that we should produce, in this country, millions of small wind turbines that could be used in rural America to provide, on average, 50 percent of the electricity a household might need.

"It means that we should be seriously investing in energy efficiency - in our homes, our workplaces, our factories, and our transportation systems. For example, we should focus attention on our rail system to help break our dependence on the automobile.

"If we are going to implement these bold policies and achieve these aggressive goals; if we are going to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy, the federal government will have to play a leadership role in moving our nation forward. The Lieberman-Warner bill creates a Climate Change Credit Corporation which will administer tens of billions of dollars in auction proceeds. I am very concerned about the structure and accountability of this Climate Change Credit Corporation, and whether it can accomplish what we need to see accomplished in a cost-effective and accountable manner

"In my view, we need more than a passive grant-maker. We need a federal entity that can be a partner with the private sector, with states and localities and with the non-profit community, an entity that has the authority and the flexibility to transform our energy future and reverse global warming. I look forward to working with you."