Kerry: US leadership at stake in climate debate

Published October 27, 2009 7:01AM (EDT)

Senators tussled over the cost of climate legislation Tuesday with the leading author of the bill maintaining that while energy prices will increase, inaction on global warming would cause even worse economic and security problems.

"Are there some costs? Yes sir, there are some costs," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.. But of the array of studies that show restricting greenhouse gases will lead to higher energy prices, he said, "none of them factor in the cost of doing nothing."

Kerry was the leadoff witness as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee began a series of marathon hearings this week on a bill that would cap greenhouse gas pollution from power plants and large industrial facilities. The bill aims to reduce emissions 80 percent by mid-century. Kerry is an author of the legislation.

Republican members of the panel were in lock step in their criticism of the so-called "cap-and-trade" legislation, characterizing it as a huge energy tax on average Americans.

"Cap and trade is very expensive. This is something the American people can't tolerate and I don' think they will," said Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the panel's ranking Republican and a vocal skeptic of climate chance science.

But Kerry said it has long been shown that voluntary action has not contained the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are being trapped in the atmosphere. Those gases are causing a dangerous warming of the earth, according to many climate scientists.

"Not taking action is more expensive," said Kerry. He said a curb on fossil fuel use will lead to clean energy jobs and allow the United States to develop new technologies that otherwise would likely be developed by other countries including China.

"America's leadership is on the line here," Kerry said.

Top Obama administration officials sounded a similar theme in their testimony before the committee.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said if the United states does not develop and produce clean energy technologies -- from wind turbines to next-generation batteries and solar cells -- "China and other countries will." He said enactment of climate legislation is the "critical step (that) will drive investment decisions toward clean energy" in the United States.

"Only new legislation can bring about the comprehensive and integrated changes that are needed to restore America's economic health and keep the nation secure over the long term," added EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

But even some Democrats have reservations about the bill assembled by Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the committee chairman.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he had "serious reservations" about the bill's aggressive effort to cut emissions over the next decade. The bill calls for greenhouse gases to be cut by 20 percent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels and 43 percent by 2030.

"Montana can't afford the unmitigated impacts of climate change," Baucus acknowledged. "But we also cannot afford the unmitigated effects of climate change legislation." While the state is a producer and user of coal, it also has seen early effects of a warming trend, including loss of glaciers and the destruction of pine trees from a warmer weather beetle infestation.

Republicans complained that Boxer, who hopes to have a vote on the bill in early November, is trying to push the bill through without adequate study into its cost.

"Why are we trying to jam down this legislation now? Wouldn't it be smarter to take our time and do it right," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. He said it is still unclear how the legislation would affect the price, reliability and supply of electricity or whether it would make a dent in the global warming problem since it is a global environmental concern.

But Kerry said the climate debate has been under way for 20 years and requires urgency. "The science is pleading us to take action," he said.


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Barbara Boxer D-calif.