Green America: Waking Up and Catching Up

Belatedly, and for many reasons, America is embracing environmentalism.

When Jim Webb, the new Democratic senator from Virginia, replied to George Bush’s state-of-the-union message, he could bear to endorse only one of the president’s proposals. This was the idea of cutting America’s petrol (gasoline) consumption by 20% in ten years, by increasing ethanol production to 35 billion gallons a year and raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars.

Such a plan would reduce America’s dependence on imported oil from dangerous places (as would Mr Bush’s plan to double the country’s petroleum reserves). But it would address global warming only tangentially. The Democrats in Congress are weighing much more dramatic measures, including across-the-board cuts to the greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet. At the state level, politicians of all stripes are already taking more radical steps. Even big business is coming round. Mr Bush may be dragging his feet, but America is greening fast.

The Democrats’ victory in last year’s elections means that Congress’s stance on environmental issues has changed dramatically. In one race for the House of Representatives, a Democratic consultant on wind power defeated a Republican ally of the oil industry. Barbara Boxer, an ardent advocate of firm action on climate change, has taken over the chairmanship of the Senate Environment Committee from James Inhofe, who often described global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”.

Since Congress convened earlier this month, the Democrats have got to work fast. The House has passed a bill that would eliminate a tax break for oil production in America, and would impose penalties on firms that refuse to renegotiate the absurdly generous leases the government accidentally granted them in the late 1990s. The proceeds — perhaps $15 billion over the next decade — would be used to fund renewable energy schemes.

Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, is now turning her attention to global warming. She is setting up a committee to address both that issue, and America’s dependence on imported fuel. She wants to see legislation before July 4th, so that she can declare “energy independence” on the same day that the founding fathers severed political ties with Britain.

Meanwhile, some half-dozen bills on global warming are circulating in the Senate. Several propose cap-and-trade schemes, whereby the government would create a fixed number of permits to produce greenhouse gases and then auction them or allocate them to businesses. Firms without enough permits to cover their emissions would either have to pollute less, or buy up spare ones from firms that had managed to cut back.

John McCain, a leading Republican presidential candidate, and Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic one, are behind the most prominent cap-and-trade scheme. Barack Obama, one of the Democrats’ current presidential aspirants, is a co-sponsor. It is the most ambitious of the bills with serious backing: it would cut carbon emissions to 2004 levels by 2012 and then mandate further reductions of 2% a year until 2020. Although these targets are less onerous than those of the Kyoto protocol, the United Nations’ treaty on climate change, most analysts reckon they will prove too exacting for Congress.

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