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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Capitol Hill meltdown

While the nation sizzles, Congress fiddles over measures to slow down future climate change

By Dick Thompson/Washington

August 2, 1999
Web posted at: 11:46 a.m. EDT (1546 GMT)

TIME magazine

Jay Gilbo, 21, may have the hottest job on Capitol Hill. Each workday he puts on two suits, one over the other, both made of materials that seal out dust but trap heat. Then he wraps his wrists and ankles, pulls a rubber respirator over his head and climbs more than 200 ft. into the narrow space between the Capitol's inner and outer domes. Gilbo, who lives in Georgetown, Mass., is part of a 10-man crew removing poisonous lead paint from cast-iron walls in temperatures that regularly soar above 100[degrees]F. "It's a pretty hostile environment," says Gilbo, who says he sweats off 4 lbs. during every 12-hour shift.

Millions of Americans last week knew the feeling; sauna-like conditions have gripped much of the country, from the East Coast to the Rockies. The sweltering heat has left at least 100 people dead since mid-July, mostly in the Midwest. Drought emergencies were declared in scores of counties, from Montana to Maryland. Roads buckled under a blazing sun. Crops shriveled after weeks without rain. And with air conditioners and fans at full tilt, utilities strained to meet electrical demand.

But for all the heat Gilbo and his fellow citizens were experiencing, the legislators working under those sizzling domes seemed remarkably cool--not just about the weather outside but also about what it might portend. While a single heat wave doesn't make a worldwide meltdown (see following story), a great many scientists believe that by continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, humans are forcing drastic climate changes. Yet Congress seems determinedly indifferent. As the lawmakers prepare for their summer adjournment, legislative efforts to slow that warming by reducing greenhouse emissions have all but ground to a halt. Withering too, like so many cornstalks, are other major pro-environmental bills: increased funding for research on energy sources other than fossil fuels; incentives to encourage industries to cut emissions; efforts to clean up power plants; and measures to raise fuel-efficiency standards for gas-slurping SUVs, vans and light trucks. Just about the only measure likely to pass is, of all things, an order requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to give equal time to dissenting views whenever it conducts educational programs on climate. Congress, says Environmental Defense Fund lobbyist Steve Cochran, has become "completely dysfunctional" on global warming.

It is a case of dysfunction that has drawn scant public attention. Instead of putting together a large single proposal, Congress has been nibbling at the global-warming issue piecemeal, with opponents throwing up obstacles at almost every turn in the form of directives and riders tacked on to major spending bills so they slip through the legislative process virtually unnoticed. This tactic has environmentalists, no slouches at publicity themselves, crying foul. "A lot of these [proposals] could never be moved in the light of day," says Greg Wetstone, a congressional watchdog for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

One example of congressional road-blocking involves attempts to raise fuel-efficiency standards for popular sport-utility vehicles and vans, which have long had a free ride by being classified as light trucks. For the past four years, opponents have annually attached a rider to the Department of Transportation's budget prohibiting the DOT from raising the standards to equal those for ordinary cars--a move environmentalists say would save 1 million bbl. of oil a day. Backers of the rider argue that they are protecting auto-industry jobs and giving consumers the vehicles they want, but now they are running into stronger opposition. Next week the Senate may consider a complicated parliamentary move proposed by three Senators--one Republican, Slade Gorton of Washington, and two Democrats, Dianne Feinstein of California and Richard Bryan of Nevada--that could finally overturn the rider, though at last count they were still three votes shy.

While Congress remains bitterly divided along party lines on other issues, opposition to climate-change initiatives has surprisingly broad support on both sides of the aisle. Some lawmakers dismiss worries about global warming as little more than "liberal claptrap," as California Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher puts it. Others interpret the climate moves as a sly attempt by the Administration to enact by bits and pieces what the Senate declared it would not do when it voted 95-0 to oppose the Kyoto treaty, an international pact to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that is strongly supported by Vice President Al Gore. Moreover, some politicians fall back on the uncertainty argument, asserting that the enactment of costly preventive measures now, before all the evidence is in, would invite economic disaster. Still others use the debate as an opportunity to portray Democratic presidential contender Gore, author of the environmental tract Earth in the Balance and the U.S. representative at Kyoto, as an environmental extremist.

The White House admits it has no grand strategy for pushing its climate-change initiatives on Capitol Hill, other than to wait for the evolving science and climbing temperatures to overwhelm the critics. Instead the Administration is concentrating on energy efficiency, which President Clinton calls a "win-win" approach, arguing that it is a win for the environment as well as the economy. But it also has political drawbacks--offending such traditional Democratic constituencies as the miners who could lose their jobs if the demand for coal drops, and rallying the opposition of powerful industries like oil and the utilities, which would face traumatic changes by a switch away from fossil fuels.

As for the presidential candidates, they range from naysayers to true believers on global warming. Is it really happening? Undoubtedly, said Gore, his party's top contender, when TIME questioned the major candidates. He added, "There is overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is contributing to global warming." Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, another Democratic hopeful, acknowledged that it was a "serious threat." But the G.O.P. candidates sounded less certain. Texas Governor George W. Bush, his party's front runner, and Elizabeth Dole both agreed that the earth is getting warmer but professed to be agnostic about the cause, saying only that the question should be taken "seriously." Steve Forbes, for his part, had no doubts: "I don't believe it," he said of global warming.

But there is pressure on Congress to confront the issue, and it is coming from an unexpected quarter: the business community. While commercial interests joined forces to block the Kyoto treaty in the Senate two years ago, the opposition has since splintered. Even such big oil companies as BP Amoco concede that global warming demands a serious response. Just two weeks ago, a subgroup of FORTUNE 500 companies known as the Business Roundtable called on government to encourage the development of advanced technologies to "address concerns about climate change." And when he visited Washington recently, Ford Motor chairman Bill Ford said, "We believe that for the public--which includes our customers and shareholders--environmental preservation is going to be one of the most important issues of the 21st century."

Still, since today's greenhouse gases will remain in the atmosphere for a century even if all further emissions are cut off immediately, environmentalists are growing increasingly concerned that their window of opportunity to slow down warming is slamming shut. Says Michael Oppenheimer, the Environmental Defense Fund's chief scientist: "The world is already committed to a significant level of warming, no matter what we do."

As for the current heat wave, the National Weather Service says there won't be much relief until late August. And from Joe Gilbo's perch high in the Capitol, the hot air may be felt for much longer than that.

--With reporting by Brian Allen/Washington

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: August 9, 1999

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