Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment & Public Works Committee

Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment & Public Works Committee

Hot on the heels of the House vote on the Waxman-Markey bill, the Senate is now taking its turn to deliberate a climate change bill, with a full Environment & Public Works Committee hearing today, only the second legislative day since the House took its vote.

While parts of a Senate bill have been discussed previously, today was the first big hearing in the issue, and an opening shot for discussions that should last throughout the summer. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared Sep 18 as the deadline for the 6 relevant committees to produce their pieces of the bill so that the bill can be voted on this autumn, and California Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment & Public Works Committee is expected to release her draft of the bill in the next few weeks.

The first panel consisted of representatives of the administration – Secretaries Steven Chu (Energy), Tom Vilsack (Agriculture) and Ken Salazar (Interior) and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. The questions they received from committee members ranged in subject and style – discussions of the merits and demerits of nuclear energy (which Chu agreed will have an important part in a low carbon future); inquiries into the the potential of solar energy (Sen. Sanders, I-VT, is a know solar enthusiast); nitpicky remarks about alleged suppressions of documents within the EPA; and a request for clarifications as to the benefits of public transport (Sen. Cardin, D-DM, wanted to know about energy saving and environmental benefits, stating that its contribution to quality of life is obvious).

Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ), with his questions, provided the opportunity for Chu to explain how science actually works and why climate change science can’t be a hoax, and got on record the connection between more cars, which leads to increased pollution, and an increase in asthma sufferers. Something his grandson shares in common with Jackson’s child.

One of the things that struck me during these discussions, is that the Republican members of the committee can’t seem to understand the fact that the solution to climate change will take a global effort. Again and again they solicited quotes from the panel members that this bill is not going to solve the climate crisis (a crisis most of them still deny), concluding that the bill is not worth it. Again and again the panellists responded that not only is it not just a climate bill (but also an energy bill, a jobs bill and a chance for the US to again be a leader in innovation), but also that for an effective global action, the US must lead and the other countries will follow.

After this there was a break in the hearing, while members went to the swearing in of Democrat Al Franken, whose final winning of the Minnesota seat gave the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority of 60 senate seats (though they are still far from 60 supporters for a climate bill).

The second panel consisted of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour who – amongst other things – criticized the length of the House bill; Rich Wells, VP of the Dow Chemical Company who represented a business that has already realised the importance, and reaped the benefits, of energy efficiency; David Hawkins of the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) who mentioned serious concerns about the way biomas and offsets are dealt with in the House bill; and finally John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, a small town in Pennsylvania which transformed from a “thriving steel town of over 20,000” to “a shattered community of under 3,000 residents today”. He spoke on behalf of the people that for decades have watched their jobs being exported overseas and reminded the committee that many workers unions – United Steelworkers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association, to name but a few – have supported the House climate bill. He told of how clean energy initiatives benefited his community – for example increasing summer youth employment – and how he, and his town, see the bill as an opportunity, not a financial burden.

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