The Senate on Thursday rejected a plan to limit the gas emissions that most scientists link to global warming, but supporters claimed the 55-43 vote proved that they had gained substantial ground recently amid growing concerns about climate change.
The plan would have set a nationwide limit on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, requiring industries to reduce emissions to their 2000 level within seven years.
In a 1997 vote on global warming, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to urge the Clinton administration to reject an international climate-change treaty unless significant adjustments were made. The vote was 95 to 0.
Sponsors of the new curbs said that winning 43 Senate votes was a sign that lawmakers would eventually place limits on greenhouse gases.
“We will be back,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who sponsored the bill with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).
The vote followed a polarized, two-day debate in which some lawmakers questioned whether global warming truly existed. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who led the opposition to the measure, called global warming a hoax and warned that new constraints on industry would needlessly devastate the U.S. economy, slashing production and sending jobs overseas.
“The science just flat is not there,” said Inhofe, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “Not only is carbon dioxide not a pollutant,” he said, but it would be “beneficial” to have more of it because it promotes plant growth.
Supporters of the legislation said that global warming had already raised sea levels in Hawaii, killed sugar maples in New England and melted glaciers in Glacier National Park. They warned that inaction could result in catastrophic consequences for the environment, economy and public health.
McCain forced Senate leaders to take up the global warming legislation by threatening to hold up a sweeping energy bill that GOP leaders want to move forward. McCain is a veteran at compelling the Senate to address issues that many of his colleagues would rather ignore. For seven years, he and Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) pressed the Senate to take numerous votes on campaign finance reform before Congress last year finally overhauled the laws regarding election fund-raising.
McCain pledged the same kind of persistence on global warming.
Most scientists agree that the Earth is warming and that human activities such as burning fossil fuels and cutting down trees are prompting this change. They say burgeoning concentrations of certain gases in the atmosphere -- including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide -- trap solar heat, causing surface temperatures to rise.
The White House strongly criticized the proposed emissions curbs, saying in a statement that the curbs would require “deep and immediate cuts in fossil fuel use,” raise energy costs and “have a severe negative impact on job creation.”
President Bush has called on industries to voluntarily commit to controlling the growth of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but he rejects mandatory caps on emissions. Opponents of mandatory government curbs also include labor unions and manufacturing interests, which fear they will cause economic harm.
Early in his presidency, Bush reversed a campaign pledge to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. He also removed the U.S. from negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that called on industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse emissions. In July 2001, 178 countries signed the treaty. The Bush administration continues to face criticism from its allies, especially in Europe, for snubbing the agreement.
“This president has fiddled while the planet continues to warm,” Lieberman, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said Thursday. “The administration’s deny-and-delay approach to meeting the global warming challenge is no longer acceptable.”
McCain brought two photographs of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to the Senate floor. One picture, from 30 years ago, showed the massive mountain half-covered in snow. Another picture, from a few years ago, showed only a tiny cap of snow.
Opponents of the measure painted ominous pictures of their own.
The legislation would “devastate my state, shut down manufacturing and send thousands of jobs overseas,” Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said.
A report by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists on the economic impact of the bill found no negative effects on employment, a small impact on economic growth and a cost to consumers of about $15 to $20 per household each year by 2020.
Environmental activists said they were delighted with the results of the vote.
“It’s a breakthrough,” said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, a national environmental group. “The fact that we got senators from coal states, like [John D.] Jay Rockefeller [IV]; from auto states, like Debbie Stabenow; from farm states, like Tom Daschle; means we’ve got the basis of a winning coalition. We did really unexpectedly well on a first try.” Rockefeller is from West Virginia, Stabenow from Michigan and Daschle from South Dakota. All three are Democrats.
Six Republicans voted for the measure: Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and McCain.
Several states are moving to more aggressively regulate greenhouse gas emissions. California is developing a program to regulate some emissions from automobile tailpipes and is working with Oregon and Washington on a strategy to reduce smokestack emissions of global warming gases.
In July, on the initiative of New York Gov. George E. Pataki, 10 Northeastern states agreed to a regional system to limit emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants.
And a number of large companies are moving to reduce global warming pollution, hoping to get credit for their early efforts if the government starts to regulate emissions.