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02/23/2005 12:00 AM     print story email story  

Senators Warm Up to Emissions Curbs

Wall Street Journal

by John Fialka, February 22, 2005

Republican opposition to "greenhouse gas" curbs is slowly easing, as concerns mount over damage from climate change.

In Alaska, where severe storms, flooding and permafrost melting have caused widespread damage, the two Republican senators say they are willing to reconsider carbon-dioxide regulation after voting against it two years ago.

Sen. Ted Stevens, in an interview this week, said he is now willing to discuss ways to reduce man-made emissions if they can be shown to be contributing to the damage. He didn't rule out the possibility of switching his position to favor the bill -- reintroduced last week by Sens. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat -- that would require industry to reduce emissions to 2000 levels by the year 2010.

"This is an issue of conscience more than anything else," Mr. Stevens said, referring to the damage in Alaska. "It's the most difficult challenge I feel as a senator from my state."

Alaska's junior senator, Lisa Murkowski, expressed similar sentiments in a separate interview. "I need to be sensitive that there are changes going on right now," she said. "If that change is due in part to what man is contributing to the atmosphere, I think it would be prudent to look at."

Even if the two senators switch sides, the bill's prospects remain uncertain. Many politicians aren't sure to what extent man-made carbon dioxide is contributing to climate change, and some scientists dispute the link between industrial activity and global warming. Experts, executives and policy makers also argue that the economic costs of regulating carbon-dioxide emissions could well exceed the environmental benefits.

And the Senate has turned more Republican and more antiregulation since the chamber rejected the McCain-Lieberman bill by a vote of 55-43 in 2003. So far, President Bush is opposed to regulation, and the House appears poised to follow the administration's lead.

Yet a change in the Alaska delegation would mark a turning point in the long-running debate, in which the U.S. remains at odds with most other industrialized nations. The U.S. has so far refused to join 140 nations in ratifying the emission-limiting Kyoto Protocol, which took effect Wednesday.

Beyond the Alaska delegation, other Republican senators are lining up to support measures that would cut carbon-dioxide emissions -- though many favor incentives rather than mandates.

One influential Republican working to reposition himself is Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel. In 1997 he helped lay the political groundwork for U.S. rejection of the Kyoto Protocol when he co-wrote a Senate resolution that said the U.S. should join only if China and other large developing nations took part. The Senate approved the resolution 95-0.

This week, Mr. Hagel -- widely seen as a 2008 presidential candidate -- introduced three bills that would provide tax benefits and government-backed loans to U.S. companies that export or invest in equipment to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.

One of Mr. Hagel's co-sponsors is Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican. "I'm willing to invest a lot of money if it makes sense to do it," he said. Mr. Alexander said he isn't ready to support Mr. McCain's bill, but he thinks the U.S. must move "more aggressively" to promote new technology -- including coal gasification, which removes carbon dioxide, and nuclear-power plants, which don't emit greenhouse gases. "The No. 1 issue in my area is clean air," Mr. Alexander said, referring to power-plant pollution, which increasingly clouds the views in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The situation in Alaska has brought climate change home in a dramatic way. According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, melting sea and glacier ice has resulted in severe erosion and flooding problems in 86% of the state's native villages, most of which are located along the coast or on rivers and streams.

Most villages aren't eligible for aid from federal programs because of various exclusions, including the lack of a tax base that can be used for matching grants.

Deep-frozen ground, called permafrost, is beginning to melt, leaving coastal communities much more vulnerable to storms. Damage from those storms was once blocked by year-round sea ice.

About 186 native villages have been affected and at least five will soon have to be moved away from their coastal locations before they crumble into the sea. Because some villages aren't served by roads and because construction and building materials are expensive in the Arctic, the cost of moving one endangered village -- Kivalina -- could run as high as $400 million, according to the GAO.

"By definition, these are areas that the federal government is responsible for to begin with," said Mr. Stevens, who during 36 years in the Senate has helped find federal funding for many of the schools, airports, docks and other facilities now being threatened.

Alaska has the longest coastline, at 6,600 miles, of any U.S. state. Scientists think one cause of the severe damage there are so-called feedback mechanisms that accelerate climate changes. For example, snow cover reflects sunlight away from the earth. When the snow melts, the dark earth absorbs more heat. And when the added heat thaws the permafrost, carbon dioxide that has been trapped in the tundra for centuries escapes into the atmosphere.

Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu, director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the melting of Arctic sea ice not only exposes coastland to erosion, it helps create more powerful storms that hasten the erosion. "Cyclones don't form over ice," he explained. They form over water. The ice is just too cold."

The look and feel of the land is different," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a spokeswoman for the 50,000 members of Inuit tribes in Alaska. She asserted that it isn't just native villages that are threatened, but the whole hunting-based culture. "The Inuit man falling through the ice is very much connected to the cars we drive."

Mr. Stevens says he will work with the state of Alaska to develop a fund from the proceeds of oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, money that could be used to help move some villages and protect others. But if Congress approves drilling in the refuge -- an issue it is expected to decide in coming weeks -- oil companies could find it hard to start exploration. The runways of the nearest airport, which also serves the native village of Kaktovik, are often underwater now after fall storms.

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