What issue should be the priority for the lame-duck session of Congress? Staving off the disastrous effects of climate change ought to be Job One

Posted: Friday, November 12, 2010

GREEN BAY, Wis. - To the lame-duck Congress: Act on climate change now! The midterm elections are over and, as anticipated, Republicans have retaken the House and improved their margin in the Senate. Not surprisingly, commentators now talk about likely political gridlock in Congress.

Yet for now Democrats retain a majority in both houses and with that power they could find some way to cooperate with Republicans on a national energy and climate change policy.

Months ago the Senate put aside such energy legislation as too politically divisive to act on before the election even though in 2009 the House had approved a comparable bill. Democrats and Republicans remain so far apart on these issues, however, that cooperation will not come easily.

In fact, the partisan divide today has widened. Nearly all Republican candidates for the Senate this year actually denied the reality of climate change despite overwhelming consensus in the scientific community. They also argued that a warming world is unrelated to human activities despite evidence to the contrary. Politically this was a step backward on the pressing national need to reduce dependence on imported oil and other fossil fuels.

So what can the lame-duck Democrats do? For one thing, they could stop criticizing Republicans as unconcerned about the nation's energy use and try to redefine the issue in more acceptable ways. They also could put aside unpopular proposals for sharply higher taxes on fossil fuels and aggressive regulation of greenhouse gases.

These are now political non-starters that will only intensify partisan bickering. Instead, they could design and embrace a market-based, diversified and sustainable energy policy that can convincingly fuel job creation and economic recovery, and at the same time reduce climate changing greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama has supported this kind of approach as have many congressional Republicans and the American public. So there is a potential for bipartisan agreement on fostering a new mix of energy sources - renewables, nuclear, coal, oil and natural gas - that can meet the nation's needs.

Current initiatives backed by the Department of Energy seek breakthrough technologies that can be game changers in national and world energy use. Yet much more can be done to speed up the invention and testing of new technologies, such as advanced batteries and geothermal power, and to make real leaps forward in energy efficiency.

Some have labeled such efforts "post-partisan." They focus on intensive efforts to promote innovation and diffusion of the new technologies, particularly through regional energy institutes that bring together university, government and industry scientists and engineers.

The Department of Energy and the Pentagon can draw from their vast resources to make such research centers a major force in energy development that can attract bipartisan support.

Where is the money to come from in an era of scarce budgetary dollars? Even small additional fees on use of fossil fuels could provide some funds for these efforts. And both parties should be able to agree on cutting dated and wasteful fossil fuel subsidies that cry out for change. Doing so could provide additional sources of funding for clean energy initiatives.

The nation remains mired in an economic morass and any meaningful recovery will be slow in coming. Yet federal spending on energy research, technology development and improving the energy infrastructure by installing smarter electrical grids can help to pull us out of this hole and also accomplish what the private sector cannot do on its own. It can spur economic growth, improve national security, and bolster the nation's global competitiveness for years to come.

Can Republicans and Democrats come together to build such a promising energy policy? It surely will not be easy, but it is not impossible. And doing so would leave a bipartisan legacy to the nation and to future generations that the 111th Congress could proudly celebrate.

• Michael E. Kraft is the Herbert Fisk Johnson Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Readers may write to him at 2420 Nicolet Dr., MAC B310, Green Bay, Wis. 54311, or e-mail him at kraftmuwgb.edu.



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