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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 December 2006, 00:25 GMT
US Democrats mull climate change
By Nick Miles
BBC News, Washington

Cars on US freeway
US Democrats want to emphasise climate change in Congress
The issue of climate change and global warming hardly registered on the political radar in the United States during the recent Congressional elections.

On 7 November however, the Democratic Party secured both houses of Congress and that political shift is likely to mean a change of emphasis over key environmental issues.

The US is the world's largest greenhouse gas polluter but the country has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol that sets limits on those gases.

Instead President George W Bush has emphasised the need for innovations that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

"America is addicted to oil," he said in this year's State of the Union address.

"Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy, the best way to break this addiction is through technology."

Democratic hope

Now that the Democratic Party has taken control of both houses of Congress there is hope amongst senior Democrats that they will be able convince the president that caps on greenhouse gases are needed as well.

"We have an opportunity to put an emphasis on issues of clean energy, renewable energy, global warming, climate change, in a way that wasn't possible during the last several years," says the incoming Democratic Party head of the Senate energy committee, Jeff Bingaman.

Petrol being pumped into car
President Bush says America is addicted to oil
Mr Bingaman supports set federal limits on greenhouse gases.

He recently co-authored a letter to President Bush urging him to work with the Democrats to develop solutions to the global warming problem.

As in other areas of legislation, the Democrats are emphasising bi-partisanship.

That is a necessity, rather than a sign of magnanimity.

There are still enough Republicans in the Senate to filibuster legislation - basically talk until it runs out of time for a vote, and if that does not happen the president can still wield his veto.

"If you stake out an extreme position you'll pass nothing," says Raymond Kopp, an analyst at Resources for the Future, a environmental think-tank.

"The Democrats have got to put in place sound policy, start it slow and give it a chance to ramp up over time."

Evangelical environmentalists

The Democratic Party's electoral victory has given it momentum over the issue of climate change and that is being bolstered because of the growing support of evangelical Christians - a group usually more closely allied to the Republican Party.

The Reverend Jim Ball is part of a new coalition of evangelical churches in favour of more stringent legislation to combat global warming being mooted by the Democrats.

Their starting position is that the poor are going to be most affected by global warming, so it is a Christian duty to do something about it.

But Mr Ball recognises that "we're not yet at Congressional Nirvana. Many democrats come from coal states and oil and gas states. So this issue isn't just a Republican versus Democrat issue".

He is right to be cautious.

Smoke from chimney
The US is the world's largest greenhouse gas polluter
There are still large numbers of people who are sceptical about the significance of climate change.

A recent poll carried out by the Pew Research Center in Washington suggested that only two out of five Americans think global warming is caused by human activity and only one in five were personally worried by climate change.

People in 15 countries, rich and poor, were asked that question. Concern in the US was the lowest of them all.

If there is ambivalence amongst the public about global warming, there is outright scepticism from some groups.

"There's a lot of global warming hysteria out there," says Myron Ebell from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"The facts are that the earth hasn't been warming up very quickly, that the predictions of coming catastrophe over-estimate the amount of warming that is likely to occur."

Supreme Court case

So for Mr Ebell, with the prospect of emission cap legislation, these should be dark days.

Well - only up to a point. He is optimistic that the Democrats will in fact achieve very little.

Smog over LA
Concern over global warming ranks low in US polls
"We've already heard that the Democrats are going to have lengthy Congressional hearings into global warming," says Mr Ebell.

"There'll be a great deal of rhetoric and that will gain them a lot of support in suburban constituencies, but in terms of passing major environmental legislation I don't see them going anywhere."

Whatever legislation comes, it will be incremental.

Public opinion is divided on global warming. It is not driving the politicians forward at breakneck speed.

It could in fact be the courts that give the issue added impetus.

The US Supreme Court has just begun hearing arguments over whether the government should regulate certain greenhouse gas emissions.

The case is limited to whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to regulate vehicle emissions of four greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide.

Lawyers for the state bringing the case, Massachusetts, argue that the EPA has to apply the law and use its authority to address global warming.

Environmentalists hope a ruling in their favour would force changes in the policies of President Bush's administration.


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